After more than two decades of midwinter silence, a city’s football soul came alive again, cutting through the winter chill with a roar that shook the Coliseum down to its soggy ankles.
The Rams are 60 minutes from a Super Bowl.
In only their third season back, the city’s prodigal football sons brought winning playoff football home again, delighting awed witnesses with a frenetic, fireworks-blasting feast.
The Rams are one win from a Super Bowl.
In the greatest, latest football game played around here in many seasons, the Rams spent more than three hours on a soggy field Saturday giving thousands of yellow flag-waving fans a refresher course in January greatness.
This is what a playoff victory looks like. This is how a team survives football’s toughest tournament. This is how the Super Bowl becomes close enough to touch.
“This,” tackle Rob Havenstein said, “was electric.”
This was the Rams’ 30-22 victory over the Dallas Cowboys in a divisional playoff game that sent them to the NFC championship game next week in one of two places.
If the New Orleans Saints defeat the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday, the Rams will take their toughness to the Big Easy. If the Eagles win, the conference title game will be back in the Coliseum, and won’t that be a hoot?
The winner of that championship game goes to the Super Bowl. Of course that’s how this works, but it never hurts to remind everyone because it’s been a while.
No matter who they play next week, I’m picking the Rams because, as a crowd delightfully dominated by the locals Saturday night, they are once again the Rams.
“That’s a big-time win for us,” coach Sean McVay said. “It’s a step in the right direction.”
With a soggy field underneath them from the day’s early rains, with lingering smoke above their helmets from the midgame pyrotechnics, the Rams appeared in the Coliseum as if ghosts from the recent past.
They gained 459 total yards. They rushed for 273 of those yards. They didn’t commit a turnover. They barely made any mistakes. And they held the Cowboys’ great Ezekiel Elliott to 47 yards rushing.
“Our focus was to shut him down,” said Ndamukong Suh, who didn’t need to say anything else.
This was the team that started the season 11-1, not the team that finished it 2-2.
This was the Jared Goff who dominated defenses early, not the one who struggled late. He completed only 15 of 28 passes for 186 yards but managed the game to near perfection.
“This week was a big game, but next week will be a big game as well,” the ever-circumspect quarterback said.
This was the running game that was so overpowering early, not the one that was stopped against Chicago and Philadelphia, and there was a compelling twist. The Rams now have not just one Todd Gurley, but two Todd Gurleys, as C.J. Anderson gained 123 yards while Gurley gained 115 yards.
You’ll remember, Anderson took over at the end of the season while Gurley was nursing a knee injury and showed his former greatness with two splendid games. Now that they’re both running hard?
“It’s scary,” Anderson said.
McVay said it was more like unbelievable.
“We thought it was going to be able to be a nice complement,” McVay said. “If you told me it was going to work out as well as it did tonight, I don’t know that I would have said that.”
And then there was the defense, huge when it counted, holding the Cowboys to one first down on 10 third-down attempts while stopping them on a fourth-down play at the start of the fourth quarter to provide the dagger.
“That kind of personifies our team, being able to get some key stops to close out the game,” McVay said.
It was a day not just of first steps, but firsts, period.
It was the Rams’ first playoff victory in the Coliseum in 40 years. It was the first playoff victory for the each of the Rams’ celebrated trio of McVay, Goff and Gurley.
And, for long-suffering tackle Andrew Whitworth, it was his first playoff win after seven losses, earning him the game ball, which he accepted under one condition.
“It’s great,” he said. “But I feel like this team has the potential for more than that.”
That potential seemed thwarted early when the Rams started awkwardly. They began the game with two long drives, 27 plays total, and could come up with only two Greg Zuerlein field goals, and actually trailed 7-6 early in the second quarter.
Then, just like that, the Wonder Rams returned.
Goff hit Brandin Cooks for 20 yards on the left, hit Robert Woods for 16 yards on the right, hit Tyler Higbee on a quick screen toss over the top for 11, and all of it fueled a 76-yard drive that wound up in Anderson’s one-yard touchdown run.
After the Cowboys ran three plays and punted, the Rams shoved it down their throats again, this time a 64-yard drive helped by a third-down illegal use of the hands penalty against cornerback Byron Jones. After the penalty, Goff hit Cooks for 15 and Gurley ran up the middle barely touched for 35 yards and a touchdown and a 20-7 lead.
Focus on the “barely touched.”
Said guard Rodger Saffold: “I didn’t see the hole until I saw the replay and I thought, ‘You have got to be kidding me.’”
The Cowboys’ chances formally ended when, on the first play of the fourth quarter, trailing 23-15, facing a fourth-and-one from the Rams’ 35-yard line, they handed the ball to Elliott and he couldn’t gain one measly yard.
The Rams then raced back downfield for their final touchdown, scoring it on another Anderson plunge that epitomized an organizational culture.
It was fourth and goal from the one. The Rams led by eight. A field goal would have been enough. But no, they went for it all.
“When you think about what our team is, we always talk about attack and success and never fear failure,” McVay said. “That personifies our team’s mindset and mentality; we wanted to come out here and play fearless tonight.”
Midway through the fourth quarter, with a city’s football fans awake and standing and screaming on a late Saturday night in the middle of January for the first time in forever, that fearlessness was accentuated when the stadium speakers blared a familiar song.
Some folks hugged. Other sang along.