Rams stun 49ers with clutch plays late to win NFC title

AP photo by Marcio Jose Sanchez / Los Angeles Rams linebacker Travin Howard intercepts a pass intended for the San Francisco 49ers' JaMycal Hasty during the second half of the NFC title game Sunday in Inglewood, Calif.

INGLEWOOD, Calif. - After Matthew Stafford's wife leaped into his arms, he took a moment to soak it all in: this victory, this confetti-strewn field, this remarkable year of his life.

One year to the day after the veteran NFL quarterback agreed to join the star-studded Los Angeles Rams for a shot at a ring, their chances were dimming rapidly when they headed into the fourth quarter of the NFC championship game down by double digits to the rival San Francisco 49ers.

But with three gritty scoring drives followed by a cathartic defensive stand, the Rams secured the right to stay home for the Super Bowl - and Stafford shone the brightest in this impressive constellation.

Travin Howard made a game-sealing interception with 1:09 to play at SoFi Stadium, and the Rams roared back in the fourth quarter to secure a spot in Super Bowl LVI at the same site with a thrilling 20-17 victory Sunday night.

"You can't write the story any better," Stafford said. "I'm at a loss for words. I'm just having a blast playing ball with these guys and, shoot, we've got one more at the home stadium. Let's get it done."

Los Angeles will welcome the Cincinnati Bengals to Rams owner Stan Kroenke's multibillion-dollar venue on Feb. 13 with the NFL title on the line. The Bengals rallied from 18 points down to beat the Kansas City Chiefs - who had reached the past two Super Bowls - and win the AFC title game in overtime at Arrowhead Stadium.

The Rams won their second conference title in four years, moving within a win of the franchise's second championship in the Super Bowl era. And after 54 consecutive Super Bowls without a team playing in its home stadium, the Rams are the second to do it in two seasons after the Tampa Bay Buccaneers broke the streak last year.

Stafford passed for 337 yards and hit Cooper Kupp with two touchdown passes for the Rams, who began the fourth quarter down 17-7. But after Kupp's second touchdown catch and a tying field goal on a drive extended by Jaquiski Tartt's brutal drop on a potential interception for San Francisco, the Rams drove for Matt Gay's 30-yard field goal to go ahead with 1:46 to play.

The Los Angeles defense then won it when Aaron Donald got hold of Jimmy Garoppolo and forced him to fling a pass toward JaMycal Hasty. The ball caromed high in the air off Hasty's hands and came straight down to Howard - and it was secured by the fourth-year pro who only recently took a prominent role for the defense.

"I've got total trust and confidence in that defense, man," said Stafford, a 13-year NFL veteran and former No. 1 draft pick out of the University of Georgia who had never won a playoff game before this month. "They've been unbelievable all year. Way to freaking ice the game. I loved it."

Stafford, 33, toiled with the Detroit Lions for a dozen seasons that yielded an 0-3 showing in playoff games. A trade sent Jared Goff - the quarterback the Rams selected with the No. 1 overall pick in 2016 - and future draft choices to Detroit for Stafford, and Los Angeles has made other big moves since then to strengthen its championship bid.

Kupp, a third-round pick in 2017, finished with 11 catches for 142 yards in his latest spectacular game, while veteran receiver Odell Beckham Jr. - a midseason acquisition from the Cleveland Browns - helped punch the ticket to his first Super Bowl with yet another strong performance, making nine catches for 113 yards.

"The story could not be written any better for us to play them in the NFC championship and then shut the door," Beckham said of the 49ers, their West Division rivals who had beaten them six straight times heading into Sunday.

That included the regular-season finale just three weeks ago, when San Francisco secured its playoff berth with an overtime comeback victory at SoFi Stadium.

"I think we knew what a great team this was, but our guys genuinely knew that what happened in the previous six games had nothing to do with what was going to happen when we kicked this one off," said coach Sean McVay, who has led Los Angeles to the playoffs in four of his five seasons.

photo AP photo by Jed Jacobsohn / Los Angeles Rams receiver Cooper Kupp (10) gets past the San Francisco 49ers' Jaquiski Tartt, left, and K'Waun Williams (24) during the second half of the NFC title game Sunday in Inglewood, Calif.

The Rams have won only twice when trailing by double digits in the second half during McVay's tenure, and both victories were in conference championship games.

George Kittle and Deebo Samuel caught touchdown passes from Garoppolo, who passed for 232 yards in a heartbreaker for the 49ers. While San Francisco's defense faltered late, coach Kyle Shanahan also elected to punt twice from the Rams' half of the field and a third time from the 50, and that caution likely ended up costing the visitors.

San Francisco will lament its lack of offensive execution late in the game, but no mistake was bigger than the dropped interception by Tartt, who could have put the Rams in dire straits moments after McVay wasted his final timeout on a failed challenge early in the fourth quarter.

The 49ers were in the NFC title game for the fifth time in 11 years, but the most recent of their five Super Bowl titles was won in January 1995.

"I felt confident the entire game," Kittle said. "Felt we were calm. They just made real good plays. The Rams have superstars all over the field."

Those stars started slowly: Stafford threw a tipped end-zone interception on the Rams' second series, and the 49ers answered a subsequent 97-yard scoring drive by the Rams with yet another moment of brilliance from Samuel. The All-Pro caught an inside screen pass and rampaged through the defense, diving to the pylon for his first touchdown catch in a playoff game.

The Rams appeared to be in real trouble when San Francisco's defense stopped them on downs near midfield in the third quarter and Garoppolo hit Kittle for his second touchdown pass moments later, but Los Angeles kept it close with a gritty drive capped by Kupp's 11-yard touchdown catch early in the fourth quarter.

"Both teams had their opportunities," Shanahan said. "I thought we had them on the ropes, but we gave them a chance. When you give those guys too many chances, eventually they are going to make them."