NEW ORLEANS – The locker room was perfectly Rams, a mix of VIPs swirling plastic-cup martinis with jumbo olives, or highball glasses full of white wine against the backdrop of drab gray walls, the Styrofoam drop ceiling and the ugly patterned carpet full of blue and black stripes of different width.
The combination of glamorous and imperfect. Beautiful and strange. Hall of Famers and franchise legends like Eric Dickerson and Marshall Faulk holding court on one end of the room, throwing lighter fluid into the L.A. Rams bonfire, elevating a team from problematic transplant to Super Bowl heavyweight in the matter of one season. And on the other side of the locker room, a shirtless Nickell Robey-Coleman talking about how he got away with the most egregious non-call in modern playoff history. An outright mugging of Saints wideout Tommylee Lewis didn’t elicit a pass interference call, which altered the course of the final two minutes and handed the Rams a chance to stick around—Los Angeles ultimately forced overtime and then won 26–23.
“I just know that I got there before the ball got there and I whacked his a--,” Coleman said of the play.
When shown the video for the first time, he put his arm around a reporter, smiled, laughed and said, “Aw hell yeah, that was [pass interference].”
It was all so on-the-nose, the way a team can acknowledge some of the strange circumstances that extended their season, while also maintaining the aura of achieving something monstrous. How they could fall behind 13–0 in the first quarter, burn a fistful of timeouts because the quarterback couldn’t hear over the deafening noise at the Superdome and sit their suddenly-human star running back after a series of dropped balls and still manage to hang with the best team in football on the road with some fake punts, tipped balls and a few clutch throws.
“We believe in ourselves, we believe in how good we are,” left tackle Andrew Whitworth said, still unwrapping the tape from his fingers. “You know what? We’re gonna convince people one way or another.”
Despite their place consistently atop the NFL hierarchy this year, the Rams were always considered too incomplete to make it past this round—too young at head coach, too limited at quarterback, too porous and veteran-dependent on defense. They were a team destined to be defined by their up-tempo offense, but perhaps not by their ultimate success.
And yet here they were, predicting, as Robey-Coleman said, a plane ride home to Los Angeles so raucous that the aircraft would swerve and dip from the weight of a few dozen dancing football players.
“We dealt with adversity,” head coach Sean McVay said. “It kind of personifies what type of team this has been throughout the course of the year. Guys just kept competing. Kept swinging. It wasn’t always perfect. Guys just made enough plays.”
The climb for Los Angeles seemed too steep from here, pressed up against the guard rail in the front row of section 111 amid a pile of lifer Saints fans screaming at the Rams bench from a close distance. The Rams had minus-four yards on the first drive of the second half, which was followed by a 12-play Saints touchdown drive that expanded the lead to 10.
The fans in section 111 filled aluminum beer cans full of crud, turning them into high-volume maracas. Leroy Mitchell, better known to fans as the “Whistle Monsta,” can make a piercing sound with his mouth that is so loud, he claims to reach a higher decibel level than an airplane at takeoff. It could be heard from the top row of the SuperDome, more than 100 yards away. Fans watching the game on television mistook him for a referee’s whistle about 100 times.
“So I know, when I can’t hear myself, it’s loud,” Mitchell said. “If I can’t hear a 123-decible whistle, it’s loud in here. This is as loud as I’ve heard it.”
The group of season ticket holders in his section, who had gotten to know each other over the last 25 years and considered one another family, prided themselves on the noise meter that occasionally popped up on the JumboTron. They wondered if the relatively archaic shape of the dome made their feat more impressive than, say, the Seahawks fans who had a stadium built specifically to generate noise.
“How do they measure their decibels? Where do they measure them from?” Roy Nelson, a long-time season ticket holder said as he traced the outline of the dome’s interior with his finger. “See here, the sound has to go all the way up and come back down.”
It all blended together, this cacophony of cheers and screams and whistles, into something that sounded like the inside of a vacuum cleaner played through festival concert speakers. The Rams looked helpless on so many drives, with quarterback Jared Goff pressing his hands over the ear holes in his helmet just hoping to hear the play. They ripped the radio unit out and tried to tinker with the volume. They put blue tape over the ear holes to block out the sound. Goff turned into a carrier pigeon, at one point sprinting to his widest split receiver just to scream the play directly into his helmet.
“It was a chaotic game,” Goff said. “The way the crowd gets into the game, they definitely make an impact and did today.”
Added McVay: “I’ve never coached in an atmosphere like that, ever. It was so loud.”
The Saints, meanwhile, were moving the ball. Early on, they were forcing communication issues in the secondary and unleashing their star running back, Alvin Kamara, into a secondary that couldn’t figure out how to cover him. They kicked field goals on their first two drives and a touchdown on their third.
Well-timed blitzes were knifing into the backfield and stalling an already fragile run game (Todd Gurley finished with four carries for 10 yards, while C.J. Anderson averaged just 2.8 yards per carry on 16 attempts).
The Saints were doing everything, except putting the Rams away for good.
The moment the game ended on a 57-yard field goal by Greg Zuerlein, the stadium fell silent. It was as if all the noise from earlier in the day was sucked into a vent somewhere and blown outside, replaced only by the faint pattering of a few dozen Rams players exploding off the sideline to dance in enemy territory.
They walked into a locker room that was far too small to fit them celebrating together. Position groups took turns climbing onto a temporary stage where the NFC championship trophy stood. For minutes at a time, the trophy just sat by itself, untouched, as players bear hugged one another and adjusted their new divisional champion hats.
It wasn’t until after 6:30 p.m. CST that owner Stan Kroenke, wearing a pair of brown leather shoes with twin buckles, tiptoed around a sea of tape shards, compression underwear and football pads and walked up near the trophy and take a picture with his family flanking the silver hardware. No grandiose ceremony. No one left in the stands anyway, and just a few parents and close family friends lingering on the field waiting to see someone before the plane ride home.
Maybe they wouldn’t have planned it this way—and really who could? But maybe that’s what made it feel so perfect.
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