By Mario Villegas
INGLEWOOD — There’s an old adage that football games are won or lost in the fourth quarter and that proved to be the case for the Rams Jan. 30.
They will play the Cincinnati Bengals in Super Bowl LVI Feb. 13 at SoFi Stadium because they dominated the San Francisco 49ers in the final 15 minutes of the NFC Championship Game.
However, it didn’t look that way in the third quarter as San Francisco appeared to be on its way to a seventh consecutive victory over their Southern California rivals and their second Super Bowl in three years and eighth all time.
The 49ers had built a 17-7 lead after halftime to the delight of the large contingent of their red-clad fans who made up about half of the boisterous, capacity crowd of 73,202 at SoFi Stadium.
But the destinations of thousands of Super Bowl ticket packages suddenly changed zip codes.
Quarterback Matthew Stafford led the Rams back in the fourth quarter, directing them on three consecutive scoring drives that produced a touchdown and two field goals. His 11-yard touchdown pass to Cooper Kupp early in the fourth quarter ended a seven-play, 75-yard drive.
Matt Gay’s 40-yard field goal tied the score and his 30-yarder with 1:30 left won the game.
Stafford delivered the performance the Rams envisioned when they acquired him from Detroit in a blockbuster trade last year. He spent 12 long and unspectacular years in Detroit. The Lions made the playoffs only three times and lost all three games.
The Rams sent two first-round picks, a second-rounder and quarterback Jared Goff to the Lions, who are one of only four teams to never play in a Super Bowl, in exchange for Stafford.
As Fox Sports’ Joe Buck said during the Jan. 30 telecast, the Rams spent a lot of capital for Stafford to have the type of game he had. He overcame Lionitis to complete 31 of 45 passes for 337 yards and one interception.
“We’ve had high expectations all year [and] done nothing but do everything in our power to try and meet those,” Stafford said. “It’s a driven group we have in there.”
However, a potential game-changing interception didn’t happen as the 49ers’ Jaquiski Tarrat couldn’t catch Stafford’s errant pass deep down field midway through the fourth quarter. The ball went through his hands and fell harmlessly to the turf. Stafford responded by completing a 29-yard pass to Odell Beckham Jr. on the next play to sustain a drive that produced Gay’s score-tying field goal.
“This game wasn’t perfect,” Stafford said. “It wasn’t easy in some spots, but we found a way to win the game. That’s what it’s all about. I’m just happy and proud to be a part of this group. And we got some more work left to do.”
The Rams will play in their second Super Bowl in four years and their fourth all time. They will attempt to win their first championship ring as the L.A. Rams after having won their only Lombardi Trophy as the St. Louis Rams in 2000. They will be the second team in league history to play in the Super Bowl they will host in their own stadium, following Tampa Bay last year.
When asked about playing the Super Bowl at home, Stafford said, “I just want to play in the dang thing. I don’t care where it is.”
Meanwhile, Aaron Donald, the quiet leader of the Rams’ defense, urged his teammates to play harder. They heard him loud and clear and responded by suffocating the 49ers in the fourth quarter. They went after 49er quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo with a strong pass rush that was absent for most of the game.
As a result, they limited the 49ers to 39 yards of offense in the final period, and no positive yardage in their last two series. San Francisco’s third and last possession ended on an interception by Rams’ linebacker Travin Howard.
Donald forced the turnover as a desperate Garoppolo tried to slip away from Donald’s grasp and lobbed an ill-advised pass beyond the reach of running back JaMycal Hasty. Howard picked it off to secure the win for Los Angeles.
The pass may have been the last for the much-maligned Garoppolo as the 49ers’ quarterback.
The eight-year veteran summed up the game accordingly: “It was a tough game to lose. The Rams are a good team. You have to tip your hat to them.”