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Super Bowl or Bust: Rams’ gamble pays off

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  • Super Bowl or Bust: Rams’ gamble pays off

    Super Bowl or Bust: Rams’ gamble pays off
    By Lindsay Jones Jan 20, 2019 20

    NEW​ ORLEANS — The Rams​ never​ made​ banners declaring their​ intentions this year​ to be​ Super Bowl​ or Bust, but​ they didn’t​​ have to. Their actions made it obvious.

    Trades last spring for a new pair of starting cornerbacks, Aqib Talib and Marcus Peters. The free agent addition of intimidating defense tackle Ndamukong Suh. Massive contract extensions for Todd Gurley and Aaron Donald. A midseason trade for pass rusher Dante Fowler.

    So many explosive players, several with equally explosive personalities, that when mixed with an already talented roster and an all-star coaching staff, would result in a Super Bowl berth. Or so they hoped.

    But how many times have these Super Bowl of Bust teams turned combustible? The 2011 Dream Team Philadelphia Eagles, collectors of blue chip free agents, flamed out. The other team that went all in for 2018, the Minnesota Vikings, with their acquisition of Kirk Cousins, didn’t even make the playoffs after making the NFC Championship game last year.

    The Rams have shown over and over since their move to Los Angeles three years ago they are the NFL’s biggest gamblers. Each of the moves paid off Sunday in the form of a 26-23 overtime win over the New Orleans Saints.

    And like any gambler knows, it required some major guts and a lot of luck to get there.

    Guts came in the form of the call for a fake punt on the second play of the second quarter, from their own 30-yard line. Punter Johnny Hekker lobbed a pass to cornerback Sam Shields for the first down, providing the Rams’ first spark after an ugly first quarter and extending a drive that eventually ended with a field goal.

    The luck came much later when cornerback Nickell Roby-Coleman bulldozed Saints receiver Tommylee Lewis, a blatant display of pass interference as he was desperately trying to save a touchdown, but no flag was thrown. The Saints settled for a field goal.

    That non-call could give this NFC Championship game an asterisk and a reason for the Saints and their fans to gripe, but it should not take away from the team the Rams built, the risks they made along the way — from trading all the way up to draft Jared Goff to become the new face of the franchise upon the move to Los Angeles, to hiring a then 30-year-old Sean McVay as head coach, to the flurry of veteran additions this offseason.

    “What it showed me was, we’re ready. We want to win now,” said defensive end Michael Brockers, the Rams’ longest tenured defensive player.

    When the Rams left the Los Angeles Coliseum after their wild-card round playoff loss to the Falcons last year, they were disappointed, of course, but encouraged. The believed their Super Bowl window had opened, maybe a year earlier than planned, and with the right moves, they could blow that window open in 2018.

    But it wouldn’t happen by being passive.

    The Rams knew that winning on the field and off it, as they try to gain traction in the crowded Los Angeles sports market, required big stars. This is the home of Magic Johnson, Kobe Bryant and now, LeBron James. The Rams had Donald, Gurley and Goff, but they needed more.

    So general manager Les Snead started dealing. First was the call to Kansas City in February to pick up Peters, the sometimes temperamental cornerback with the uncanny ball skills. A month later, it was a call to the Broncos to trade for Talib, a feisty man-coverage cornerback who had won a Super Bowl while playing for defensive coordinator Wade Phillips in Denver. Add in Suh in late March, and wide receiver Brandin Cooks in early April via a trade with New England, and the Rams believed they had upgraded their roster at the positions they needed most.

    The final pieces came much later — Fowler, in a trade with Jacksonville in November, and running back C.J. Anderson, signed off the street in late December to fill in while Gurley rested his sore knee in Weeks 16 and 17.

    “You’ve got to be aggressive and tackle it. We can all sit here and talk about windows forever, but two teams that went to the championship games last year didn’t make it to the playoffs. Right? There are no great windows in the NFL,” said Kevin Demoff, the Rams executive vice president of football operations. “Each season is its own entity and we treated 2018 as, we knew what we had, so how do we go get better?”

    Fast-forward to Sunday afternoon at the Superdome, where the Rams found themselves down 13-0 in the first half to the top-seeded Saints. How were all those big personnel moves going to pay off?

