NEW ORLEANS — The joyful din inside the Superdome yielded Sunday evening to cacophonous menace, an expectant city in love with its football team turning into a righteously angry mob.
Deep into the future, as the Los Angeles Rams potentially reminisce about the Lombardi Trophy they won, the New Orleans Saints and their feverish fans will stew about the way a charmed season unraveled.
They may forget about the squandered 13-point first half lead; they may overlook the tipped pass that turned into a Drew Brees interception on the first drive of overtime; and they may be slow to credit Rams kicker Greg Zuerlein for one of the greatest kicks in NFL history, a 57-yarder that memorialized the final score at 26-23 and won an NFC championship game the Rams never led until it ended.
What the Saints and their city will do, for the rest of their lives, is curse the officiating malpractice that cost them a trip to the Super Bowl.
As the Rams celebrated, some gathering at midfield and some racing around the dome, the public address announcer implored the crowd, “Do not throw anything from your seat, or you will be ejected.” The crowd, so loud all day, responded with more boos and a few beers cups flung from the seats.
They were furious, and justifiably so, at how the Saints had missed a chance to ice the game. The Saints had reason to fault their own inability to seal a game they led 13-0 in the second quarter and 20-10 late into the third. Rams quarterback Jared Goff deserved acclaim for leading two scoring drives in the final six minutes of regulation, rebounding from a ragged start to pull off a stunning comeback in a furious cauldron.
“We had control for 60 minutes, and we ended up losing,” Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan said. “Words can’t describe it. We were defeated at the end of the day, so we don’t have the right to complain.”
But the Saints still had the game won, if not for a blatant missed call. Just after the two-minute warning, with the score tied at 20 and 1:49 remaining, the Saints faced third and 10 at the Rams’ 13-yard line.
Tommylee Lewis, an undersized but quicksilver wideout, ran a wheel route out of the backfield and broke free down the right sideline. Brees lofted a pass, and Rams cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman barreled into Lewis and knocked him to the ground before Brees’s pass arrived.
It was a clear pass interference, for any observer with an elementary understanding of football, and if called it would have essentially guaranteed the Saints a trip to the Super Bowl. Coach Sean Payton had already formulated his plan: he would kneel three times, drain the clock, call for a chip-shot field goal and make travel plans for Atlanta.
“I was looking for a flag,” Lewis said. “And didn’t see one. It was a bad call. There was no question in my mind.”
Referee Bill Vinovich’s crew inexplicably allowed Robey-Coleman’s de facto tackle. The NFL made Vinovich available for a comment with a pool reporter, but he said he had not seen the play and offered a wan explanation. “It was a judgment call by the covering official,” Vinovich said.
In his opening statement at a news conference, Payton said an official from the NFL office called him and admitted the official should have flagged the play. A person familiar with the situation confirmed Payton’s account, saying Al Riveron, the league’s senior vice president of officiating, spoke to Payton and told him that pass interference should have been called.
“They blew the call,” Payton said. “Man, there were a lot of opportunities. But … it’s a game-changing call. For a call like that not to be made, man, it’s hard to swallow.”
In the Rams locker room afterward, as his teammates celebrated and someone slipped a garish, diamond-encrusted chain around Goff’s neck, Robey-Coleman had still not seen the replay. When a reporter showed him, he nodded and laughed.
“Oh, hell yeah,” Robey-Coleman said. “That was P.I.”
But Robey-Coleman also explained why he had made what turned into a game-saving play. Before the snap, lined up on the right side of the defense, Robey-Coleman saw something unusual. The Saints had one running back and one tight end — 11 personnel — but Alvin Kamara was in the slot, in front of him, and Lewis was in the backfield, crouching down so low he hid behind the offensive line.
“I was like, ‘Oh …!’ “Robey-Coleman said. “Somebody is wide open.”
At the snap, Robey-Coleman bolted from his position — leaving Kamara for a safety to cover — and sprinted about 40 yards across the field to cover Lewis.
“I didn’t look back for no ball,” Robey-Coleman said. “I just hit him, because I’d seen his hands go up. I thought it was going to be a bang-bang play. When I got up, I thought it was P.I. I was willing to take the P.I. to not give up the touchdown.”
While officials deserved blame, Payton made one miscalculation. Two plays before the missed call, Payton called a pass play. When Brees’s misfired quick pass fell short of Michael Thomas, the clock stayed stuck at 1:58 rather than draining or forcing the Rams to call timeout.
