Plaschke: It's L.A. vs. San Francisco again, only this time a Super Bowl trip is at stake

·7 min read
Tampa, Florida, Sunday, January 23, 2022 - Los Angeles Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford (9) moves.
Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford looks to pass during a 30-27 victory at Tampa Bay in the NFC divisional round Sunday. The Rams will face San Francisco for the third time this season in the NFC championship game next Sunday. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

The Rams were bent over at the knees, wheezing, gasping, choking.

The greatest quarterback in history was swaggering down the field, charging, swinging, steaming.

A lingering Gulf Coast chill had suddenly become a raucous inferno, thousands of flag-waving fans at Raymond James Stadium roaring and pleading as if refusing to let the defending champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers go down.

Then with two lofty throws, Matthew Stafford put them down. And with two nimble catches, Cooper Kupp kept them down. And with the simple swing of a right foot in the final ticks of a great escape, Matt Gay knocked them out.

On a once-sunny Sunday darkened by rolling clouds and angry pirates, the Rams recovered from a blown 24-point lead to beat Tom Brady and the Buccaneers on Gay’s last-second 30-yard field goal, earning a 30-27 NFC divisional-round playoff win.

Long pause. Deep breath.

Bring on the — are you kidding me? — San Francisco 49ers.

The GOAT is gone, just in time for the Rams’ bold and bleating Bay Area rivals to show up at SoFi Stadium next Sunday for an NFC championship game with the winner advancing to Super Bowl LVI on Feb. 13 at SoFi.

“This is how you write a book,” said Rams outside linebacker Von Miller, smile huge, eyes wide.

Yes, it’s happening again, it’s Los Angeles vs. San Francisco in a playoff matchup for the ages, not to mention the second time in less than four months. In case you forgot, the Dodgers beat the Giants in the National League Division Series in October.

We didn’t forget.

“You wouldn't want it no other way. It’s like the perfect setting,” Rams defensive lineman Aaron Donald said. “Get ready for a dogfight.”

It has been a dream of the Rams to play the Super Bowl in their sparkling new stadium since it was built and opened by their owner Stan Kroenke in 2020. Their victory Sunday, on a breathtaking 63-yard drive that required just 42 seconds and consisted of two perfect passes from Stafford to Kupp, moves this vision just one step away.

But this is one damn doozy of a step. The nemesis 49ers have beaten them six consecutive times, and their fans recently filled SoFi such that the Rams have limited their available title game tickets to residents of the greater Los Angeles region.

Stop rolling those eyes. It’s a smart move. It’s a fair effort to create a greater home-field advantage. It’s like the Giants soaking the Candlestick Park basepaths to slow down Maury Wills in 1962, just not nearly as sleazy.

Fans of the 49ers cheer during San Francisco's overtime win over the Rams at SoFi Stadium on Jan. 9.
Fans of the 49ers cheer during San Francisco's overtime win over the Rams at SoFi Stadium in the regular-season finale Jan. 9. (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

“I can’t wait to see the fans show up in Mr. Kroenke’s house that he built,” Rams coach Sean McVay said. “It’s going to be a special opportunity.”

The 49ers are far more dangerous on the actual field, where they have reached this point by winning taut games at favored Dallas and Green Bay. The Rams are showing up after blowing out the overmatched Arizona Cardinals and then nearly, really, almost blowing it against the Buccaneers in what would have been one of the greatest collapses in franchise history.

“Man, I’m still trying to process everything,” Miller said. “Man, that was a crazy game.”

The Rams led 27-3 midway through the third quarter, yet they eventually lost four fumbles — two by running back Cam Akers — while Gay missed a 47-yard field-goal attempt.

They gave Brady an inch and he took it miles, connecting on a 55-yard touchdown pass to Mike Evans late in the fourth quarter and then directing the tying touchdown drive after Akers’ second fumble.

“I thought, this has got to be a dream,” McVay said. “But our guys just kept battling.”

The battle was finally reengaged with 42 seconds remaining and the Rams on their 25-yard line with one timeout. This was when Stafford showed why he was worth the massive trade to acquire him from the Detroit Lions last offseason, and when Kupp showed why he’s the best wide receiver in football.

“Nobody flinched,” McVay said. “Nobody blinked.”

Kupp beat cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting down the left side for a 20-yard catch of a perfect bullet. Then, running a route that Kupp called “Love of the Game,” he beat safety Antoine Winfield Jr. deep for a 44-yard catch of a soaring spiral to set up the game-winning field goal.

The play is called “Love of the Game” because, basically, the receiver just runs like the dickens and hopes to draw enough attention to free up other receivers.

“You’re never really getting the ball,” Stafford said. “You’re just clearing out some area.”

No, the play is not called “Catch of the Game,” but that’s what happened after Stafford saw Kupp break free and instinctively made the memorable throw.

“One of those ones where all you can do is just dig, dig out your route, look up for the ball and hope that it’s floating up there,” Kupp said.

Rams wide receiver Cooper Kupp is tackled by Tampa Bay safety Antoine Winfield Jr.
Rams wide receiver Cooper Kupp is tackled by Tampa Bay safety Antoine Winfield Jr. after hauling in a 44-yard pass to set up the winning field goal Sunday. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

It was, and the Rams were soon floating back to Los Angeles.

“It’s a whole lot more fun when you’ve got to make a play like that to win the game and just steal somebody’s soul,” Stafford said.

He could have speaking about Brady, who watched the ending bundled up on the bench and then walked off the field with no expression on his eternally young 44-year-old face.

And no, he wasn’t going to address rumors that, after 22 seasons and seven Super Bowl rings, he’s finally retiring.

“I’m not thinking about anything past five minutes from now,” he said.

He was still stuck, and might forever be stuck, on those final 42 seconds.

“Obviously we showed a lot of fight, but at the end of the day, you lose a game, you lose a game,” Brady said, adding, “It all sucks to lose in the end.”

The Rams narrowly avoided that ending and will now reward their city with another reminder of that delicious San Francisco sports rivalry. The roots of the Rams-49ers rivalry do not run as deep as Dodgers-Giants, but the matchup has deeply affected the Rams nonetheless.

They’ve played the 49ers 145 times, more than any other opponent. They’ve lost to the 49ers 75 times, more than any other opponent.

San Francisco coach Kyle Shanahan, who was once McVay’s boss when both were on the staff in Washington, has not only won six consecutive games against his former pupil but seven out of 10 overall.

The Rams and 49ers have met only once in the postseason, in the NFC championship game after the 1989 season, with the 49ers winning 30-3 in a game that featured the infamous phantom sack of Rams quarterback Jim Everett. The 49ers' defense was so intimidating, at one point Everett went down without being touched, a play that will live forever in the darkest corners of Rams lore.

The Rams emerged from a similar corner late Sunday afternoon — barely — and will now have a chance to rework some more of their history against their longtime nemesis.

“It’s a big challenge,” Stafford said.

Somebody call Cody Bellinger.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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