    Let’s start with Peters and Talib, who missed the Rams’ loss to the Saints in November, a game in which Peters got torched by Saints receiver Michael Thomas. Conventional wisdom was that Talib would shadow Thomas across the formation, but largely Phillips kept Talib on the left and Peters on the right. While Thomas beat Peters for a 19-yard gain in the first quarter on a third-down play that extended the Saints’ first touchdown drive, Thomas finished the game with just four catches (on seven targets) for 36 yards.

    Suh showed up with sacks on back-to-back plays in the second quarter (the second shared with Fowler), a decent follow-up to last week’s performance against Dallas, when he was critical in stopping the Cowboys’ running game, while Cooks caught seven passes for a team-high 107 yards.

    It was Fowler, though, who made the biggest play of the game, providing the pressure on Drew Brees that forced the Saints’ quarterback to underthrow his deep pass in overtime. Safety John Johnson caught it while falling to the turf, and five snaps later, after Greg Zuerlein’s 57-yard field goal, the Rams were sprinting onto the field in celebration.

    That’s what building the right team, taking the right risks, can do.

    “We believed those moves were just adding to what we already believed was a culture and an attitude that was special,” said Rams left tackle Andrew Whitworth. “We believed in our culture, we believed in the people who are our leaders, we believed in the people throughout our building who are our leaders, that we could blend everyone together and have the same passion and purpose. I think that there’s been plenty enough evidence to prove that we’ve done it. I just can’t say enough about the guys that we added and the guys that were here, and just the resiliency since we started.”

    It all goes back to McVay, whose magic teams across the NFL are trying to replicate.

    But let the way the Rams’ 2018 season transpired, and especially Sunday’s NFC Championship game, be a lesson for teams thinking all it takes to springboard a franchise to the Super Bowl is finding the hottest offensive mind.

    When players across the Rams locker room Sunday evening spoke of McVay, they praised his willingness to gamble on that fake punt, but mostly talked about his leadership, about the way he runs the team, the culture he’s created in just two seasons, and not about the way he designs offensive plays.

    Throw that many new pieces, especially ones with such big personalities like Peters, Talib and Suh, onto another roster, with another coach, and it likely would have busted. McVay made sure they thrived.

    “He’s proven it time and time again. He’s a great football coach. He’s not a quarterback whisperer. He’s not an offensive genius,” Demoff said. “Today, he finds a great way for our team to play complementary football, go kick two field goals to go to the Super Bowl.”

    The celebration inside the visitors’ locker room at the Superdome on Sunday night was somewhat understated, given what the Rams had just accomplished and the manner in which they did it. Players took turns posing for pictures with the NFC Championship trophy and swapped out their dress shirts for new NFC Champions T-shirts to wear on the flight home. Over and over, players repeated the phrase Peters had uttered days before: “We’re not done yet.”

    The Kroenke family — owner Stan, his wife, Ann, and son Josh, the president of the Denver Nuggets — hugged and laughed in the center of the room. A man from the family entourage tapped Josh on the shoulder and handed him a cellphone. “It’s Magic Johnson. He wants to say ‘Congratulations.’”

    It’s one of those surreal only-in-Los-Angeles moments now that the Rams’ big offseason plans have paid off.

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  • Nick
    Rams Super Bowl-bound after beating Saints in OT; will play Patriots for NFL title
    by Nick
    Rams Super Bowl-bound after beating Saints in overtime; will play Patriots for NFL title
    By GARY KLEIN
    JAN 20, 2019 | 7:25 PM
    | NEW ORLEANS

    The Rams spent the offseason adding pieces for a Super Bowl run.

    Trade for two star cornerbacks and a star receiver here. Sign a star defensive lineman there. Reinforce the roster during the season with a dangerous edge rusher and a veteran running back.

    They were the weapons Sean McVay and Jared Goff needed to take the next step, after the young coach and quarterback had returned the Rams to the playoffs and the position of title contender.

    On Sunday, all the work paid off.

    Amid deafening noise at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, Goff helped set up longtime Rams kicker Greg Zuerlein, who nailed a 57-yard field goal in overtime to defeat the New Orleans Saints, 26-23, in the NFC championship game before a stunned crowd of 73,028.

