NEW ORLEANS -- He had remained unflinching in the face of fury, dialing up a must-have, fake-punt call on the second play of the second quarter and keeping his cool as the massive boombox known as the Mercedes-Benz Superdome reverberated with ear-splitting enmity and his team came back from deficits of 13-0, 20-10 and 23-20 to send the NFC Championship Game to overtime.
Sean McVay, the 32-year-old coaching prodigy who in two years had turned the Los Angeles Rams from laughingstocks to serious Super Bowl contenders, was largely impervious to the pressure being felt by 73,028 sore-throated fans and tens of millions of television viewers as Sunday's classic clash against the top-seeded New Orleans Saints progressed to sudden death and breaths drew short across Louisiana and Southern California.
Until this moment: The Rams, having already repelled a Saints scoring chance by intercepting Drew Brees on the fourth offensive snap of overtime, faced a second-and-13 from the Saints' 45-yard line -- and third-year quarterback Jared Goff had two players in his face and a decision to make. For a split second, McVay feared the worst, and the coach blamed himself for a dangerous and possibly predictable play call as he watched Goff release what seemed to be a hopeless pass into the right flat.
"I probably went to the well one too many times," McVay conceded later. "That was the play we scored the touchdown on (a one-yard toss to tight end Tyler Higbee that had cut the New Orleans lead to 20-17 late in the third quarter), and we'd run it a couple of other times, and Cam Jordan -- one of the best football players on Earth -- comes out unblocked and is in Jared's face and reaches up to block his throwing lane.
"And at that point, Jared basically was throwing blind -- and his release was just miraculous."
It sometimes takes acts that appear otherworldly to capture an epic game between worthy and evenly matched opponents, along with the requisite grit and luck; in this case, the Rams needed, among other things, a crucial non-call that kept the Saints from draining the clock for a short field goal that could have won the game in regulation, and a 57-yard field goal from Greg Zuerlein -- the longest game-winning kick in NFL postseason history -- to pull out a 26-23 thriller and advance to Super Bowl LIII.
In McVay's eyes, however, Goff's blind throw to Higbee, which the tight end turned into a 6-yard gain that pushed the Rams into Zuerlein's Lake Pontchartrain-sized range, was truly a sight to behold.
"I saw him open," Goff recalled later as he sat at his locker. "Cam and (blitzing safety Vonn Bell) were on me, and I knew I had to get it to (Higbee) -- I just didn't know how."
So Goff, as he fell backward absorbing the weight of both defenders, released what amounted to a no-look pass under great duress. How did he get it there?
"I don't know," he admitted.
Afterward, as the football-watching world digested the many storylines emanating from Sunday's game -- star halfback Todd Gurley's "sorry" day (his word, not mine) and virtual disappearance, as McVay instead rolled with recently acquired veteran C.J. Anderson; the third-down pass breakup by Rams cornerback Nickell Robey-Colemanlate in regulation, on which the officials seemed to miss two semi-obvious penalties (pass interference and helmet-to-helmet contact); and L.A. strong safety John Johnson's acrobatic overtime interception of an altered throw by the 40-year-old Brees, who may have been denied his best chance for a second Super Bowl ring -- McVay wanted to talk about the short completion that set up Zuerlein's game-winner.
"I don't think most people understand how incredible that pass was," McVay said. "For Jared to have the presence to do that, in that moment, it's hard to put that into words. But that's what he does. He does not get rattled, no matter the moment."
On Sunday, the same could be said of everyone on the Rams' sideline, including the head man with the headset. After a first quarter that played out in nightmarish fashion for the second-seeded visitors, the Saints seemed to be firmly in control of a scene so achingly cacophonous, McVay would call it "by far the loudest atmosphere I've ever coached in."
The juiced-up fans in the dome had good reason to keep roaring: The Rams had gone the first quarter without a single first down, and Goff had been intercepted on the team's third play from scrimmage, a short pass to Gurley that bounced off the running back's hands and was seized by Saints linebacker Demario Davis at the L.A. 17.
When Brees found tight end Garrett Griffin for a 5-yard touchdown to make it 13-0 with 1:35 left in the first quarter, and Goff threw to Robert Woods for no gain on third-and-5 from his own 30 on the first play of the second quarter, it began to look increasingly like the Saints, and not the Rams, would go marching into Atlanta to face the AFC champion (the Patriots, as we learned later on Sunday) in Super Bowl LIII.
"It was bad," Goff conceded later. "It could have been really bad. But we stayed calm, and we found a way."
In a move reminiscent of Saints coach Sean Payton's *chutzpah* in the previous Sunday's Divisional Round triumph over the defending champion Philadelphia Eagles in the Superdome, McVay called for a fake punt in his own territory that would have been ruinous had it failed. According to Rams special teams coach John "Bones" Fassel, "Only 13 people knew what we were doing" -- Fassel, McVay and the 11 Rams players on the field.
Punter Johnny Hekker took the snap and looked to his right, where reserve cornerback Sam Shields was Option A ... and B, C and D, for that matter.
