NFL

Rams determined to punch Super Bowl ticket and end losing streak vs. rival 49ers

Matthew Stafford will look to beat the San Francisco 49ers for the first time this season and lead the Rams into the Super Bowl with a win in Sunday’s NFC championship game. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

The Rams have done nearly everything to fulfill their mandate to play in Super Bowl LVI at SoFi Stadium.

Before the season they traded for star quarterback Matthew Stafford and running back Sony Michel. At midseason they traded for star linebacker Von Miller and signed star receiver Odell Beckham Jr., who helped the Rams win the NFC West.

Last week, they defeated Tom Brady and the defending Super Bowl-champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Now, here they are, in the NFC championship game.

All that stands in the way of the Rams playing in the Super Bowl is the San Francisco 49ers, a team that has beaten the Rams twice this season and six times in a row dating to 2018.

The Rams aim to end that streak on Sunday at SoFi Stadium — and take the final step to play in the Super Bowl at home.

“At this point it’s just a story,” Beckham said of the Rams’ struggles against the 49ers. “And either you choose to buy into it, or you choose to rewrite it …. What better way to rewrite the story than to win the NFC championship against the team who you’re 0-6 against, or whatever the record is?

“It just doesn’t seem to have a better ending than to make it to the Super Bowl.”

It’s been more than three decades since the Rams had the chance to defeat the 49ers in the NFC championship game. In January 1990, the 49ers routed the Rams 30-3.

Sunday’s game is not expected to be as one-sided for either team.

In November, the 49ers defeated the Rams 31-10 at Levi’s Stadium. Last month, in the regular-season finale at SoFi Stadium, the Rams blew a 17-point lead and lost 27-24 in overtime.

The 49ers have run the ball effectively against the Rams and kept quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo out of harm’s way with a quick-strike passing attack that features multitalented receiver and running back Deebo Samuel and tight end George Kittle among others. A pass rush led by ends Nick Bosa and Arik Armstead asserted itself in the finale against the Rams and in playoff victories over the Dallas Cowboys and Green Bay Packers.

San Francisco 49ers defensive end Nick Bosa rushes the quarterback during a wild-card playoff win.

San Francisco 49ers defensive end Nick Bosa rushes the quarterback during a wild-card playoff win over the Dallas Cowboys on Jan. 16. (Brandon Wade / Associated Press)

The star-studded Rams rely on Stafford to trigger an offense that features record-setting receiver Cooper Kupp and Beckham, tight end Tyler Higbee and running backs Cam Akers and Michel. Three-time NFL defensive player of the year Aaron Donald anchors a defensive front that includes Miller and edge rusher Leonard Floyd.

“I don’t think there’s many secrets,” 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan said. “There’s not much things we can surprise them with and same with them with us, which I think is kind of the most fun way.

“It’ll be two really good teams and a really good football game where you can’t really trick each other. You have to go out and beat somebody.”

Stafford agreed.

“Not a bunch of secrets,” he said. “Just who can step up to the plate and make the plays when we need to make them.”

So, what must the Rams do to beat the 49ers?

“There’s always little things that you look at in each of these games and you say, ‘OK, what’s the formula? What’s the recipe for success?’” Rams coach Sean McVay said. “And in a lot of instances, it’s not necessarily rocket science.”

For the Rams, that means avoiding turnovers, especially early ones by Stafford. McVay said that the Rams must be efficient on early downs, create turnovers and convert on third down and inside the 20-yard line.

“It’s not like there’s some crazy formula that we’ve got to draw up or anything like that,” Kupp said. “We’ve just got to execute and do our jobs.”

The Rams defense must be “extremely physical” and set and maintain that tone throughout the game, cornerback Jalen Ramsey said.

“It’s making sure we maintain playing the game on our terms, at our own pace with the same energy, effort and execution and all that good stuff for all four quarters,” he said, “not just two quarters.”

The matchup provides McVay another opportunity to finally defeat Shanahan, his friend, mentor and nemesis.

Rams defensive end Aaron Donald, bottom left, celebrates after a defensive stop against the Seattle Seahawks on Dec. 21.

Rams defensive end Aaron Donald, bottom left, celebrates after a defensive stop against the Seattle Seahawks on Dec. 21. (Kevork Djansezian / Associated Press)

McVay, 36, this week dismissed the notion when asked if the 42-year-old Shanahan was in his head.

“Kyle is an excellent coach,” McVay said. “They have great players, great coaches, good schemes. It’s why they’re in the NFC championship.”

Shanahan said it was “silly” to frame it as if he had some kind of mental hold on McVay.

“I know he doesn’t feel that way, and he knows I don’t feel that way,” Shanahan said, adding, “I think that’s kind of pretty ridiculous.

“I don’t give coaches that much credit.”

Nevertheless, the pressure will be on both coaches and their players as their teams play for a chance to return to the Super Bowl.

In the 2018 season, the Rams defeated the New Orleans Saints in overtime 26-23 in the NFC championship game and advanced to play the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LIII. The Rams lost 13-3.

The next season, the 49ers defeated the Packers in the NFC championship game 37-20 and advanced to play the Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl LIV. The 49ers lost 31-20.

“This is a different type of football here that’s going on this week,” Donald said when asked about playing the 49ers for the third time, “This is one game away from the Super Bowl against an opponent that we’re both used to.”

In the season finale, 49ers fans all but took over SoFi Stadium, forcing the Rams to go to a silent snap count. A large 49ers contingent is expected again on Sunday, but Donald said he anticipated that Rams fans would also be heard.

The Rams will be ready for the moment, Donald said.

“There’s no better stage,” he said, “than what we have right now.”

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.


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