    The Rams advanced to the Super Bowl for the first time since the 2001 season, and the first time since the 1979 season as a Los Angeles team. They will play the New England Patriots, a 37-31 overtime winner Sunday at Kansas City, on Feb. 3 in Atlanta.

    “It wasn’t always perfect,” McVay said, “but we made enough plays, and I think really the overtime period personifies what this team is all about.”

    The victory was not without controversy.

    The officials did not call a penalty against Rams cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman for pass interference or for a helmet-to-helmet hit on receiver Tommylee Lewis in the final two minutes of regulation. Instead of continuing to run the clock, the Saints were forced to kick a field goal that put them ahead, 23-20, but left time for the Rams to tie the score on a field goal with 15 seconds left.

    “They blew the call,” Saints coach Sean Payton said.

    Said McVay: “I am certainly not going to complain about the way that was officiated.”

    There was plenty of hollering and laughter in a jubilant Rams locker room after they overcame an early 13-0 deficit, avenged a November defeat at New Orleans and silenced the crowd.

    “I have a really big headache right now from yelling all day,” McVay joked.

    Cornerbacks Aqib Talib and Marcus Peters, defensive lineman Ndamukong Suh and receiver Brandin Cooks — all acquired in the offseason — celebrated with joyous teammates. All played roles in either neutralizing future Hall of Fame quarterback Drew Brees or helping Goff on clutch drives.

    “Nobody in the room’s any happier than those guys,” Rams owner Stan Kroenke said.

    On a day when star running back Todd Gurley scored a touchdown but mainly gave way to C.J. Anderson, the Rams offense got out of an early funk after punter Johnny Hekker completed a fourth-down pass to Sam Shields to keep alive a second-quarter drive.

    The play allowed Goff to put a...
    -01-21-2019, 05:05 AM
  • Nick
    Rams deserve to play in the Super Bowl, even if they got some help to make it there
    by Nick
    The Rams deserve to play in the Super Bowl, even if they got some help to make it there
    By Jerry Brewer
    WP Columnist
    January 20 at 9:40 PM

    NEW ORLEANS — If you love controversy and hate the idea of the Los Angeles Rams, then it will be easy to discredit what they accomplished Sunday at the earsplitting Superdome. You will brand them lucky. You might even suggest the NFL conspired to get their big-name, pass-interfering fannies into the Super Bowl. When a great game includes a bad call at a critical moment, it’s hard to separate the spectacular from the dirty.

    It is a much simpler — and lazier — task to rag on the serial carpetbagging franchise, which is now back in Hollywood with a glamorous roster to match and experiencing a meteoric resurgence that belies the difficulty of its journey. Don’t get carried away with the outrage, however. The messy officiating is only one part of the story. It shouldn’t overshadow that the Rams, for all their star power and offensive brilliance and clever coaching, proved to be more than just stylish in becoming the first road team in six seasons to win a conference championship game.

    In a 26-23 overtime victory against the New Orleans Saints, Los Angeles captured a wild and hard-broiled NFC championship game and advanced to Super Bowl LIII. It took everything that the Rams had, and it also took a controversial no-call on a clear pass interference penalty when cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman clobbered Tommylee Lewis on third down with 1:45 remaining in regulation. If a penalty had been called, Saints quarterback Drew Brees would have been given a new set of downs, and Coach Sean Payton would have taken the opportunity to run down the clock and set up a field goal attempt on the game’s final play. Instead, Wil Lutz made a 31-yard kick to give New Orleans a 23-20 lead with 1:41 remaining, which gave the Rams time to drive 45 yards and tie the game with a Greg Zuerlein 48-yarder with 19 seconds left.

    There was plenty of football before and after the no-call, but that moment defined the game. It was a shame. But the shame belongs to the referees, not the Rams.

    They still won this game on an incredible kick by Zuerlein, who lived up to his “Greg the Leg” nickname and drilled a 57-yard try in overtime to send Los Angeles into euphoria. It was the longest winning field goal in playoff history, and even though it came in the friendly kicking confines of a dome, Zuerlein made it with 73,028 fans creating so much noise the stadium shook. When he split the uprights and the Rams players and coaches ran onto the field to celebrate, the Superdome fell silent instantly, as if someone had pressed the mute button on a remote.

