Exhale, Atlanta. Your worst nightmare isn’t headed Northeast to plop itself down in the big stadium off Northside Drive. The Saints aren’t marching anywhere except home, surely to wonder where that 13-0 lead went. And we Atlantans know how much fun it is to blow a big lead with the world watching, don’t we?
The Falcons’ hated rival contrived to throw away an NFC championship game Sunday, pretty much the same as the Falcons did against the 49ers in January 2013. No, what the Saints did wasn’t as bad as 28-3. (Nothing will ever be as bad as 28-3.) But this was a cosmic crusher for the city that wanted badly not just to win the Super Bowl but to rub the Falcons’ beaks in it.
Instead it’s the Rams, the team that has no fans, that will head to the A-T-L, carried there on the strength of two mighty kicks by Greg Zuerlein – a 48-yard field goal to tie at the shank of regulation and then a 57-yarder to win in overtime.
It was a weird game. Only when Zuerlein’s last boot sailed true did the Rams lead, and even late in the fourth quarter it seemed coach Sean McVay, the Marist alum, wasn’t all that interested in pulling ahead. Rather than go for it on fourth-and-goal from the 1, he had Zuerlein kick a 24-yarder to tie with 5:06 remaining, which surely left enough time for Drew Brees to untie it.
Which he did, but only by a field goal, and here we arrive at the game’s Talking Point. Two improvisations by the Saints’ 40-year-old quarterback put the home side in position to seize the day. First he found Alvin Kamara, the best player on this field, after he could find nobody else open. That flip converted on third-and-2. Two snaps later, Brees again found a receiver running free late, this time Ted Ginn at the Rams’ 13 with 1:58 to go.
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The game was there to be won with a touchdown – or, failing that, sagacious usage of the clock before kicking a field. The Saints managed neither. An incompletion on first down was a time-management horror, and the third-down play will live forever in NOLA infamy.
Brees threw toward Tommylee Lewis at the right pylon. Rams cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman hit Lewis about six seconds too soon – slight exaggeration, but only slight – and the massive crowd waited for a yellow cloth to be tossed. None was. Holy mackerel. It was as bad a decision as has ever been made in any NFL game, let alone a conference championship. (Although the guess here is that, somewhere in Buckhead, a man named Blank nodded his head and said, “Good no-call.”)
“Just got off the phone with the league office,” Saints coach Sean Payton said afterward. “They blew the call. We missed a lot of opportunities, but that call puts it first-and-10 and we’re (taking) a knee for three plays. It’s a game-changing call.”
The Saints banked their go-ahead field but left the door wide open. The Rams had 101 seconds and a timeout to force overtime, and Jared Goff did. Although again, McVay settled for the tie almost too easily, but what the heck do we know? He’s 32 and he could soon be a Super Bowl champ, and isn’t all’s well that ends well?
Over time, it’s possible we’ll remember this game not so much for the Rams winning – though they mustered 378 yards to the Saints’ 290, this despite having been outgained 125-5 in the first quarter – as the other team losing. The Saints led 13-0 after 13½ minutes, but a 13-point hole after the start the Rams made had to feel like a blessing. Todd Gurley, once a Georgia Bulldog, had dropped two passes, the second landing in the arms of the Saints’ Demario Davis.
What might have been a blowout was a game again by halftime – the Rams had pulled within 13-10 – and not a particularly stellar game, either. These teams had generated 80 points when they met in this building on Nov. 4; on this day, they needed overtime to hit 49. It took forever for Goff to find Brandin Cooks, the erstwhile Saint who’s the Rams’ downfield threat, and it must be said that the dauntless Brees has finally begun to show his age.
The Saints won the overtime toss. Drive to a touchdown and the game’s over. Brees couldn’t even complete a pass. He under threw Michael Thomas. On the next play, the Rams’ Mark Barron was flagged for pass interference. (“NOW they call it!” every Saints fan screamed.) On the next, Mark Ingram was stopped for a 6-yard loss that should have been a 2-yard loss, but the refs were slow on the whistle.
Second-and-16. Brees dropped to throw and was slammed by linebacker Dante Fowler. The ball fluttered into the hands of a flat-on-his-back John Johnson. Interception.
The Rams’ drive to glory wasn’t an epic thing. It included two passes to tight end Tyler Higbee for a total of 18 yards and really nothing else. When Goff missed Robert Woods on a bubble screen on third-and-7 from the Saints’ 39, McVay ordered up a 57-yarder. This wasn’t out of character: Over the past two seasons, Zuerlein had tried 13 field goals of 50-plus yards, making 10. This one, his second-longest ever, would have been good from 65.
When Zuerlein’s winner hit the net, the strangest thing happened: A throng that had roared itself hoarse in the first quarter simply got up and left. Destiny had been denied by many things, from an outrageous no-call to the Saints’ inability to put away a reeling opponent. (They broached the Rams’ 20 five times; they scored touchdowns.) If Atlantans didn’t hate the Saints, they might feel moved to commiserate with these stricken fans. But these are the Saints, so who cares?
The expected horde of Who Dats will not storm the Perimeter. The NFC will be represented by the Rams, who moved from L.A. to St. Louis in 1995, spending 21 years there (and winning a Super Bowl) before returning to California, where it remains unclear if anybody really wanted them back. They play in a rented L.A. Coliseum, where their divisional round game saw as many patrons rooting for the visiting Cowboys as the home-again team.
Other than fellow Marist grads, it’s unknown who’ll show up in Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Feb. 3 to root for the Rams. But they had almost nobody rooting for them here, and they won. And for that, Falcons fans will forever love Sean McVay and Jared Goff, and I’d expect Greg Zuerlein to be handed a key to our city any day now.