Rams battle back to upend Saints in NFC Championship

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The Marist High graduate will coach the biggest game of his life in his hometown.

There will be a homecoming in Atlanta for the Super Bowl.

It came after an epic NFC Championship game.

The Rams outlasted the Saints, 26-23, in overtime to claim the NFC title and earn a trip to Super Bowl LIII, which is set for Feb. 3 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

“We have a lot of respect for the Saints,” said Rams coach Sean McVay, a Marist High graduate. “We are excited about getting the chance to move on and play in Atlanta.”

Greg Zuerlein made a 57-yard field goal with 11:43 left in overtime before 73, 028 upset fans at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

“I really wasn’t thinking much,” Zuerlein said. “I just looked up and saw that it was going straight. I was happy. I knew it was going to be long enough because I thought I hit it pretty well.

“ Power-wise I just didn’t want it to tail (off) one way or the other. Luckily, it stayed true.”

Saints quarterback Drew Brees was intercepted in overtime by John Johnson after being hit by Dante Fowler to set up the Rams’ winning drive.

The Rams trailed 13-0 early, but rallied to tie the game 20-20. Late field goals by both teams lead to the overtime period.

The Rams played valiantly even when trailing 20-10.

“The guys just kept competing,” said McVay, arguably the hottest coach in the NFL. “They kept swinging. It wasn’t always perfect. Guys made enough plays and the overtime period personified what this team is really all about.”

The Rams improved to 15-3, while the Saints dropped to 14-4. The Rams will face the winner of the Chiefs-Patriots AFC Championship game in Atlanta’s third Super Bowl.

The city also hosted Super Bowl XXVIII and Super Bowl XXXIV, which was won by the Rams.

“It’s surreal,” McVay said. “You’re so happy for these players and I have a real big headache from yelling all day.”

Rams quarterback Jared Goff completed 25 of 40 passes for 297 yards and had one touchdown and one interception. He finished with a passer rating of 83.

Brees completed 26 of 40 passes for 249 yard two touchdowns and one interception. He finished with a passer rating of 88.4.

Saints fans were upset with an apparent pass interference call late in the fourth quarter that wasn’t called on Rams cornerback Nickell Robery-Coleman. The public address announcer had to advise them not to throw items onto the field.

“The referee said the ball was tipped a little bit so it was a legal play,” Robey-Coleman said. “When he released it, it got tipped a little bit. I have the authority to hit him if the ball was in the air.

“I just saw his hands go up. When his hands (went) up, that means the ball is close by. So I hit him. It was tipped so I was good. If it wasn’t for that, it would have been a (pass interference).”

Saints coach Sean Payton said the league called and told him they blew the call both for pass interference and a helmet-to-helmet hit.

“It was a judgment call by the covering official,” said referee Bill Vinovich to the PFWA pool reporter. “I personally have not seen the play.”

The fans roundly booed the referees as they left the field.

It was the Saints third appearance in the NFC Championship game in their 52-year history and their first since 2009 when they went on to win Super Bowl XLIV. They also appeared in the title game after the 2006 regular-season.

The Saints, after dominating the first quarter, took a 13-10 lead in to the locker room at halftime.

The Saints opened strong, but had to settle for field goals on their first two possessions.

After kicker Will Lutz made a 37-yard field goal to give them a 3-0 after their opening drive, the Saints failed to fully capitalize on an interception from linebacker Demario Davis on a pass that skidded off the hands of Rams running back Todd Gurley.

The Rams defense stiffened to hold the Saints to a 29-yard field goal by Lutz.

With Goff misfiring early, the Rams had to punt the ball back to the Saints.

Brees guided the Saints down to the Rams’ 10-yard line. Rams defensive tackle Michael Brockers bailed the Saints out on fourth-and-2 by jumping offsides. Brees tossed a 5-yard touchdown pass to tight end Garrett Griffin on the next play to take early control of the game and a 13-0 lead.

It was Griffin’s first catch of the season.

But in this current NFL, with the rules titled toward the offense, no lead is really ever safe.

In the previous 10 postseasons teams were 12-2 when taking a 13-point lead in the conference championship game. The losses were by the Packers against Seahawks in 2014 and the Falcons against the 49ers in the 2012 NFC title game at the now demolished Georgia Dome.

The Rams added the Saints to that list.

The Falcons had a 17-0 lead before losing 28-24 to Colin Kaepernick and the 49ers.

The Rams weren’t going away quietly nor that quickly.

Goff started to connect with his receivers and with the help of a fake punt on fourth down, the Rams put together a 14-play drive that covered 57 yards. Zuerlein put them on the scoreboard with a 36-yard field goal.

After and exchange of possessions, the Rams had the ball at their 14 with 1:52 to play in the second quarter.

A beautiful pass by Goff to wide receiver Brandin Cooks for a 36-yard gain, set up a 6-yard touchdown run by Gurley to pull them within three points.

The Rams had the ball to start the third quarter, but went three-and-out after opening with a jet sweep to wide receiver Robert Woods.

The Saints drove 71 yards to take a 20-10 lead. Brees tossed a short pass out to his right to utility player Taysom Hill for a 2-yard touchdown.

The Rams wouldn’t go away.

The Rams answered with a 10-play, 75-yard touchdown drive that took 5:28 off the clock. Goff connected with tight end Tyler Higbee for a 1-yard touchdown pass to make it 20-17 with 3:06 left in the third quarter.

Saints tight end Josh Hill suffered a concussion in the first quarter and did not return to the game.

The Saints and Rams were longtime rivals from the old NFC west from 1970 to 2001 before realignment created the NFC South.

The Saints had won a previous meeting this season 45-35 on Nov. 4 at the Superdome.  Saints wide receiver Michael Thomas had 15 catches for 211 yards receiving  and a touchdown in that game. He was held to four catches on seven targets for 36 yards Sunday.

“We are not playing out here,” Rams cornerback Aqib Talib said. “That’s (defensive coordinator) coach Wade (Phillips). When it’s time coach Wade gets in that bag.”