    The Rams still won this game by recovering from a disastrous first quarter and overcoming a 13-0 deficit. They did it with running back Todd Gurley II, their best weapon, gaining just 10 yards on four carries and...
    -01-22-2019, 04:57 AM
  • Nick
    Rams' Todd Gurley says he played 'sorry as hell' but everything super in the end
    by Nick
    Rams' Todd Gurley says he played 'sorry as hell' but everything super in the end
    By GARY KLEIN
    JAN 20, 2019 | 9:05 PM
    | NEW ORLEANS

    The Rams advanced to the Super Bowl, the NFL’s biggest stage, with a minimal contribution from one of their biggest stars.

    Running back Todd Gurley rushed for just 10 yards and a touchdown in four carries Sunday in the Rams’ 26-23 overtime victory over the New Orleans Saints in the NFC championship game at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

    On the Rams’ first possession, a pass from quarterback Jared Goff tipped off Gurley’s hands for an interception. Gurley also dropped a pass.

    C.J. Anderson played most of the game and finished with 44 yards in 16 carries.

    Gurley was sidelined for the last two games of the regular season because of a left knee injury, but returned and rushed for 115 yards in 16 carries in last week’s divisional-round victory over the Dallas Cowboys.

    Asked Sunday if he was injured, Gurley said he “was sorry as hell,” against the Saints.

    “So, C.J. did his thing,” said Gurley, who signed a $60-million extension before the season and led the league in touchdowns, “and the whole team did its thing.”

    Coach Sean McVay said that it was “the flow of the game” and “not anything against Todd,” that dictated the way the backs were used against the Saints.

    “What personifies Todd is this is an MVP-caliber player and he just kept fighting, kept supporting his teammates and he is going to have an instrumental role” in the Super Bowl, McVay said.

    Gurley said teammates kept him up during the game.

    “That’s why it’s a team sport,” he said. “This is the greatest team sport in America, you know what I’m saying?

    “It takes everybody on the team. That’s what we do.”

    Gurley is looking forward to playing in the Super Bowl.

    “That’s why I was so emotional at the end, just to be able to get another opportunity,” he said. “I’m so grateful, so grateful, playing on the biggest stage ever.

    “I’m just very, very appreciative. Love my team. It’s a great feeling.”

    Goal-oriented
    Defensive lineman Ndamukong Suh continued his outstanding play in the postseason, sacking Saints quarterback Drew Brees on one play and helping to sack him on the next. He finished with four tackles and a tackle for a loss.

    “It feels absolutely great to come to somebody else’s house and win a championship,” Suh said. “I say that because we came in Week 9 and took a [45-35] loss. And I always dreamed about coming back here and getting that win.”

    Suh, a five-time Pro Bowl player in his ninth NFL season, will play in his first Super Bowl.

    “There’s a lot of guys that you’ve seen that have never been to the Super Bowl,” Suh said. “I’m glad I won’t be one of those guys, and I hope and I pray as I did for this...
    -01-21-2019, 05:08 AM
  • Nick
    Rams don't sweat losing a possible perfect season after 45-35 defeat at New Orleans
    by Nick
    Rams don't sweat losing a possible perfect season after 45-35 defeat at New Orleans
    By GARY KLEIN
    NOV 04, 2018 | 8:25 PM

    The Rams’ locker room was devoid of long faces. No exclamations of frustration pierced the quiet.

    If anything, after Sunday’s 45-35 loss to the New Orleans Saints, it seemed as if a long exhale had calmed the room. The crucible of trying to complete a perfect season was over.

    “This game right here might be a blessing in a disguise,” defensive lineman Michael Brockers said.

    It did not play out like one, not on a day when quarterback Drew Brees stayed to form as a future Hall of Famer and torched the Rams for 346 yards and four touchdowns in front of a delirious 73,086 at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

    The Rams rallied from a 21-point deficit to tie the score in the fourth quarter, but the Saints kicked a field goal and Brees sealed the victory with a long touchdown pass.

    After eight victories to start the season, the Rams learned a hard lesson in reality.

    And they apparently welcomed it.

    “We love it,” coach Sean McVay said. “You find out about yourself when you have a little bit of adversity. … Sometimes setbacks can be setups for comebacks.

    “That’s how we look at it.”

    None of the players said they were comfortable with losing, or with giving up nearly 500 yards — 313 in the first half.

