Sunday’s NFC Championship Game wasn’t pretty. It featured sloppy, tipped interceptions, weird playcalling, and at least one egregiously terrible call from the officials.
But it was an instant classic — a nailbiter of a game that swung on a pair of two-minute drills and was eventually settled in overtime. The Rams proved they could win a sloppy, relatively low-scoring affair. And it gave the Saints a legitimate gripe with the league after a game-changing non-call.
What were all the mistakes? Let’s run through them step by step. We’ll move in chronological order, which means all the best, dumbest stuff is waiting at the end.
The Rams tried to cover Alvin Kamara with a defensive lineman
Los Angeles could have made a statement by forcing a punt on the Saints’ first possession in the Superdome. New Orleans had already converted a third-and-8 into a new set of downs, but a stop on third-and-3 would quiet a frenzied crowd and set the tone for an upset on the bayou. Instead, LA got its wires crossed and 290-pound defensive lineman John Franklin-Myers wound up covering the 2018 NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year.
It was a mismatch Drew Brees noticed immediately.
The 40-year-old quarterback lofted a dime to cap Kamara’s wheel route, resulting in a 21-yard gain that set the home team up in field goal range. The Saints couldn’t turn that into a touchdown, but the ensuing field goal turned what could have been a message-sending defensive stand into an early deficit for Los Angeles
Michael Brockers fell for the oldest trick in the book
The Saints faced fourth-and-2 from the Rams’ 10 yard line when Drew Brees trotted out from the sideline and took his place behind center. While there’s a chance New Orleans was lining up to run a play, Brees had every intent on seeing if he could find a rube along the LA defensive front to barge across the line of scrimmage and give his team a new set of downs without any risk attached.
And then Michael Brockers came strolling up to the line, looking like an in-over-his-head tourist stepping up to a sidewalk game of three-card monte. Brees had no problem taking his vacation money:
Michael Brockers, you big dummy. One play later, the Saints turned this free first down into a five-yard TD pass pic.twitter.com/gM4PWuZPfD— Christian D'Andrea (@TrainIsland) January 20, 2019
One play later, Brees hit third-string tight end Garrett Griffin for a five-yard touchdown pass that gave New Orleans a 13-0 first quarter lead.
Marcus Peters set a pitch-perfect pick ... on his own teammate
Garrett Griffin’s second career reception was a touchdown that gave his Saints a double-digit lead in the NFC title game. So how did an anonymous third-string tight end find the stage to shin in the playoffs? Well, he got a valuable assist from Marcus Peters — who plays for the Rams.
The Rams just ran a pick... on themselves pic.twitter.com/s46DmwTOkl— FOX Sports: NFL (@NFLonFOX) January 20, 2019
Todd Gurley toughest challenge came from Todd Gurley
Gurley only had four touches in the first 29 minutes of Sunday’s NFC title game. That’s shocking — but the way he was playing, it was easy to understand why.
Gurley’s first two carries resulted in a combined -2 yards. His first two targets went as poorly as they could have, too. His first resulted in a Demario Davis interception and three Saints points to cap the Rams’ opening possession.
His second target came on another third down play. This one forced the Rams to kick a 36-yard field goal instead of earning another shot at a tide-turning touchdown in the second quarter.
Route: good— Cameron DaSilva (@camdasilva) January 20, 2019
Todd Gurley with his second drop of the game pic.twitter.com/aHLwjr1MA3
And he couldn’t be relied on when he had the ball out of his hands, either.
Gurley whiffed on that blitz pickup against Eli Apple and then got away with a clear hold.— Bill Barnwell (@billbarnwell) January 20, 2019
Fortunately, Gurley was able to earn some redemption as the second quarter ticked to a close. His six-yard touchdown run pushed his total output into the black and crept the Rams to within 13-10 at halftime.
Using Taysom Hill at quarterback wasn’t a good idea
The Saints’ third-string quarterback has been a unique offensive weapon at Sean Payton’s disposal all year. He’s a hell of a running back, a force on a special teams, and he even caught a touchdown pass from Drew Brees on Sunday.
