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The Sports Report: Rams rout the Cardinals. Up next: Tom Brady and the Buccaneers

Rams cornerbacks David Long Jr. celebrates his interception for a touchdown against the Cardinals in the second quarter.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)
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Howdy, I’m your host, Houston Mitchell. Let’s get right to the news.

Gary Klein on the Rams: The pressure came from all angles.

Up the middle. Off the edges. From both areas at the same time.

The Rams defense did not wait to see if the offense could avoid turnovers in an NFC wild-card playoff game against the Arizona Cardinals on Monday night.

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Instead, lineman Aaron Donald and linebacker Von Miller led a unit that swarmed Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray, forced two turnovers and completely dominated in a 34-11 victory before 70,625 at SoFi Stadium.

The Rams intercepted two passes – one that cornerback David Long Jr. returned for a touchdown – and punter Johnny Hekker recaptured his All-Pro form and consistently pinned the Cardinals, making it easy for Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford to record his first playoff victory.

Stafford connected with receivers Odell Beckham Jr. and Cooper Kupp for touchdown passes and sneaked for another as the Rams advanced to a divisional-round game against the defending Super Bowl-champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers and seven-time Super Bowl champion quarterback Tom Brady on Sunday in Tampa, Fla.

The Rams defeated the second-seeded Buccaneers, 34-24, on Sept. 26 at SoFi Stadium. In that rousing victory, Stafford passed for 343 yards and four touchdowns.

The trip to Tampa qualifies as a break of sorts for the Rams.

The San Francisco 49ers, by defeating the Dallas Cowboys in a wild-card on Sunday, saved the Rams from having to travel to frigid Green Bay to play the top-seeded Packers and quarterback Aaron Rodgers, the frontrunner to win the NFL most valuable player award.

But it is perhaps fitting that the Rams are playing the Buccaneers, the only team to win a Super Bowl in its home stadium.

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The Rams were built with a mandate to repeat that feat and play in Super Bowl LVI at SoFi Stadium. Owner Stan Kroenke spared no expense on his $5-billion stadium and arguably the NFL’s most star-studded roster.

The Rams loss to the 49ers in the season finale dropped them from the No. 2 seeded team to No. 4.

But against the Cardinals, the Rams allayed lingering doubts about whether they care capable of making a run to the Super Bowl for the first time since 2018.

Despite playing without injured safeties Jordan Fuller and Taylor Rapp – Nick Scott and Terrell Burgess started and Eric Weddle rotated in -- the defense held the Cardinals to 182 yards. The Cardinals converted zero of their nine third downs. Miller had a sack, Donald and nose tackle Greg Gaines split one, and lineman Marquise Copeland also intercepted a pass.

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Bill Plaschke: Matthew Stafford proves he can win in playoffs, but can he beat the GOAT?

Rams’ 34-11 NFC wild-card playoff victory over Cardinals by the numbers

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Photos: Rams blow out Arizona Cardinals in wild-card playoffs

Our complete Rams coverage

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NFL PLAYOFFS SCHEDULE

All times Pacific

Wild-card round

Saturday’s results
at Cincinnati 26, Las Vegas 19
at Buffalo 47, New England 17

Sunday’s results
at Tampa Bay 31, Philadelphia 15
San Francisco 23, at Dallas 17
at Kansas City 42, Pittsburgh 21

Monday’s result
at Rams 34, Arizona 11

Divisional round

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Saturday
Cincinnati at Tennessee, 1:30 p.m., CBS, Paramount+, Tennessee favored by 3 1/2 points
San Francisco at Green Bay, 5:15 p.m., Fox, Fox Deportes, Green Bay by 5 1/2

Sunday
Rams at Tampa Bay, Noon, NBC, Peacock, Universo, Tampa Bay by 3
Buffalo at Kansas City, 3:30 p.m., CBS, Paramount+, Kansas City by 2 1/2

Note: Super Bowl is Sunday, Feb. 13 on NBC.

LAKERS

Dan Woike on the Lakers: Before Russell Westbrook made a mess of Rudy Gobert, he cleaned up.

Early in the first quarter Monday night, Utah star Donovan Mitchell slipped on a spilled drink, stopping action while officials and game-night staff grabbed for towels. Westbrook, searching for a more simple solution, went underneath the nearest basket and grabbed a mop.

