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.
“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 first-quarter interception behind him, and he led the Rams to their first three points. The Rams pulled to within 13-10 by halftime, but trailed 20-17 entering the fourth quarter. Zuerlein tied the score on a 24-yard field goal with about five minutes left, and then the Saints settled for Wil Lutz’s 31-yard kick after the non-call involving Robey-Coleman.
Zuerlein’s 48-yard field goal with 15 seconds left in regulation set the stage for another game-turning play in overtime.
The Saints had the ball and a second and 16 at their 34-yard line. Rams linebacker Dante Fowler, a trade-deadline acquisition, and veteran lineman Michael Brockers pressured Brees.
“He was holding the ball a long time,” Fowler said. “He finally threw it and I got my hand on it.”
The ball fluttered toward Saints receiver Michael Thomas and Rams safety John Johnson, who was falling backward.
“I had ‘Livin’ on a Prayer’ playing in my head,” offensive lineman Rodger Saffold said. “I was just praying that thing would come down and be for us.”
Johnson joked that he was glad he had his contact lenses in.
“It was up there for forever,” he said. “I kind of felt like a punt returner. I just fell back with it. I’m glad I caught it.”
After the interception, the Rams took over at their 46-yard line. Goff completed two passes to tight end Tyler Higbee before an incomplete pass brought on Zuerlein.
“In your head, it’s like going back to when you’re a little kid,” Zuerlein said, referring to practicing game-winning plays.
Zuerlein’s kick split the uprights and sent the Rams into a celebration.
“This is everything we expected, man,” said Talib, who along with Peters came to the Rams via trades. “We expected to get their best shot from a team with a Hall of Fame quarterback.
“We just knew it was going to take 60 minutes or more, and that’s what we did. We came out and played more.”
Kroenke said McVay, who led the Rams to their first winning seasons in 14 years, “created that special culture, and I think you saw that today.”
Saffold, a ninth-year pro and the longest-tenured Rams player, said it was “un … be … lievable” to be heading to the Super Bowl.