And so, the Saints settled for Wil Lutz’s field goal and a 23-20 lead, and the Rams had ample time to conduct a response. Goff drove the Rams to the Saints’ 30, picking up one third down with a 16-yard pass to Robert Woods. With 15 seconds left, Zuerlein drilled a 48-yard field goal, his powerful kick silencing almost all of the 73,028 in attendance.
The Saints won the coin toss in overtime. After picking up one first down on a pass interference penalty, Brees dropped back to pass. The Rams had a called stunt from its defensive line, and edge rusher Dante Fowler burst into the backfield. “I got there super-quick,” Fowler said.
As Brees released the ball, Fowler smacked his arm and tipped the ball, which fluttered into the arms of Rams safety John Johnson III as he was lying flat on his back.
“How about that?” Rams General Manager Les Snead said. “A fadeaway interception.”
The Rams took over on their own 46, and Jared Goff immediately hit tight end Tyler Higbee for 12 yards. They stalled there, but it did not make Coach Sean McVay nervous. Zuerlein possesses one of the most powerful legs in the sport’s history; his nickname is Legatron. His kick rocketed through the uprights, and a party became a group-therapy session.
“He’s got the leg,” Snead said. “But that’s pure focus.”
Another special teams play caused a crucial turn early. The Rams needed a response after the Saints’ first touchdown gave New Orleans a 13-0 lead. Facing both fourth and 5 and maybe the end of his team’s season, desperation led McVay to trickery. Johnny Hekker lined up to punt, but the Rams had called a fake. Hekker — a remarkable athlete who had completed 11 of 19 passes for 156 yards on fakes in his career — completed an easy toss to gunner Sam Shields, who bolted past the first down marker.
“More than anything,” McVay said, “it was that we needed a little bit of momentum.”
The play led to a field goal, but more important than the three points, the Rams had stabilized the game at 13-3.
The Saints had to stomach a second consecutive wrenching January ouster. Last year, the Saints’ season ended on a freakish blunder, when safety Marcus Williams whiffed on a tackle and yielded a last-second, game-winning touchdown to the Minnesota Vikings in the divisional round. They made it a step further this season, but their season found another unfathomable finish.
“We will probably never get over it,” Payton said, and he spoke for his players and a heartbroken city.
Overtime field goal sends Rams to Super Bowl: Until it mattered, the Los Angeles Rams never led against the New Orleans Saints in the NFC conference championship game in the Superdome, rocking with fans ready to celebrate a Who Dat Nation trip to the Super Bowl.
And when it did, in overtime, Greg Zuerlein hit a 57-yard field goal that stunned the Saints and silenced the crowd, sending Jared Goff and the Rams into the Feb. 3 Super Bowl against either the Chiefs or Patriots.
“Unbelievable,” was the only word Goff could come up with in his postgame interview. “[We were] just trying to score, get into field goal range. … C.J. [Anderson] was running the ball well and I expect Todd [Gurley] to have a [heck] of a game in the Super Bowl. I can’t believe I’m even saying that. Unbelievable.”
At the biggest moment of the game, the Rams' John Johnson came up with the big play, intercepting a deflected Drew Brees pass at the L.A. 46-yard line with 13:56 left. That set up Zuerlein for the game-winner with 11:47 left. The victory by the Rams is the first in the conference title game by the road team in six years, but it wasn’t without controversy.
At issue was a no-call on what appeared to be pass interference on a Brees pass to Tommylee Lewis. It was broken up by Nickell Robey-Coleman, with Fox’s Mike Pereira, Dean Blandino and Troy Aikman calling for a pass-interference flag. The Saints ended up settling for field goal with just under 2 minutes left.
Overtime! A 48-yard field goal attempt by Greg Zuerlein with 19 seconds remaining tied the score and sent the title game into overtime. (Game tied at 23-23, 0:19 remaining in fourth quarter)
A bad call? At the worst time, officiating becomes the focus. The Rams defense had become pesky, holding the Saints scoreless in a six-possession stretch of the second half when Drew Brees did that thing he does, finding Ted Ginn on a 43-yard pass with just over 2 minutes left, giving the Saints a first down at the Rams’ 13-yard line. The Los Angeles defense stiffened and, on third down, Brees’s pass to Tommylee Lewis was broken up by Nickell Robey-Coleman, with Fox’s Mike Pereira, Dean Blandino and Troy Aikman calling for a pass-interference flag. The result? The Saints, who probably should have just gone to a power running game there, settled for a 31-yard field goal with 1:41 left.
