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Rams start strong, hold off Saints to surge forward in NFC playoff race

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                                Los Angeles Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford (9) throws a pass.

    ASSOCIATED PRESS

    Los Angeles Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford (9) throws a pass.

INGLEWOOD, Calif. >> Sean McVay turned the Los Angeles Rams’ already jubilant locker room into a party Thursday night with an announcement: The players are off until Tuesday, allowing them to spend the entire Christmas holiday with their families.

These surprising Rams earned their holiday with a surge of five wins in six games down the stretch, culminating in another impressive victory over a fellow NFC playoff contender.

Matthew Stafford passed for 328 yards and two touchdowns, rookie Puka Nacua had nine catches for a career-high 164 yards and a score, and the Rams surged forward in the race for a postseason berth with a 30-22 victory over the New Orleans Saints.

Kyren Williams rushed for 104 yards and a touchdown, and Demarcus Robinson added 82 yards receiving and another score for the Rams (8-7), who are above .500 for the first time since Week 1 after sitting at 3-6 in their bye week last month.

“We earned the opportunity to be at this point, in my opinion,” Stafford said. “We’ve had stakes since the bye, so I’m just proud of the way these guys have put their head down, gone to work and shown up.”

With its second win in five days during a self-described remodeling season, Los Angeles also jumped past Minnesota (7-7) and moved to sixth in the NFC standings in its bid to secure a wild-card playoff spot — and an increasingly possible opening-round showdown with the Detroit Lions, Stafford’s team for 12 seasons.

Los Angeles led 30-7 with 12:44 left in the fourth quarter after scoring on six of its first eight possessions, but allowed its opponent to make it close for the second straight game after a late 21-point lead turned into an eight-point win over Washington last weekend.

“It’s a short week, so it’s tougher to finish,” Rams safety John Johnson said. “Maybe the tank hit empty before we wanted it to, but now we can regroup, recharge and get back to it.”

Derek Carr threw TD passes to Juwan Johnson and A.T. Perry in the fourth quarter, with a 2-point conversion trimming the Rams’ lead to eight points with 3:53 to play. But Nacua recovered an onside kick and then got a key first down on a 9-yard jet sweep, and the Rams ran out the clock on their fourth straight home victory.

“We sure make it interesting, don’t we?” McVay asked. “But I love the resilience of this group. They just continue to show up. I thought there was a lot of really good stuff throughout the course of this game.”

Carr passed for 319 yards and hit Rashid Shaheed for an early 45-yard TD for the Saints (7-8), whose two-game winning streak ended with a painfully slow start and 458 yards allowed by their defense, which even coach Dennis Allen acknowledged was confused at times by the aggressive, complex pre-snap motions in McVay’s offense.

Although this loss hurts its chances, New Orleans is still in serious contention for a playoff spot and the NFC South title because it finishes the season with two games against division opponents, starting with Tampa Bay on New Year’s Eve.

“We certainly would have liked to start the game and play better, but we didn’t,” Allen said. “We’re not into the percentages. We let an opportunity go by, and now we have to get ready for the things we can control. We’ll regroup. We’re still in this thing.”

Stafford had yet another outstanding game down the stretch in his 15th NFL season. He has 14 touchdown passes and one interception in the Rams’ last five games, and he has thrown multiple TD passes in five straight games for only the third time in his career.

“He’s extremely difficult,” Allen said about Stafford. “He is playing at an extremely high level. Some of the throws I saw him make were pinpoint on his back foot and under pressure. There were some times we had some good coverage. Look, they were better than us tonight.”

Williams, who missed four games at midseason because of a sprained ankle, still became the Rams’ first 1,000-yard rusher since Todd Gurley in 2018 with his latest impressive burst. After he scored in the third quarter, he jumped onto a wall to hand the ball to his mother in the stands.

Nacua also had the most productive game in the last two months during his breakout rookie season, while Robinson caught a TD pass in his fourth straight game.

Los Angeles went 95 yards in 14 plays consuming more than half of the first quarter on its opening drive, which ended with a fourth-down TD pass from Stafford to Nacua. New Orleans had allowed just one touchdown in its previous 12 quarters of play.

The Saints had three drives end when they failed on fourth down in Rams territory. Chris Olave finished with nine receptions for 123 yards.

SHO’S HOUSE

Shohei Ohtani attended the game, greeting players on the sideline about an hour before kickoff and receiving a No. 17 Rams jersey. The two-way superstar and two-time AL MVP will now play his home games about 13 miles from SoFi Stadium after agreeing to a $700 million contract with the Dodgers this month. Ohtani was named The Associated Press’ Male Athlete of the Year for the second time in three years earlier Thursday.

INJURIES

Saints: RT Ryan Ramczyk (knee) missed his second straight game. … RB Kendre Miller (ankle) missed his sixth straight game.

Rams: Rookie DB Tre Tomlinson (hamstring) missed his first game of the season.

UP NEXT

Saints: At Tampa Bay on Dec. 31.

Rams: At the New York Giants on Dec. 31.

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