BY PAUL NEWBERRY
NEW ORLEANS (AP) — A big comeback. A blown call. And, finally, a booming kick that sent the Los Angeles Rams to the Super Bowl.
After rallying from an early 13-0 deficit, the Rams stunned the New Orleans Saints with Greg Zuerlein’s 57-yard field goal in overtime for a 26-23 victory in the NFC championship game Sunday — an outcome that might not have been possible without an egregious mistake by the officials in the closing minutes of regulation.
Los Angeles cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman committed a blatant interference penalty with a helmet-to-helmet hit on Tommylee Lewis well before the pass arrived inside the 5, forcing the Saints to settle for Wil Lutz’s 31-yard field goal that made it 23-20 with 1:41 left in regulation.
“Came to the sideline, looked at the football gods and was like, ‘Thank you,’” Robey-Coleman said. “I got away with one tonight.”
After the no-call, Jared Goff had enough time to lead the Rams down the field for Zuerlein’s tying field goal, a 48-yarder with 15 seconds remaining.
New Orleans won the coin toss and got the ball first in overtime. But, with Dante Fowler Jr. in his face and striking his arm, Drew Brees fluttered up a pass that was picked off by John Johnson III, who was able to hang on to the interception while stumbling backward. Johnson hopped up and celebrated by doing the “Choppa Style” dance popularized by New Orleans rapper Choppa, whose namesake song had become a Saints’ rallying cry and was even performed during the halftime show.
The Rams weren’t able to do much offensively, but it didn’t matter. Zuerlein booted through the winning field goal from just inside midfield with plenty of room to spare. The NFL said it the longest game-winning kick in playoff history.
“It’s unbelievable, man. I can’t put it into words,” said Goff, who at 24 became the youngest quarterback to win an NFC title. “The defense played the way they did to force it to overtime. The defense gets a pick and Greg makes a 57-yarder to win it. That was good from about 70. Unbelievable.”
The Superdome, which had been in uproar all afternoon, suddenly turned eerily silent. It was the first home playoff loss for the Saints with Brees and coach Sean Payton, who and been 6-0 in those games since their pairing began in 2006.
This one really hurt.
If the pass interference penalty had been called, the Saints could’ve run most of the time off the clock to set up a winning field goal from chip-shot range. A replay was shown over and over on the Superdome’s giant video boards, prompting some fans to toss trash on the field.
“Being that it happened right there in front of the person who would be the one to make the call, and everyone in the stands saw it, everyone watching at home on TV saw it, that makes it even more difficult to take,” Brees said. “Because of this, I’m sure there will be a lot of talk about reviewing penalties, perhaps game-changing penalties.”
The Rams (15-3) and their 32-year-old coach, Sean McVay, capped a remarkable rise since moving back to Los Angeles three years ago. The team will be appearing in its first Super Bowl since the 2001 season, when the “Greatest Show on Turf” was still in St. Louis.
The team hasn’t won an NFL title in Los Angeles since 1951, well before the Super Bowl era. The team moved to St. Louis in 1995, only to return to Southern California two decades later.
“Shoot, I don’t even know what day it is,” McVay said. “All I know is we’re NFC champs, baby!”
It was another bitter end for the Saints, who lost the previous season in the divisional round on the “Minnesota Miracle” — the Vikings’ long touchdown pass on the final play of the game.
This time, New Orleans (14-4) couldn’t hang on to the lead or overcome that officiating mistake.
Payton said he talked to the NFL office after the game and was told that Robey-Coleman should have been flagged.
“Not only was it interference, it was helmet to helmet,” the coach said. “I don’t know if there was ever a more obvious pass interference.”
The Saints were on the verge of blowing out the Rams, scoring on their first three possessions and taking advantage of an interception when Todd Gurley let a pass slip through his hands.
Then a fake punt early in the second quarter gave Los Angeles its initial first down of the game. Sparked by that gutsy call, the Rams finally came to life offensively and drove into position for the first of four field goals by Zuerlein.
Gurley made it 13-10 at halftime on a 6-yard touchdown run just before the intermission.
New Orleans restored its double-digit lead on Brees’ 2-yard scoring pass to third-string quarterback Taysom Hill, the first TD catch of the super sub’s career. Goff countered with a 1-yard touchdown toss to Tyler Higbee, setting up a wild fourth quarter.
Zuerlein tied the score at 20-all with a 24-yard field goal after McVay passed on a shot at the go-ahead touchdown with fourth-and-goal from inside the 1. A delay of game while lining up for the kick scuttled any thoughts of leaving the offense on the field.
The 40-year-old Brees made it clear he’s got no plans to retire.
“I plan on being here next year and making another run at it,” said Brees, who was denied a shot at adding to the Super Bowl title he won during the 2009 season.
He hopes another gut-wrenching loss in the playoffs will spur the team to even greater heights.
“Last year really brought us together as a team and strengthened us,” Brees said. “I hope this will too.”
The Saints lost tight end Josh Hill to a concussion in the first quarter.
Hill was injured after hauling in a 24-yard pass from Brees. While making the tackle, Los Angeles Rams linebacker Cory Littleton delivered a forearm to Hill’s head.
No penalty was called, but Hill staggered off the field to be evaluated by the medical staff. Just before halftime, the Saints announced he was done for the game.
The loss of Hill led to a much bigger role in the offense for Garrett Griffin, who spent most of the season on the practice squad. He caught a 5-yard pass for his first career touchdown.
The Rams head to Atlanta in about a week for the Feb. 3 Super Bowl at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. They will face either the Kansas City Chiefs or the New England Patriots, who met Sunday night for the AFC title.
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