Can the Saints defense stop the Rams? (New Orleans leads 23-20, 1:41 fourth quarter)
And we’re tied: The Rams put together an impressive drive, with Jared Goff finding Gerald Everett for a 30-yard pass and Josh Reynolds for a 33-yard completion. The drive stalled short of the end zone, however, and Greg Zuerlein hit a 24-yard field goal that tied the score with 5:16 left. (Score tied 20-20, 5:16 fourth quarter)
The Rams reply: The Rams answered with a scoring drive of their own, as Jared Goff hit five of five pass attempts and found a wide open Tyler Higbee for one-yard touchdown with 3:06 left in the third quarter. The drive went 70 yards on 10 plays. (New Orleans 20-17, 3:06 third quarter)
New Orleans rides 1-2 punch to a 10-point lead: Stop us if you’ve heard this before. After stopping the Rams on the opening possession, the Saints got the ball and, with Alvin Kamara leading the way, they drove to a first and goal at the 2-yard line. Cue Taysom Hill, who came in and capped the 11-play, 69-yard drive with a two-yard receiving touchdown from Drew Brees on third down. (New Orleans 20-10, 8:34 third quarter)
Saints lead 13-10 at halftime, after Rams finish strong: The end of the first half showed some of the feel of the teams' last meeting, a 45-35 win by the Saints, as the Rams came up with a 36-yard pass from Jared Goff to Brandin Cooks and a 6-yard touchdown run by Todd Gurley to narrow New Orleans’ lead to 13-10 with 23 seconds left. That had to be reassuring to the Rams, who get the ball to start the second half, down by a mere three points.
The Rams, limited to 15 first-quarter yards, adjusted in the second quarter, going with quick snaps and silent counts as they struggled to hear one another. Battering Ram C.J. Anderson rather than Todd Gurley did the lion’s share of the work at running back and, in fact, it was Anderson who got L.A.'s first third-down conversion with 6:34 left in the second quarter. Gurley played a key role in L.A.'s touchdown drive to end the first half, both in pass protection and on the rushing score.
How loud is it? The Superdome took a hit, evidently, in the first half.
Rams go to trickery to fuel scoring drive: Sean McVay mixed things up with a little trickeration of his own as the second quarter started. Stymied in the first quarter, punter Johnny Hekker hit Sam Shields with a pass for a first down on a fake punt. Take that, Sean Payton.
The Rams couldn’t convert the drive into a touchdown, but they did get on the board after settling for a 36-yard field goal by Greg Zuerlein. (New Orleans 13, Los Angeles 3, 9:49 second quarter)
Saints increase lead to 13-0: Armed with another third-down conversion, the Saints drove down the field, helped by a stellar pass from Drew Brees to Michael Thomas. With third and four with 2:30 left in the first quarter, mad scientist Sean Payton took Brees off the field and put Taysom Hill in for a gimmick play. On fourth and 2, Brees returned and drew the Rams' Michael Brockers offsides for a first down at the 5-yard line. This time, the Saints didn’t settle for a field goal, as Brees hit Garrett Griffin for the touchdown. New Orleans has scored on all three of its drives so far, while the Rams have just 5 total yards of offense. (New Orleans 13-0, 1:35 first quarter)
New Orleans defense makes a big play, but the offense stalls and has to settle for another field goal: New Orleans linebacker Demario Davis comes up with a big play, intercepting a Jared Goff pass intended for Todd Gurley at the Saints’ 16-yard line. The Saints can’t do much with it against the Rams defense, however, going three and out and settling for another Wil Lutz field goal, this one from 29 yards.
After the Rams' first possession, Jared Goff headed for the bench to have his helmet speakers checked. Yes, it’s loud in the Superdome. (New Orleans 6-0, 7:06 first quarter)
Saints take an early 3-0 lead: The Los Angeles Rams won the coin toss and defer, giving the New Orleans Saints the ball first. They might regret that, though, because, although Wade Phillips’s defense looked solid, it was no match for Drew Brees on two third-down conversions as he drove New Orleans down the field.
On the third try at a third-down conversion (third and seven), the Saints very nearly scored, but tight end Dan Arnold dropped Brees’s pass in the end zone and New Orleans settled for a 37-yard field goal by Wil Lutz, capping an 11-play, 56-yard drive. (New Orleans 3-0, 10:04 first quarter)
What’s next: A little thing called Super Bowl LIII. The Rams will play the AFC champion, either the Patriots or Chiefs, in a game that kicks off around 6:30 p.m. Eastern on Feb. 3 in Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium. — Cindy Boren
Boren contributed from Washington.
Read more on the conference title games: