INGLEWOOD, Calif. (AP) — Travin Howard made a game-sealing interception with 1:09 to play, and the Los Angeles Rams rallied from a 10-point deficit in the fourth quarter to secure a spot in the Super Bowl at their home stadium next month with a thrilling 20-17 victory over the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC championship game Sunday night.
Cooper Kupp caught two touchdown passes from Matthew Stafford for the star-studded Rams (15-5), who began the fourth quarter down 17-7 after wasting a multitude of scoring opportunities.
But after Kupp’s second TD catch and a tying field goal on a drive extended by Jaquiski Tartt’s brutal dropped interception, the Rams drove for Matt Gay’s go-ahead, 30-yard field goal with 1:46 to play.
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 the fourth-year pro didn’t miss it.
“I’ve got total trust and confidence in that defense, man,” said Stafford, who passed for 337 yards in the third playoff victory of his 13-year career. “They’ve been unbelievable all year. Way to freakin’ ice the game. I loved it.”
Los Angeles will welcome the Cincinnati Bengals in two weeks for Super Bowl 56 in Rams owner Stan Kroenke’s multibillion-dollar SoFi Stadium.
After 54 consecutive Super Bowls without an NFL team playing in its home stadium, the Rams are the second team to do it in two seasons after Tampa Bay broke the streak last year.
“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.”
Kupp finished with 11 catches for 142 yards in his latest spectacular game, while Odell Beckham Jr. punched his ticket to his first Super Bowl with yet another strong performance by Los Angeles’ midseason acquisition, making nine catches for 113 yards.
The Rams won their second conference title in the past four years under coach Sean McVay and moved one step from the franchise’s second championship in the Super Bowl era.
Perhaps even more impressively, Los Angeles finally snapped a six-game losing streak against its San Francisco archrivals, who secured their playoff berth with an overtime comeback victory in Inglewood just three weeks ago.
“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,” McVay said.
The Rams have only won twice when trailing by double digits in the second half during McVay’s half-decade in charge — and both victories were in conference championship games.
Deebo Samuel and George Kittle caught touchdown passes from Garoppolo, who passed for 232 yards in a heartbreaker for the 49ers (12-8). While San Francisco’s defense faltered late, coach Kyle Shanahan also punted twice from the Rams’ half of the field and a third time from the 50, and that caution likely ended up costing the Niners.
San Francisco also will lament its late-game execution, 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.
In front of a crowd packed with fans of both California clubs, San Francisco held a 10-7 halftime lead after a litany of missed opportunities by Los Angeles.
The Rams got to the San Francisco 3 on their second drive, but K’Waun Williams alertly tipped an end zone pass to Jimmie Ward for a long interception return. The pick was Stafford’s first of the playoffs, but his fifth in three games against the Niners.
Los Angeles shook it off, got a defensive stop and made an 18-play, 97-yard drive consuming more than 9 1/2 minutes. Kupp capped it with his 16-yard TD catch in the back of the end zone.
But the Niners answered with yet another moment of brilliance of Samuel, who caught an inside screen pass and rampaged through the Los Angeles defense. The All-Pro dived to the pylon for his first career postseason scoring catch.
The Rams’ mistakes multiplied: Kupp and rookie Ben Skowronek dropped potential scoring passes on LA’s next drive, which ended with a missed 54-yard field goal by Gay.
Samuel shook off a massive, clean hit from Rams safety Nick Scott on San Francisco’s drive ending in Robbie Gould’s 38-yard field goal at the halftime gun for a 10-7 lead.
San Francisco’s defense stopped the Rams on downs near midfield in the third quarter, and Garoppolo hit Kittle for his second TD pass moments later. Los Angeles kept it close with a gritty drive ending in Kupp’s 11-yard TD catch early in the fourth quarter.
FUN WITH FLAGS
McVay unsuccessfully challenged two calls in the second half, failing to overturn a fourth-down spot for his offense or a potential Niners fumble. The decisions — and another wasted timeout before a first-down play — left Los Angeles with no timeouts and 10:01 to play.
49ers: LB Demetrius Flannigan-Fowles hurt his knee in the first half and didn’t return. … LB Dre Greenlaw injured his calf in the first half. … DE Arden Key was evaluated for a head injury at halftime.
Rams; TE Tyler Higbee injured his knee in the first half and didn’t return. … RB Cam Akers (shoulder) and WR Van Jefferson (knee) missed time in the first half, but returned.
49ers: The season is over. San Francisco made five NFC title games in the past 11 years, but won no rings.
Rams: A showdown with Joe Burrow and the impressive Bengals on Feb. 13.