NEW ORLEANS -- At the outset of the Los Angeles Rams' season, it was Super Bowl or bust.
And Sunday, inside a sold-out and deafening Mercedes-Benz Superdome, the Rams came from behind to defeat the top-seeded New Orleans Saints, 26-23 in the NFC Championship Game to advance to the Super Bowl. The Rams are the first road team to win a conference championship in six seasons.
Rams coach Sean McVay did not show signs of panic, even as the Saints scored 13 unanswered point in the first quarter. Jared Goff remained true to his even-keeled nature, completing 25 of 40 passes for 297 yards and a touchdown, with an interception.
And Todd Gurley II, well, was missing in action. After Gurley had one pass skip off his arms and into those of a Saints defender in their first series, then dropped a pass on third down early in the second quarter, the highest-paid running back in NFL history inexplicably spent a majority of the game on the sideline, save for a six-yard touchdown run, while veteran backup C.J. Anderson rushed for 44 yards in 16 carries.
Defensively, Aaron Donald and Ndamukong Suh created just enough pressure to make Drew Brees appear occasionally uncomfortable, as the Rams held the Saints, who averaged 31.5 points per game, to only 10 points in the second half.
Two years ago, the Rams took a calculated risk when they hired the youngest head coach in modern NFL history in the 30-year-old McVay, who came with a reputation as an offensive mastermind. And now McVay, at 32, is the youngest head coach to lead a team to a Super Bowl.
In his first season in Los Angeles, McVay orchestrated an amazing turnaround, turning a 4-12 team into a division winner. The Rams made the playoffs for the first time in 13 seasons.
With the overnight success of their head coach, and Goff still working on his rookie contract, the Rams’ organization seized an opportunity to double-down on their immediate future over the offseason.
With a roster that already featured the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year in Donald and the defending NFL Offensive Player of the Year in Gurley, along with Goff -- who made seven winless starts as a rookie before he helped the team to an 11-win season -- the Rams became active on the trade market and in free agency.
They traded for All-Pro cornerbacks Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib, then sent a first-round draft pick to the New England Patriots in exchange for Brandin Cooks, who would provide a much-needed deep threat for Goff. To put their lineup over the top, and make it clear -- the one and only goal this season was to win a Super Bowl -- the Rams grabbed Suh in free agency, on a one-year deal.
After bolting to an 11-1 start, the Rams hit a late-season slump that included back-to-back regular-season losses for the first time in McVay’s two seasons as coach. Goff appeared out-of-sync with his receivers, and McVay failed to rely on Gurley.
With two games remaining in the season, the panic button for the once-unstoppable Rams was hit. “Except for everybody in this building,” McVay said.
Instead, the Rams got back to work, and closed out the season with two dominant victories, before they took down the Dallas Cowboys for their first playoff win since 2004.
And on Sunday it was the Saints, who had dealt the Rams their first loss of the season in Week 9, that fell to a team determined long before games kicked off in September to go all-in for the Super Bowl.