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Late field goal completes comeback, lifts Rams over 49ers in NFC title game

Rainbow-colored signs and white party tents littered the parking lots, and the music from a DJ’s booth blared. Teasers of the big show were unavoidable, but few could have imagined the outcome of the pre-show Sunday night. Not even Matthew Stafford, who was traded to Los Angeles exactly one year earlier, or Von Miller, who was traded here less than three months ago, or his sidekick Odell Beckham Jr., who joined days later.

After a back-and-forth battle between a pair of NFC West rivals, the Rams and their remade roster edged the San Francisco 49ers, 20-17, in the final minutes of the NFC championship game to earn a ticket to Super Bowl LVI, back at SoFi Stadium on Feb. 13. It was the Rams’ first victory over the 49ers in seven meetings and made them the first team in NFL history to host both a conference championship and a Super Bowl in the same season.

The close win, secured by a go-ahead field goal by kicker Matt Gay and sealed with an interception by linebacker Travin Howard, embodied Los Angeles’s season and was reflective of its quarterback and surrounding playmakers: gritty and resilient. While it wasn’t always pretty and it certainly didn’t look easy, the Rams got it done.

“Today was a great sign of the resilience,” Rams Coach Sean McVay said. “… You got down 17-7, it doesn’t look good, but the guys just stayed in the moment. One play at a time. Did a great job. And the defense to be able to close it out. … There were just so many great plays by great players.”

And somehow Cooper Kupp, their star wide receiver, made it all look simple.

The 28-yard-old compiled 142 receiving yards a week after recording 183 in a divisional-round win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and set up the Rams for their go-ahead score in the final minutes.

But for 48 minutes, it was a tight battle, with one mistake, one play having the potential to alter the game.

The Rams outgained the 49ers 396 yards to 282, but the biggest discrepancy was on third downs. Los Angeles converted 11 of 18 attempts (61 percent), compared with only 3 of 9 (33 percent) by the 49ers.

Rams defensive end Aaron Donald and his linemates rattled 49ers Jimmy Garoppolo late and will next have a shot at Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow in the Super Bowl. (Jed Jacobsohn/AP Photo)

Jimmy Garoppolo, starting in possibly his final game as a 49er, finished 16-for-30 passing for 232 yards, two touchdowns and an interception for an 87.1 passer rating.

His counterpart, meanwhile, had 45 pass attempts, completing 31 of them for 337 yards, two touchdowns and interception for a 96.2 rating.

Unlike Garoppolo, whose interception with 1:19 remaining in the game sealed the 49ers’ loss, Stafford’s pick came early, on the Rams’ opening drive. The quarterback tried to hit Kupp on a slant from the San Francisco 3-yard line, but cornerback K’Waun Williams, who was glued to Kupp’s hip, swatted the ball at the edge of the goal line. Safety Jimmie Ward caught the deflected pass and zigzagged upfield 23 yards.

It wasn’t until the second quarter that both teams found the end zone. The Rams struck first, taking 18 plays and eating 9:33 for Stafford to find his favorite target, Kupp, for a back-shoulder touchdown pass. But first, the two set it up on third and 13, with Kupp lined up out wide in a trips formation. Kupp put a double move on cornerback Ambry Thomas to gain a good two yards of separation as he turned to the sideline for a 15-yard catch.

Three plays later, on another third and long, Stafford went deep again, finding Kupp wide open as he headed toward the right corner of the end zone.

The 49ers responded in less than three minutes, thanks to a 31-yard pass from Garoppolo to Brandon Aiyuk and later a ­44-yard catch-and-run by Deebo Samuel, who took a reception in the flat and wove his way up field. Samuel dodged three defenders, even stiff-armed 312-pound defensive lineman Greg Gaines, before diving over the pylon to tie the score at 7.

The first half was controlled by the Rams, whose defense held the 49ers to only six first downs and whose offense consumed 20:19. Stafford attempted 24 passes compared with Garoppolo’s 12 in that span. Yet it was the 49ers who went into the break with the lead.

Stafford missed Beckham on a deep ball to squander the Rams’ final drive of the half and leave enough time for San Francisco to take the lead. A couple of chunk plays — an 11-yard completion to tight end George Kittle and a 13-yarder to Aiyuk — set up a 38-yard field goal by Robbie Gould.

But Garoppolo, among the more enigmatic quarterbacks, continued to defy logic in the third quarter, missing receivers on short slants or throwing high on in-breaking routes before tossing a perfect deep ball to the end zone. After rookie wide receiver Jauan Jennings stretched to catch an 11-yard pass that was high and slightly outside, Garoppolo went deep with a toss just high enough for Kittle to pull down the 50-50 ball in the end zone and expand the 49ers’ lead to 17-7.

Perfect? Almost never. Garoppolo is erratic enough to lose a game and just good enough to win big.

When Stafford narrowed the Rams’ deficit with yet another touchdown pass to Kupp early in the fourth quarter, the 49ers were prepared to hand the ball back to them at the 45-yard line, when a run by Kyle Juszczyk on a third and two came up short. But McVay oddly challenged the ruling, arguing the 49ers fumbled.

The ruling was upheld, stripping McVay of his final timeout and challenge but not of his chance to win. Stafford led the Rams back down the field, resulting in a 40-yard kick to tie the game at 17. Then his defense, with its swarming defensive line, rattled Garoppolo deep in his own territory and forced a punt.

Los Angeles again returned down field. And Stafford again found Kupp on third down, for 25 yards to set up a go-ahead field goal.

Garoppolo had 1:46 to respond but was picked off by Howard after he faced pressure from defensive end Aaron Donald. A swarm of players in blue jerseys rushed the field in celebration, then took it to the locker room, where music blared and the pre-show continued with players in blue jerseys leaping in celebration.

After 12 seasons in Detroit, where he never made it past the first round of the playoffs, Stafford only could smile when asked how it felt to finally make it to the Super Bowl.

Credit: Washington Post

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