The Rams are going to the Super Bowl. This is the same outfit that finished 4-12 in 2016, Jeff Fisher's last season with the team, and has gone 24-8 under Sean McVay. (If you haven't heard, he's 32 years old and already has a coaching tree that has his assistants landing head-coaching gigs.) Los Angeles outlasted New Orleans, 26-23 in overtime and now they're headed to Atlanta for Super Bowl LIII, which you can stream right here on CBSSports.com. But here's the thing: The Rams shouldn't have won the NFC Championship Game.
Sean McVay wasn't aggressive when he should've been
To repeat: The Rams shouldn't have beaten the Saints. Not after McVay, considered one of the NFL's most innovative coaches, turtled up on the offense's penultimate drive of regulation. Trailing 20-17 with five minutes to go in the fourth quarter, L.A. faced fourth-and-goal from the Saints' 1-yard line. McVay opted to kick. To kick!
For some history, here's CBSSports.com's Jared Dubin:
"In the last two years on fourth-and-2 or less, on the opponent's side of the field, the Rams have attempted three pass, six runs and 13 field goals. The results: Four first downs, three touchdowns, an interception and a fumble on the nine plays they went for it."
There is no explaining this decision as the right one. Yes, the Rams eventually won, but we'll get to the other reason they shouldn't have. First, this:
On the ensuing drive, the Saints marched down the field, thanks in large part to this 43-yard catch by Ted Ginn that gave New Orleans the ball at the L.A. 13-yard line:
Worth noting: Had Lamarcus Joyner not tried to catch the ball, and instead attempted to break up the pass, it's almost certainly an incompletion. It did happen and, it turns out, it didn't matter. Because things got weird.
The NFL has an officiating problem
Three plays after Ginn's big grab, on third down, Brees threw down the sidelines for TommyLee Lewis, who was promptly blown up by Nickell Robey-Coleman before the ball got there. And we can't overstate that enough:
And the freeze frame:
And the confirmation from former official and CBS Sports analyst Gene Steratore:
If pass interference is called, the game is over. The Saints can run the clock down to almost zero and kick the game-winner. But because Drew Brees threw incomplete on the first play after the two-minute warning (and two plays before the no-call against Lewis), not only did it stop the clock, it allowed the Rams to keep one of their timeouts. That would come back to haunt them moments later. After the Saints settled for a field goal to take the 23-20 lead, the Rams had 1:41 to get in field goal range.
Turns out, L.A. only needed 1:22 before Greg Zuerlein striped a 48-yarder. Again, disregarding the blown call against Lewis, if Brees completes the first-down pass, this isn't an issue.
But New Orleans still had a chance at redemption; it won the coin toss, received the ball first in overtime, and Brees and the offense had driven to the 40-yard line before disaster struck. First, minimally, in the form of a six-yard loss by Mark Ingram. Then, monumentally on the next play:
That was Dante Fowler applying the pressure, whom the Rams traded for midway through the season to beef up the rushing attack. And it's fair to say that third-round pick was worth it for just this one play, the one that effectively catapulted the Rams to the Super Bowl.
Four plays and 15 yards later, Zuerlein again took the field, and this time smoked a 57-yard game-winner that looked to be good from 70.
At the end of the day, this was about blown chances, missed opportunities and, frankly, some pretty terrible officiating. Which brings us to this:
The NFL admits they messed up
As you might imagine, Saints coach Sean Payton was beside himself after the game. He told reporters during his postgame press conference that he just got off the phone with the league office and "they blew the call." And not only was the hit on Lewis clear and obvious pass interference, there was also a helmet-to-helmet infraction. Payton said the league told him, "I don't know if there was ever a more obvious pass interference call."
"It's tough to get over it," Payton said. "We'll probably never get over it."
Poor officiating has been a recurring theme this season, though it's a theme every season. And while the NFL has taken strides to simplify things like what it means to actually catch a football, there's a ton of work to do. Why New York can't overrule a call on the field in real time remains a mystery to us. If the argument is: "We don't want to drag out the games," we'll ask this: Is that preferable to this? Because, sure, the game is over but folks will be talking about how the refs screwed the Saints out of a trip to the Super Bowl from now till the end of time.
If you're the Saints and their fans, we'd have to imagine that this is considerably tougher to take than last year's. For the Rams, it will be their fourth Super Bowl appearance.
Jared Goff will be the fourth-youngest starting QB in Super Bowl history. Fifth-youngest if the Rams face the Chiefs. Sean McVay the youngest head coach in Super Bowl history. Andy Reid and Bill Belichick are both older than McVay and Goff combined.— Brad Gagnon (@Brad_Gagnon) January 20, 2019
Relive the entire NFC Championship Game in our live blog below.