That was polite – what was about to happen later in the half was much more rude.

Displaying the kind of athleticism and ferocity that he hasn’t really shown since being traded to the Lakers this summer, Westbrook hit the paint, jumped and uncorked a violent one-handed slam over one of the NBA’s premiere defenders.

If that was the moment of the season, this might’ve been the best win to go along with it – a 101-95 victory where the team came back from down 10 in the second half.

LeBron James led five Lakers in double-digits while the team re-discovered some defensive snarl after being walked over in three-straight. It ended with the entire team on their feet celebrating a Westbrook three-point play that capped what has to be considered their biggest win of the season.

CLIPPERS

Luca Evans on the Clippers: The abyss beckoned, the Clippers’ grasp slowly slipping, the game sinking into the void where wins go to die.

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It seemed impossible they could lose this game. Not when they’d put up their highest point total of the season. Not when Nicolas Batum had detonated for 20 fourth-quarter points on his way to a season-high 32.

Yet there the Indiana Pacers were, down just three points with 31 seconds to play. One wrong move and the Clippers were staring their third loss in a row in the face, directly ahead of a grueling, eight-game trip.

Reggie Jackson would have none of it. He’d struggled in a recent stretch, but he willed himself to 26 points — and with the game on the line, he exploded to the rim and slammed a two-hand dunk to lead the Clippers to a rollercoaster 139-133 win Monday at Crypto.com Arena.

UCLA FOOTBALL

Ben Bolch on the Bruins: UCLA likely lost two veterans of the Chip Kelly era Monday when cornerback Jay Shaw and wide receiver Chase Cota announced on social media they had entered the transfer portal.

Shaw was a lockdown member of the secondary in each of the last two seasons, tying for the team lead with three interceptions in 2021 and two interceptions in pandemic-shortened 2020. One of the hardest hitters on the team, Shaw was a second team All-Pac-12 selection in 2021 by the Associated Press and Pro Football Focus.

One of the handful of remaining holdovers from the Jim Mora era, Shaw posted his notification of transfer on Instagram. Shaw’s announcement came one day after Wyoming cornerback Azizi Hearn announced on Twitter that he was committed to UCLA as a graduate transfer, though it was unclear if the moves were related.

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Cota also made his announcement on Twitter, saying he was “very proud” to be a UCLA graduate and was “very excited for what god has in store for my future.” As a senior last season, Cota was the Bruins’ third-leading receiver, catching 18 passes for 286 yards and one touchdown.

KINGS

Timo Meier added a historic chapter to what’s already been a special season for him, setting San Jose’s franchise record with five goals in a game as the Sharks beat the Kings, 6-2.

“It’s very special, I almost can’t even describe it,” the 25-year-old Meier said. “It’s a goosebump feeling.”

A sixth-year winger who made his first All-Star team this season, Meier’s fourth goal came less than two minutes into the second period and broke the Sharks’ record with his fifth just 27 seconds before the second intermission.

Joe Malone holds the NHL single-game record with seven goals, which he achieved with the Quebec Bulldogs back in 1920. Seven players have had six-goal games over the years.

Anze Kopitar and Mike Anderson scored for the Kings, who had a four-game winning streak end. Jonathan Quick made 11 saves.

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USC MEN’S BASKETBALL

Luca Evans on the Trojans: He wanted to make them all mad.

When he was younger, USC big man Chevez Goodwin would fixate on the mothers of opposing players cheering from the stands. It would eat at him. He would try to shut them down — shut down the affection.

Goodwin’s mother, Ronee, died of breast cancer when he was 3. His father, Charles, was there for him every step of the way but was reserved.

“I never had a person who was cheering for me,” Goodwin said. “I took that to heart.”

Standing in a hallway at Galen Center, he glances out at the rows of empty seats. He wishes Ronee could see him play here. See him bloom as the second-leading scorer for No. 5 USC (14-2, 4-2 Pac-12 Conference) after years of switching schools and working from the ground up, feeling as if it were him against the world....

OLYMPICS

Only “selected” spectators will be permitted at next month’s Beijing Olympics because of the pandemic, organizers said Monday.

