The Los Angeles Rams are returning to the playoffs for the fourth time in Sean McVay's five seasons as coach after clinching a berth Sunday with a 30-23 victory over the Minnesota Vikings inside a lively U.S. Bank Stadium.
"It's one step," McVay said after the game. "To be able to get into the playoffs, it's something you never take for granted."
With the win, the Rams improve to 11-4 and move into first place in the NFC West over the 10-5 Arizona Cardinals with two games remaining in the regular season.
The Rams travel next Sunday to Baltimore to face the Ravens (8-7) and close out the schedule at home against the division-rival San Francisco 49ers (8-7), who have defeated the Rams in the teams' past five meetings.
"We've obviously guaranteed ourselves a spot," said quarterback Matthew Stafford, who will be making his first playoff appearance since 2016. "Would love to make that spot as good as we can make it from here on out and control where we sit in the seedings, and I think it's important to go into it playing good football."
After a difficult November that saw the Super Bowl-hopeful Rams trend in the wrong direction during a three-game losing streak, they rebounded to sweep their four-game December schedule despite a trying set of circumstances.
Ahead of a Week 14 Monday Night Football showdown against the then-division-leading Cardinals, the Rams began moving players, including in the hours ahead of kickoff, onto the reserve/COVID-19 list.
At one point over the past two weeks, the Rams had 29 players unavailable, which caused the NFL to reschedule a Week 15 matchup against the Seattle Seahawks from last Sunday to Tuesday, which also resulted in a quick turnaround to face the Vikings (7-8).
When it appeared that the Rams were on track toward some normalcy, rainstorms that moved through Southern California forced alterations to practice plans, and in a final twist, starting left tackle Andrew Whitworth was placed on the reserve/COVID-19 when it otherwise appeared that all starters would be available against the Vikings.
"It's been a wild 2½ to three weeks," Stafford said. "Then we've had some adversity in some games as well. Today was adverse as we could make it."
In the win over the Vikings, Stafford completed 21 of 37 passes for 197 yards and a touchdown with three interceptions. It was Stafford's fourth multiturnover game this season, with the three previous all resulting in losses, and it was his first game with three interceptions since Week 1 of the 2018 season against the New York Jets.
"I think what says as much about Matthew Stafford as anything is it wasn't perfect, I put him in some bad spots, but in some key crunch-time known-passing situations, he delivered in a big way," McVay said, noting a key third-down, 6-yard touchdown pass to Odell Beckham Jr. in the fourth quarter, followed by another third-down, 37-yard completion to receiver Cooper Kupp that eventually led to a field goal and put the game out of reach, 30-20, with 6:18 to play.
"Less than spectacular in the pass game," Stafford said. "Three turnovers is going to hurt us in a lot of games, so it's nice to come out with a win, no doubt about that. But I can play better. We can play better."
Behind an offensive line that had to adjust without Whitworth and lost center Brian Allen in the second quarter to a knee injury, running back Sony Michel produced his second 100-rushing yard performance of the season as he ran for 131 yards and a touchdown on 27 carries, and Kupp continued his NFL Offensive Player of the Year-worthy season with his 11th straight game of producing more than 90 receiving yards. Kupp caught 10 passes for 109 yards and a touchdown.
"I'm just glad we won the game, and at the end of the day I just want to execute my job over and over again," said Kupp, who leads the NFL in catches, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns. "A game like today, a lot of my responsibility was helping out in the run game and be able to get hands on defensive ends and work my way to linebackers ... my job is to execute whatever is asked of me."
The defense held the Vikings to 2-for-12 on third down, as quarterback Kirk Cousins went 27-for-38 with a touchdown and interception, which was snagged off a tipped pass in the end zone by backup linebacker Travin Howard on the same series he entered the game due to an ankle injury suffered by starter Ernest Jones.
"The defense was outstanding," McVay said. "T-Howard's pick was big. They made [the Vikings] earn everything."
On special teams, returner Brandon Powell provided a needed spark in the second half after Stafford threw interceptions on back-to-back series. Powell returned a 40-yard punt 61 yards for a touchdown, marking only the second punt return for a touchdown in the NFL this season and the first for the Rams since 2015.
"A few months ago I was at Miami at my house on the beach reading a book, that was my life every day for three weeks," said Powell, a 2018 undrafted free agent who signed with the Rams' practice squad last month before he was promoted to the active roster as a returner four games ago. "Now I'm here with the Rams, going to the playoffs."