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Sports: Rams on brink of Super Bowl despite struggling to close wins

Titans hope third time is charm as top seed in AFC playoffs

  Titans hope third time is charm as top seed in AFC playoffs No team ever needed a first-round bye in the playoffs more than the Tennessee Titans, who used a record 91 players this season, most ever in a non-strike season. The Titans (12-5) edged perennial power Kansas City (12-5) for the top seed and the lone bye in the AFC playoffs. The week off also gives running back Derrick Henry, the 2020 AP NFL Offensive Player of the Year, more time to practice for an expected return for the divisional round. He broke his right foot and underwent surgery more than two months ago and started practicing with the Titans this month.

LOS ANGELES (AP) — For the third straight week, the Los Angeles Rams took a huge early lead.

  Rams on brink of Super Bowl despite struggling to close wins © Provided by The Canadian Press

For the second time in those three weeks, they subsequently gave it all away.

The Rams (14-5) got away with it in the divisional playoff round in Tampa Bay, thanks to Matthew Stafford and Cooper Kupp impressively setting up Matt Gay's winning field goal as time expired on their 30-27 victory.

“All the adversity and all of the things that we did or, give them credit, they forced some of those plays to get back in the game, (but) I never sensed any sort of panic,” coach Sean McVay said. “I think there was some frustration, which was understandable. But I thought the guys just kept playing. They kept battling. That's what a great team does.”

NFL playoff bracket 2022: Full schedule, TV channels, scores for AFC & NFC games

  NFL playoff bracket 2022: Full schedule, TV channels, scores for AFC & NFC games With the NFL playoff bracket for 2022 set, here is the entire postseason game schedule complete with TV channels for all playoff games, live stream info and more.The path to the postseason in Week 18 was wild. The Colts, who were widely expected to earn one of the two Wild Card berths that had yet to be clinched, were defeated by the Jaguars. That knocked them out of the AFC playoff picture while opening the door for the Steelers to make it in after their win over the Ravens. So long as the Chargers and Raiders don't tie on "Sunday Night Football", the Steelers will go to the postseason in what is presumed to be Ben Roethlisberger's final season.

But two weeks before that, the Rams paid for their profligacy in yet another loss to the San Francisco 49ers, who just happen to be their opponent in the NFC championship game this weekend.

The Rams are on the brink of a Super Bowl berth in their home stadium because they've won seven of their past eight games with a comprehensively strong offense and a rapidly improving defense.

Their biggest remaining issue is closing out wins: They've allowed 18.7 points per game in the second halves of their past three games, with the offense's turnovers and the defense's slippage playing roughly equivalent roles.

“If we play our best game, we feel like we can go in there and win any game we play,” said left tackle Joseph Noteboom, who was excellent against the Buccaneers. “It's just we have to go in there and play our best game.”

Stafford propels Rams past Cardinals 34-11 in playoff rout

  Stafford propels Rams past Cardinals 34-11 in playoff rout INGLEWOOD, Calif. (AP) — Matthew Stafford passed for 202 yards and two touchdowns and ran for another score in his first playoff victory, and the Los Angeles Rams roared out of the wild-card round with a 34-11 win over the Arizona Cardinals on Monday night. Odell Beckham Jr. and Cooper Kupp made touchdown catches for the NFC West champion Rams (13-5), who will visit the defending Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday for a spot in the NFC championship game. Los Angeles advanced in the postseason for the third time in the last four years under coach Sean McVay.

The remainder of the Rams’ path to a championship does not leave Inglewood: They’ll become the first team to host a conference title game in that year’s Super Bowl stadium when the 49ers visit on Sunday, and the big game is Feb. 13.

If the Rams can figure out how to play 60 minutes of solid ball, they could have a chance against the 49ers. Los Angeles hopes the drama of its experience in Tampa Bay and against the Niners earlier this month will be motivation to avoid all that excitement in the Rams' second conference title game in four years.

