Forgotten drive: The Rams forced OT after non-call versus the Saints in NFC title game

Greg Zuerlein kicks the game-winning field goal in the NFC championship game.
The Rams’ Greg Zuerlein kicks the game-winning field goal in overtime against the New Orleans Saints in the NFC championship game in New Orleans.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

The Rams coach paced the sideline and scanned his play sheet. He covered his mouth and barked instructions into his headset. Facing the biggest drive of his coaching career, his mind raced.

All last season, the Rams seemed destined for the Super Bowl. But in the final two minutes of the fourth quarter in the NFC championship game, their offense took the field trailing by three points. Their season teetered on the brink.

On the opposite sideline, Sean Payton was still furious. As the Rams drove into field-goal range, the New Orleans Saints coach berated the referees. Step for step, he stayed in their ears. He was far from over their monumental mistake. A possession earlier, Rams cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman was infamously not flagged for pass interference, the dubious turning point that will forever be tagged to the Rams’ 26-23 overtime win.


But before history’s sliding doors slammed shut, the Rams still needed to at least get into field-goal range. They still needed to execute the nine-play, 45-yard drive that marked a coming of age for coach Sean McVay and quarterback Jared Goff but went overlooked in the game’s controversial aftermath.

This week, ahead of their rematch Sunday with the Saints, the key members of that drive happily relived the memory of that sometimes overlooked possession.

“It,” a grinning McVay said, “was a blur.”

Rams linebacker Corey Littleton, left, and cornerback Aquib Talib tackle New Orleans Saints receiver Michael Thomas during first half in the 2018 NFC championship game in January.
Rams linebacker Corey Littleton, left, and cornerback Aquib Talib tackle New Orleans Saints receiver Michael Thomas during first half in last season’s NFC championship game.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

1:41 remaining, 1st-and-10 at the Rams’ 25: At the start of the potential career-defining drive, Goff tried to deliver a rousing speech in the huddle. His mindset was simple:

“Just tried to go out there and execute,” he said.

But in the middle of a rollicking Mercedes-Benz Superdome, his words fell on deaf ears.

“Couldn’t hear him anyway,” offensive lineman Rob Havenstein laughed. “Place was ... loud.”

It only got louder after the first play. The Saints blitzed. Goff fired a pass over the middle. Receiver Josh Reynolds let the ball slip through his hands.

1:37 remaining, 2nd-and-10 at the Rams’ 25: Under normal circumstances, Reynolds wouldn’t have been on the field in crunch time. He had been bumped to a starting role in November after slot receiver Cooper Kupp suffered a knee injury.

Rams safety Eric Weddle was cleared from NFL’s concussion protocol and is expected to play against the New Orleans Saints on Sunday at the Coliseum.

But even after his first-down drop, Reynolds was targeted again. The lone receiver on the right side of the formation ran 10 yards before breaking toward the middle. His route found a soft spot against zone coverage. Goff threaded a 19-yard completion.

“That was a good play to get us rolling,” Reynolds said. “After that, we were in the two-minute offense. We were getting the defense gassed.”

1:16 remaining, 1st-and-10 at the Rams’ 44: Goff overthrew a corner route to tight end Gerald Everett, but the Rams special teams unit already was getting loose on the sideline. Veteran kicker Greg Zuerlein booted practice kicks into a net, and long-snapper Jake McQuaide fired rehearsal reps to holder Johnny Hekker.

“With Greg’s range,” McQuaide said, “anytime you get around the 50, it’s like, ‘This is a field goal.’ ”

Rams wide receiver Brandin Cooks runs the ball against the New Orleans Saints during the third quarter of last season's NFC championship game.
(Getty Images)

1:12 remaining, 2nd-and-10 at the Rams’ 44: Goff settled for a short seven-yard pass to receiver Brandin Cooks over the middle. As described by passing game coordinator Shane Waldron, the two-minute drill is like “going off a big menu of plays.” Instead of trying to take one big bite out of a stingy Saints secondary, the Rams feasted on smaller portions of steady yards as they inched down the field.

“You’re going off of, really, a feel — and that’s where he does a great job,” Waldron said of McVay. “You prepare throughout the week for what you anticipate seeing in those situations. Quarterback is doing the same thing, what he’s anticipating seeing in those.”

Dante Fowler played a huge role in the Rams’ victory over the Saints in the NFC title game last season and is likely to be key to securing a victory Sunday.

53 seconds remaining, 3rd-and-3 at the Saints’ 49: The moment Robert Woods lined up, he saw the opportunity for a big play. The Rams had called an “option route,” said Woods, who recognized the Saints were in man coverage. On the snap, he crossed paths with Cooks, cut inside his defender, and burst up the middle. His path to the end zone was clear.

Goff’s throw was a half-step behind, but Woods caught it for a 16-yard gain to put the Rams in field goal range. But, he also tumbled to the turf.

“Wish I would have stayed on my feet,” he said, “and put the game away.”

45 seconds remaining, 1st-and-10 at the Saints’ 33: After a timeout, the Rams settled for a short three-yard check-down pass from Goff to running back Todd Gurley, who advanced the ball to the Saints’ 30. Goff’s next two passes, fell incomplete.

Rams running back Todd Gurley carries the ball during the fourth quarter of last year's NFC championship game.
(Getty Images)

“I really wanted to score a touchdown,” said Goff, who completed four of eight passes on the drive for 45 yards. “I wanted to go down there and punch one in and finish the game.”

Instead, facing fourth down, Zuerlein came trotting onto the field.

19 seconds remaining, 4th-and-7 at the Saints’ 30: Once the Rams field goal unit was set, Payton burned a timeout. Zuerlein went back to the sideline and tried not to dwell over the most important kick of his career.

“Just think about your technique,” Zuerlein said. “Same with any other kick.”

Of course, it wasn’t any other kick. Their season was coming down to one play.

“It’s almost better,” Woods said of the pressure. “You don’t have much time to think. You’re just going.”

McQuaide snapped the ball from just right of center. Hekker got a clean hold. From 48 yards out, the ball jumped off Zuerlein’s foot.

Rams kicker Greg Zuerlein is lifted by teammate Johnny Hekker after hitting a 57-yard field goal in overtime to beat the New Orleans Saints 26-23 in the NFC Championship at the Superdome.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

“It was a no-doubter,” McQuaide said.

The Superdome fell silent as the kick split the uprights. The Rams’ celebration was also muted since the three points only tied the game. It wasn’t until overtime, when the Rams intercepted a Drew Brees pass and Zuerlein connected again from 57 yards, that they won.

“It was a bunch of big-time, crunch-time throws,” McVay said, adding: “All 11 being on the same page, that’s a stressful environment that our players handled really well.”

After Zuerlein’s game-tying kick, Woods felt the momentum turn for good.

“From that point, it was like game over,” Woods said. “It deflated them.”