Beijing had already announced that no fans from outside the country would be permitted at the events, and had not offered tickets to the general public.

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Monday’s announcement posted on the organizing committee’s website confirmed expectations that the Winter Games would have few onlookers at the venues, under even more strict conditions than imposed during last year’s Summer Olympics in Tokyo.

China has largely avoided major coronavirus outbreaks with a regimen of lockdowns, mass testing and travel restrictions, although it continues to fight surges in several cities, including the port of Tianjin, about an hour from Beijing. The capital itself confirmed over the weekend that a 26-year-old woman had contracted the Omicron variant of the virus and has tested more than 13,000 people in search of cases of cross transmission.

THIS DATE IN SPORTS

1938 — Grover Cleveland Alexander is elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame. His 90 shutouts is second on the all-time list to Walter Johnson and his 16 shutouts in 1916 is still the major league record.

1958 — Canadian born Willie O’Ree becomes the NHL’s first black player for the Boston Bruins.

1972 — The Lakers’ Jerry West, hits a last second, 20-foot jumper to lead the West team to a 112-110 NBA All-Star victory over the East, as he garners the MVP award.

1973 — Orlando Cepeda becomes the first player signed specifically to be a designated hitter. He signs with the Boston Red Sox one week after the designated hitter rule is approved.

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1976 — Pittsburgh wins the Super Bowl for the second straight year. Terry Bradshaw’s 64-yard touchdown pass to Lynn Swann and Glen Edwards’ interception on the last play of the game gives the Steelers a 21-17 win over the Dallas Cowboys. Swann, with four receptions for 161 yards, is the game’s MVP.

1992 — Brett Hull scores two goals with the help of linemate Wayne Gretzky to lead the Campbell Conference to a 10-6 victory over the Wales Conference in the NHL All-Star game.

1996 — Baseball owners break with more than a century of tradition by unanimously approving interleague play in 1997.

2003 — Michelle Kwan wins her sixth straight title, and seventh overall, at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships. Michael Weiss, despite splattering on his quad lutz, two-footing a quad toe and not doing a triple axel the entire competition, gets his third U.S. men’s title.

2004 — The New England Patriots earn their second trip to the Super Bowl in three seasons by defeating the Indianapolis Colts 24-14 in the AFC championship game. The Philadelphia Eagles fall one win short of the Super Bowl for the third straight year as the Carolina Panthers post a 14-3 win.

2005 — Earl Boykins breaks the NBA record for points in an overtime, scoring 15 of Denver’s 21 points in the extra period as the Nuggets beat the Seattle SuperSonics 116-110. The 5-foot-5 guard, the league’s smallest player, broke the record of 14 overtime points set by Butch Carter of Indiana against Boston on March 20, 1984.

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2011 — Kim Clijsters starts her Australian Open run with a 6-0, 6-0 romp of three-time Grand Slam finalist and former No. 1-ranked player Dinara Safina. It’s the first time a woman who was once the top-ranked player in the world had ever lost by that score.

2014 — The NBA fines Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban $100,000 for confronting referees and using inappropriate language toward them after the Mavericks blew a 17-point lead in the final 5 minutes of a 129-127 loss at the Clippers on Jan. 15.

2015 — Russell Wilson hits Jermaine Kearse for a 35-yard touchdown 3:19 into overtime to lift the Seattle Seahawks to an improbable 28-22 victory over Green Bay in the NFC championship game. Outplayed much of the game and plagued by five turnovers, the Seahawks trail 16-7 with 2:09 remaining.

2015 — Tom Brady throws for three touchdowns and LeGarrette Blount runs in three more to lead the New England Patriots into the Super Bowl with a 45-7 victory over the Indianapolis Colts.

2016 — Duke, after dropping three of its last five games, fall out of The Associated Press women’s basketball poll after 312 straight weeks. The Blue Devils entered on Nov. 29, 1999. It’s the third longest streak in the history of the poll since the rankings began in 1976.

Supplied by the Associated Press

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And finally

The 1972 NBA All-Star game. Watch and listen here.

Until next time...

That concludes today’s newsletter. If you have any feedback, ideas for improvement or things you’d like to see, email me at houston.mitchell@latimes.com, and follow me on Twitter at @latimeshouston. To get this newsletter in your inbox, click here.

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