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Greg Zuerlein’s leg might be big for Rams in Super Bowl

NEW ORLEANS. LOUISIANA JANUARY 20, 2018-Rams kicker Greg Zuerlein celebrates his game-winning filed
Rams kicker Greg Zuerlein celebrates his game-winning field goal with special teams coach John Fassel in the NFC Championship game on Sunday in New Orleans.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

The media requests kept coming, and Rams kicker Greg Zuerlein kept saying no.

Zuerlein was only an hour or two removed from kicking the 57-yard field goal that gave his team an overtime victory over the New Orleans Saints in the NFC championship game in New Orleans. He was in his usual seat on the team’s chartered plane, alongside punter Johnny Hekker and snapper Jake McQuaide in a row with extended leg room.

He did not want additional attention.

“Greg was saying no, just over and over, which was funny,” McQuaide said.

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Zuerlein, a Nebraska native, prefers to avoid the spotlight. But when the attention was at its most intense, Zuerlein came through and helped put the Rams in Super Bowl LIII against the New England Patriots next Sunday at Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

Zuerlein’s dramatic kick was soon overshadowed. Controversy about the lack of a pass-interference call on Rams cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman late in the fourth quarter dominated the NFL news cycle for days.

That was fine with Zuerlein.

“It’s going great, actually,” Zuerlein said Saturday. “I like not to be the center of attention. And with the way everything happened in that game it worked out well.”

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Zuerlein kicked four field goals in the 26-23 victory over the Saints. It was another outstanding performance by a player who started the season strong after returning from December 2017 back surgery, and then came back after a five-game absence because of a groin injury.

Zuerlein, who kicks with his right foot, also played through a left foot strain he suffered against the Saints. When the Rams came out to warm up for the second half, Zuerlein’s foot landed on a metal plate beneath the Mercedes-Benz Superdome turf.

He did not practice this week for precautionary reasons but is expected to continue receiving treatment and play against the Patriots.

“It won’t be an issue, I hope,” he said, laughing. “Feel good about it.”

Zuerlein, a sixth-round draft pick from Missouri Western State in 2012, has become known as Legatron, Greg the Leg and Mr. Automatic because of his leg strength and accuracy.

Last season, a back issue flared in a mid-December victory over the Seattle Seahawks in Seattle. Zuerlein lay face down on the floor of the team plane, and then in the back seat of special teams coordinator John Fassel’s car until he got home. He subsequently underwent surgery and missed the final two games and a playoff game. He still led the league in scoring with 158 points.

Zuerlein opened this season by making four of five field-goal attempts — including one from 55 yards — in a victory over the Oakland Raiders. But he suffered a groin injury warming up for a Week 2 game against the Arizona Cardinals. Hekker filled in at kicker, and the Rams subsequently signed and released Sam Ficken and Cairo Santos before Zuerlein returned.

Zuerlein made 27 of 31 field-goal attempts during the season, and then made three of four in a 30-22 divisional-round playoff victory over the Dallas Cowboys that sent the Rams to the conference championship game.

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Against the Saints, Zuerlein’s second-quarter field goal provided the Rams with their first points, cutting a 13-0 deficit. He tied the score, 20-20, with another field goal with about five minutes left. After the Saints added a field goal, Zuerlein sent the game into overtime with a 48-yard field goal with 15 seconds remaining.

And then an interception in overtime gave the Rams the ball at their 46-yard line. About two minutes later, Zuerlein was lined up for the potential game-winning field goal when Saints coach Sean Payton tried to freeze him by calling time out.

“I didn’t talk to him,” said Hekker, the holder. “Let Greg do his mental approach and get his sight line and everything he needed to do. I talk to the other guys, get down on my knee and wait for the snap.”

Said McQuaide: “I’m just thinking, ‘Snap it hard. Give him a chance.’”

Zuerlein sent the ball through the uprights with a kick that might have been good from 70 yards, according to quarterback Jared Goff, and the Rams were off to the Super Bowl.

“We wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for him,” coach Sean McVay said Saturday after his team completed its final workout before Sunday’s departure for Atlanta .

If he is in a similar situation against the Patriots, Zuerlein said he would not mentally reference the winning kick. He will “go back to what you always do,” and be confident and calm.

But Zuerlein acknowledged that the final kick still crosses his mind.

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“I’d lie to you if I said I didn’t think about it,” he said. “I do think about it. It was a cool occurrence, something that you dream about from the time you’re little.

“To be able to accomplish something like that was very cool. But, obviously, that’s in the past and so now it’s Super Bowl week and we’ve got to prepare to play the Patriots and, hopefully, get a win.”

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gary.klein@latimes.com

Follow Gary Klein on Twitter @latimesklein


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