    But after the fawning adoration that came with their 8-0 start, they sounded relieved to focus on the next game, against the Seattle Seahawks, rather than queries about whether they could finish unbeaten.

    “No more media with, ‘The great team, nobody can beat them, dah,dah,dah,dah, dah,’ ” Brockers said. “The pressure’s off.”

    The loss “does relieve some of the maybe pressure to be perfect,” safety John Johnson said.

    “We didn’t go into the week saying, ‘Oh, it’s pressure. We got to stay undefeated.’ It’s nothing like that.

    “We did a good job of blocking out the noise, but it is a little bit of a relief.”

    For much of the first half, it looked as if McVay and Saints coach Sean Payton were competing in a game of one-upmanship to claim the title as the NFL’s most clever play-caller.

    The Rams appeared headed for a blowout loss after McVay made a second-quarter decision that backfired and started the Saints on a run of giving up 21 consecutive points.

    With the score 14-14, the Rams faked a field-goal try. Holder Johnny Hekker took the snap and sprinted toward the right sideline but was ruled short of the first down. McVay challenged the call, which was upheld on review.

    Brees then drove the Saints for a touchdown, Greg Zuerlein missed a field-goal attempt and Brees passed for another touchdown, increasing the lead to 14 points. The Saints then intercepted a Jared Goff pass, setting up running back Alvin...
    -11-05-2018, 02:10 PM
  • Nick
    Rams’ Robey-Coleman admits he thought he’d be flagged on controversial non-call
    by Nick
    Rams’ Robey-Coleman admits he thought he’d be flagged on controversial non-call
    By RICH HAMMOND | rhammond@scng.com | Orange County Register
    PUBLISHED: January 20, 2019 at 8:32 pm | UPDATED: January 20, 2019 at 8:32 pm

    NEW ORLEANS — Nickell Robey-Coleman hit New Orleans receiver Tommylee Lewis before the ball arrived. The world saw it. Saints fans certainly did. The officials did not. Robey-Coleman prefered blissful ignorance.

    “No, I have not seen the replay.” Robey-Coleman said with a smile.

    Did he want to see it?

    “Um, no,” he said. “We do not want to see the replay. Let’s just get on the bus and get on the plane.”

    Robey-Coleman, always a bright, positive presence in the Rams’ locker room, laughed loudly. The people of New Orleans did not share his enthusiasm. They hurled trash on the field, both after the fourth-quarter play and after the Rams beat the Saints 26-23 in Sunday’s NFC championship game at the Superdome.

    The play will be long-remembered. With the game tied 20-20 and less than two minutes remaining, the Saints faced a third-and-10 play at the Rams’ 13-yard line. Quarterback Drew Brees threw toward the right sideline, toward Lewis, and just before the ball arrived, Robey-Coleman delivered a face-to-face hit to Lewis.

    The crowd responded with an initial roar, in anticipation of a flag that never came. Then came the boos and the trash, and the warning from the public-address announcer to not throw it.

    “I saw the defender coming,” Lewis said. “He got up under me. I got up looking for a flag and didn’t see one. It was a bad call. … There was no question in my mind. I got up and popped up, looking for a little yellow flag on the field. I didn’t see one.”

    The situation was costly for the Saints. A pass-interference call would have given the Saints the ball at approximately the Rams’ 6-yard line with 1:45 on the clock. Theoretically, the Saints either could have scored a touchdown or burned enough time to kick a final-second field goal.

    Instead, the Rams got the ball back with 1:41 left, drove 45 yards, then tied the game on Greg Zuerlein’s 48-yard field goal with 15 seconds left. Zuerlein then won the game with a 57-yard overtime field goal.

    Not surprisingly, Saints coach Sean Payton said he talked to league officials shortly after the game. What did they say?

    “It was simple,” Payton said. “They blew the ball. It should never have not been a call. They said not only was it interference, it was helmet to helmet.”

    Rams coach Sean McVay, not surprisingly, had a different view.

    “It was a bang-bang type play,” McVay said. “The one thing I respect about the refs today is, they let the guys compete and they let the guys play. I thought Nickell Robey made a nice play.”

    Independent of the result, he did. Robey-Coleman explained that he initially...
    -01-21-2019, 05:16 AM
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