Instead, the potential interception popped up in the air for about half a second. Still, the defender wasn’t concerned.
“When I first hit it, I noticed it kind of slowed down, so that made it easier,” Hill said. “After that, it was just … ball game.”
On the rebound, Hill caught the pass from Arizona Cardinals quarterback Chris Streveler, then raced to the end zone. He started near the left sideline with four teammates in front of him. Then, he zigzagged to the right and outpaced Cardinals in the open field.
During the sequence, he said he heard his teammates barking, “Somebody’s behind you!” At one point, he lost his footing, but collected himself before he scored.
“As I’m running, that’s a long distance,” Hill said after the Rams defeated the Cardinals 18-7 at SoFi Stadium to earn an NFC wild-card playoff game at Seattle on Saturday. “Your legs start getting heavy, but I had to catch up and get right.”
In a game with playoff implications that featured backup quarterbacks from both teams, Hill’s 84-yard interception return for a touchdown proved the difference. It highlighted another strong defensive performance for the Rams, one where the unit created a turnover for the first time in two games and generated a safety.
The Rams surrendered 240 yards of offense, and got sacks from defensive lineman Morgan Fox, outside linebacker Leonard Floyd and two from outside linebacker Samson Ebukam. Star Cardinals receiver DeAndre Hopkins posted four catches for 35 yards on 10 targets. Cornerback Jalen Ramsey shadowed Hopkins on 21 of his 28 routes, giving up two catches for 28 yards on seven targets, according to Next Gen Stats.
“They were unbelievable all day, they’ve been unbelievable all year,” coach Sean McVay said. “They’ve really been the strength of this team and I thought they showed up in a big way.”
Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray suffered a lower-leg injury last week in a loss to the San Francisco 49ers but started Sunday against the Rams. In the first series, he absorbed a sack from Fox, a starter in place of Michael Brockers, who on Thursday was placed on the Reserve/Covid-19 list. That aggravated the injury, and Murray did not return until the fourth quarter.
Rams backup quarterback John Wolford, who started in place of the injured Jared Goff, had a pass intercepted on his first throw that led to a Cardinals touchdown and a 7-0 lead. The Rams converted a field goal and created a safety in the second quarter, however, and trailed 7-5 just before halftime before Hill’s big play.
Hill’s game-changing play began when he looked at Streveler’s eyes on a pass intended for receiver Trent Sherfield on a streak route.
“I was watching the quarterback the whole time, and he threw it on a line and gave it to me,” said Hill, a six-year pro from Oregon.
The touchdown gave the Rams a 12-7 lead heading into the third quarter. It was also Hill’s third score of the season. He returned an interception 35 yards for a touchdown Dec. 6 against the Cardinals, and returned a fumble 20 yards for a score Nov. 29 against the 49ers.
“We just became best friends this year,” Hill said of his trips to the end zone. “You never get tired of your best friend.”
The jokes and celebratory mood were a stark contrast to the somber postgame news conferences the last two weeks. In that timeframe, the Rams defense failed to generate turnovers, a statistic defenders said they took personally because it did not help the team’s offense, which has been struggling.
The defense consistently ranked near the top of the league in most statistical categories this season, and entered the week No.1 in fewest-yards allowed. But through half of December, the defense pointed to takeaways as an area of improvement.
“We’ve been trying to get back on that turnover board, and to get one today was big,” Floyd said. “It was just a great play. We need more of those going into the playoffs.”
It’s a performance the unit will want to continue in their playoff game against the Seattle Seahawks at Lumen Field, the third matchup with the NFC West rivals this season and the second in as many weeks.
“It’s another opportunity to play football,” Hill said. “Everybody is 0-0 now, so we have to take it one day at a time and keep working.”