Said Fassell: "It was him or nothing. They double-teamed our guy on the left, so we had to get it to Sam."
Hekker zipped a great pass to Shields, who made one defender (defensive back Justin Hardee) miss and slipped forward for a 12-yard gain. The Rams ended that drive with their first points -- a 36-yard field goal by Zuerlein, his first of four on the day -- and closed to within 13-10 on Gurley's 6-yard touchdown run with 23 seconds left in the first half, after a pair of brilliant Goff passes to receiver Brandin Cooks.
As McVay, later citing the "flow of the game," mostly rode with Anderson (16 carries, 44 yards) over Gurley (four carries, 10 yards), Goff (25 of 40, 297 yards) made key passes when he needed them most. He also used his legs at a key juncture: Trailing 20-17 with 6:49 to go, Goff rolled to his left and lunged for the end zone, but he was stopped 2 yards short. An Anderson run got L.A. to within less than a yard of a go-ahead score, but McVay -- in a move that belied his aggressive nature -- elected to send Zuerlein on for the easy, game-tying field goal.
"Usually, my gut tells me what to do in those situations," McVay said. "I trusted my gut -- something told me to kick it, and I felt, Let's get it to a tie game, our defense is playing well -- and it worked out. What happens is, players make you right."
Not surprisingly, McVay's players cite their coach's demeanor as their guiding force.
"He's our leader, man," said veteran cornerback Aqib Talib. "Our leader doesn't blink. It's 13-0, and Sean doesn't blink, period. He runs his offense, and he stays cool. You're gonna follow your leader. If he blinks, you get nervous. If he stays cool, you don't get nervous at all."
Back in early November, the then-undefeated Rams played the Saints in the same stadium and, after falling behind 35-14, rallied to tie the game at 35 before succumbing by a 45-35 score. That experience steeled McVay's players on Sunday -- even L.A.'s newest playmaker.
"Looking from the outside in, I watched that game in Week 9, and when they were down 35-14, they found a way to come back," Anderson said. "It's the grit -- that's what I've noticed about this team. It's what defines us."
Said McVay: "We had been there before. Being down on the road was something we were familiar with --something we could draw from in those moments today. And trust me, this was not easy. The Saints are sooooo good. Sean Payton is an incredible coach, and I don't even know what to say about Drew. This was a high-level football game. I have so much respect for Sean and the Saints."
With 1:49 left in regulation, Payton and the Saints briefly believed they had the game in hand. On Brees' third-and-10 pass to Tommylee Lewis, Robey-Coleman not only appeared to interfere with the receiver, but he also made helmet-to-helmet contact. Either penalty would have given the Saints a first-and-goal and allowed them to bleed virtually all of the remaining seconds away before sending Wil Lutz onto the field for a chip-shot game-winner.
Instead, Lutz put New Orleans ahead, 23-20, with a 31-yard field goal with 1:41 to go, and Goff coolly drove the Rams into range for Zuerlein's 48-yard, game-tying kick with 15 seconds remaining.
For the second time in 10 years, Payton, Brees and the Saints were headed for overtime in an NFC Championship Game at the Superdome. They emerged victorious in the '09 title game thanks to a game-turning interception of then-Minnesota Vikings quarterback Brett Favre. This time, Brees was the (future) first-ballot Hall of Famer who'd be responsible for the dream-crushing turnover.
On second-and-16 from the New Orleans 34, Brees took a shotgun snap, dropped back and released a pass for star receiver Michael Thomas -- but was hit on the throwing arm by L.A. edge rusher Dante Fowler Jr., acquired in a late-October trade with the Jacksonville Jaguars. The ball popped high into the air toward Thomas, but Johnson read it perfectly, falling backward onto his backside to make the interception at the Rams' 46-yard-line.
Now needing only a field goal to win the game, Goff promptly connected with Higbee on a 12-yard completion. Two plays later, with Jordan and Bell all over him, he threw to his close friend and tight end again -- this time blindly -- to set up a third-and-7 from the 39. Goff was then rushed into an incompletion, meaning McVay had another decision to make: Send on Zuerlein to try to win it with a long kick, but risk giving Brees the ball at his own 47 if the field goal missed, or punt?
This time, the coach wasn't flinching -- he was going for the biggest win of his life, one that would send him back to his hometown, Atlanta, for a chance at hoisting the Lombardi Trophy and realizing his biggest dream.
"Had to do it," said McVay, a man who has absolute faith in his team -- and a young quarterback who has him feeling downright Super.
"We were looking for a quarterback for how long on this team?" asked Rams guard Rodger Saffold, who has spent all nine of his NFL seasons with the franchise, the first six of them in St. Louis. "To have one now, to have him come through time after time and get progressively better and better -- think about that. It's scary to think about next year. He has so much poise, and he has Sean. These two are going to create a dynasty; I just hope I'm around to be part of it."
On a loud, magical Sunday in New Orleans, Goff had two Saints players in his face with the NFC title on the line, and he created something even his coach couldn't see coming. Call it blind faith; call it luck; or call it true grit.
If you're Sean McVay, you can even call it miraculous.