WHAT'S WORKING

Stafford is the upgrade that the Rams sought when they traded Jared Goff to get him nearly a year ago. After a near-perfect performance in the wild-card round against Arizona, Stafford put on a clinic in clutch football in Tampa highlighted by his majestic 44-yard completion to Kupp in the waning seconds. Stafford has completed 74.5% of his passes in the postseason for 568 yards and four touchdowns without an interception. His passer rating is 131.5, nearly even with Patrick Mahomes' 131.7.

Improving defense propels LA Rams onward to Tampa Bay

  Improving defense propels LA Rams onward to Tampa Bay LOS ANGELES (AP) — Matthew Stafford was nearly flawless in his first career playoff victory. Odell Beckham Jr. made huge plays as a receiverand as a passer in his own first postseason win. Yet the Los Angeles Rams (13-5) are headed to Tampa Bay on Sunday to play for a spot in the NFC championship game because their defense came up with a playoff performance that suggests this up-and-down team can hang with anybody. Aaron Donald, Jalen Ramsey and their defensive teammates held Kyler Murray and the Cardinals to 183 total yards and didn't allow them to convert a third down in the Rams' 34-11 victory over Arizona in the wild-card round.

WHAT NEEDS HELP

The Rams were not a fumble-prone team in 2021, with their five lost fumbles tied for the second fewest in the NFL. Their four giveaways in Tampa are a worrying aberration, but no sign of a significant trend yet, even though Cam Akers and Kupp both lost the ball at crucial moments and helped to give away that big early lead.

Ball security — and synchronization between Stafford and center Brian Allen — will be an emphasis in practice yet again.

STOCK UP

The Rams' offensive tackles were outstanding. Noteboom might have played his way out of the Rams' price range as a free agent this spring after he filled in for injured Andrew Whitworth and gave a dominant performance at left tackle. Noteboom and right tackle Rob Havenstein allowed one pressure apiece while blocking Jason Pierre-Paul and Shaq Barrett. If Whitworth isn't ready to return from his knee injury Sunday, the Rams won't be worried.

STOCK DOWN

The Rams' depleted secondary continues to hang on by its fingernails. Tom Brady passed for 329 yards, with 135 yards of that coming on nine completions to receivers guarded by cornerback Darious Williams. Safety Nick Scott came up with a huge interception, but the Rams' pass rush deserves ample credit for Brady's 24 incompletions — and Jimmy Garoppolo is likely to be much harder to pressure than Brady.

Rams make it 3 of 3 for road teams, beat Brady's Bucs 30-27

  Rams make it 3 of 3 for road teams, beat Brady's Bucs 30-27 The Los Angeles Rams made it 3 for 3 for road teams in the NFL's divisional playoff round, setting up an all-NFC West conference championship game with San Francisco by edging defending Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay 30-27 Sunday. They did so in spectacular fashion after a mammoth flop in which they blew a 27-3 second-half lead. Matthew Stafford hit unanimous All-Pro receiver Cooper Kupp with a 44-yard pass in the final minute, then Matt Gay made a 30-yard field goal to win it. Yes, all three divisional round games have been won on game-ending field goals. If this was the final game of Tom Brady's illustrious, title-filled career, it was a tough way to go out.

INJURED

Noteboom injured his pectoral muscle in the Rams' final drive. He will be monitored this week. ... Rookie LB Ernest Jones has a chance to return from injury this week, McVay said. Jones injured his ankle in Week 16. ... Whitworth (knee) and S Taylor Rapp (concussion) are on track to play this week, McVay said. ... Gay said he didn't injure himself during pregame warmups, contrary to a suggestion on the NBC television broadcast. He was short on a 47-yard field-goal attempt that left him puzzled, but he attributed it to a particularly gusty crosswind at exactly the wrong time.

KEY NUMBER

1 — The number of teams in NFL history to win a game after losing four fumbles and blowing a 20-point lead. The Rams were up 27-3 with four minutes left in the third quarter, and they were up 27-13 and had the ball with four minutes left in the fourth.

NEXT STEPS

Breaking the hex held by the Niners and Kyle Shanahan over McVay. The Rams' season comes down to a showdown with a division rival that has beaten them six straight times and seven of 10 in their head coaches' concurrent careers.

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Greg Beacham, The Associated Press

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