That was a good way to use the 221-pound Swiss Army knife. Putting him at quarterback and splitting Brees out wide wasn’t.
The Saints tried several times to put Hill at quarterback, but it ended up being too cutesy and blew up in New Orleans’ face over and over. It almost created a turnover for the Saints when a read option play with Hill and Alvin Kamara caused a fumble.
Aaron Donald is a cheat code, part 4,325 pic.twitter.com/Y6Ive1l7xj— Cameron DaSilva (@camdasilva) January 20, 2019
Hill can do so many things for the Saints, but it probably would’ve been smart to just stick with Brees — the NFL’s all-time leading passer — at quarterback. Fortunately for the Saints, however, it turns out there’s at least one good non-fake punt way to use Hill:
noted NFL wide receiver Taysom Hill pic.twitter.com/kXgt74Gm96— Christian D'Andrea (@TrainIsland) January 20, 2019
The Saints shot themselves in the foot, then the referees amputated
The Saints were working to salt the clock away before kicking a game-winning field goal after a 41-yard pass to Ted Ginn Jr. set up a brand new set of downs at the Rams 13-yard line. Three runs would have wound the clock down to approximately one minute left and a 31-yard field goal attempt even if they’d all been stuffed at the line of scrimmage.
Instead, Sean Payton dialed up a too-aggressive pass play on first down that bounced to Michael Thomas, stopping the clock. A stuffed run burned the Rams’ second timeout and brought up third-and-10 with 1:48 to play.
Convert it, and New Orleans would all but seal up the game. Blow it, and LA would get the ball back with more than 90 seconds to either tie the game or take the lead.
And then this happened:
That’s Tommylee Lewis getting absolutely lambasted by Nickell Robey-Coleman with both a helmet-to-helmet hit and one that looked a whoolllllle lot like pass interference. Or, as our own Alex Kirsher described it:
Tommylee Lewis was running a little wheel route on third-and-10 from the Rams’ 13-yard line, with the score tied at 20 in the final two minutes of the NFC Championship. He was about to catch it just shy of the first-down marker when Robey-Coleman annihilated him.
There’s a decent bit to the PI rule, but the biggest thrust of it is that “contact by a player who is not playing the ball that restricts the opponent’s opportunity to make the catch” is not allowed. Well, that means you can’t destroy a receiver well before the ball arrives if you, yourself, are not looking at the ball or making any effort to catch it.
Robey-Coleman admitted he’d gotten away with one after the game.
Robey Coleman: “Yes, I got there too early. I was beat, and I was trying to save the touchdown.— Robert Klemko (@RobertKlemko) January 20, 2019
The Rams returned the favor
Los Angeles stuck with viper-like efficiency, driving 42 yards in five plays to set up first-and-10 at the Saints’ 33 yard line. That left 45 seconds to gain extra yardage for a game-tying field goal attempt, or plenty of time for a few shots at the end zone.
Instead, the Rams ran the ball once and attempted a pair of short passes before settling for a 48-yard field goal to send the game into overtime.
Michael Thomas picked an awful time to lose sight of the ball
Thomas has been the Saints’ most explosive receiver in 2018, an All-Pro presence who has carried the New Orleans offense when it has needed him the most. But when Dante Fowler brought the pressure that caused Brees to loft up a floater, he was unable to showcase the vision that made him one of the game’s most dangerous threats, instead getting caught up hand-fighting with John Johnson.
.@iamjohnthethird interception?— Los Angeles Rams (@RamsNFL) January 20, 2019
CONFIRMED! ☝️ pic.twitter.com/dTilfv4eQ0
The Rams rode a combination of skill and luck as Brees’ aborted pass landed right in the chest of a falling Johnson, who had the wherewithal to haul in the pass from his back. That ended the Saints’ opening overtime possession — and set up Greg Zeurlein’s game-winning 57-yard field goal that ended New Orleans’ season in front of a stunned home crowd.