A Hollywood Ending
When Stan Kroenke moved the Rams back to Los Angeles from St. Louis, he envisioned building a new stadium that would host the Super Bowl and bring his team back to prominence.
That vision came true last night as the talent-bought Rams won their first Super Bowl in L.A. (and second overall), becoming the second team in a row to win it in their home stadium, squeaking by the Cincinnati Bengals, 23–20.
On the opening possession, Los Angeles got a first down but only gained one total yard before a punt. Cincinnati got it at their 42-yard line and went into a 4th-and-1, going for it at midfield and failing. (It’s only fitting a coach went for the stupid “analytics” approach in the Super Bowl with how the season went and, of course, didn’t convert.) With a short field handed to them, the Rams got into the end zone in six plays, ending with a 17-yard touchdown pass from Matthew Stafford to Odell Beckham Jr., getting the first score of the big game.
After both teams traded three-and-outs, Joe Burrow found his pal, Ja’Marr Chase, on a sweet 46-yard pass and one-handed catch over All-Pro cornerback Jalen Ramsey, only to settle for a field goal after getting in the red zone. Stafford answered right back with a six-play drive that ended in a TD pass to his favorite target, Cooper Kupp. However, the extra point failed on a botch snap by the punter, Johnny Hekker, who threw an interception on the play that ended with a few laterals and a tackle.
Like last game when they were down 21–3, the Bengals got going, this time being just 13–3. Cincinnati answered with a drive that lasted over seven minutes, ending in a halfback pass from Joe Mixon to Tee Higgins for the 6-yard score.
On the next drive, the Rams lost star receiver, Beckham, to a knee injury, putting more pressure on Kupp who lost his previous counterpart receiver, Robert Woods, in November. A couple of plays later, Los Angeles got to the Cincinnati 43, facing 3rd-and-14. Stafford then scrambled to his left, pointing to his deep man, Van Jefferson, and threw a long pass to him but was intercepted by John Bates III in the end zone. An unsportsmanlike conduct penalty by a Bengals player not in uniform pushed the offense back to their own 10 before going three-and-out. With 30 seconds left in the half at their own 41, the Rams weren’t able to capitalize as they went three-and-out, punting before the half.
I’m not sure if head coach Zac Taylor gave his team a strong message in the locker room or if “Who Dey Nation” was inspired by the old-school hip hop artists at halftime, but they came to play in the second half right out of the gates. On the first play from scrimmage, Burrow stepped up in the pocket, evading pressure and finding Higgins on a long 75-yard pass for a touchdown, taking their first lead, as the latter got away with an uncalled facemask penalty committed against Ramsey. Then on the next scrimmage play, Stafford threw a pass over the middle that went off Ben Skowronek’s outstretched left hand, gifting an interception to former Chidobe Awuzie.
At the Rams’ 31, the Bengals faced a short field and this time converted a 4th-and-1 but still ended up settling for another field goal to keep it a one-possession game at 20–13. Los Angeles then answered with a field goal, getting its first points after Beckham’s injury.
What followed was an avalanche of punts as both teams each had three of their own three-and-outs until Cincinnati gained a first down but ended with the same result. Both quarterbacks were injured during the sequence but kept playing. Stafford’s left foot was snapped back on a sack by the heavy-set D.J. Reader. Rams pass rusher, Von Miller, had Burrow in his grasps before Hollins finished him off, twitching his right knee. (It was his left knee that tore its ACL last season.)
During the scoreless drives, the Rams’ defensive line started to finally wake up against the sub-par Bengals’ offensive line, getting four sacks on Burrow. And a crucial drop by Higgins, who took his eyes off the ball, on third down with over six minutes left gave L.A. more hope.
Down 20–16, Stafford, who had two game-winning drives in each of his last two contests, saw the opportunity with all the pressure on him to bring a Super Bowl to L.A. — and stood firm. On 4th-and-1 at their own 30, the Rams went for it and converted off an end around by Kupp. Working their way down the field with a mix of pass and run, Los Angeles got to the Cincinnati 8 with 1:55 left.
After two straight incompletions, Stafford threw another one to Kupp but drew a holding penalty on Logan Wilson, giving them a first down at the 4. On the next play, Stafford went to Kupp again in the back of the end zone, holding on for a touchdown, but it was nullified because of an offensive hold. However when Kupp caught the pass, he got nailed by safety Von Bell in the helmet, drawing an unnecessary roughness penalty, redoing the down.
That’s when Kupp drew another penalty, this being pass interference, which put them at the 1. After a QB sneak by Stafford burned a Cincinnati timeout, the veteran threw the game-winning touchdown to his man, Kupp.
Burrow aka “Joe Cool” was looking to make a third-straight game-winning (or tying) drive with 1:25 left. He hit his first two receivers, getting to midfield without issue. On 2nd-and-1, Burrow threw an incompletion deep pass to….no one. On 3rd-and-1, Samaje Perine was stopped by All-Pro defensive tackle Aaron Donald. Then on 4th-and-1 (as I was unaware until I saw the down) with the game on the line, Burrow looked to pass and was spun around by Donald before getting rid of it, only for the ball to short of Perine. Donald, arguably the best player in the NFL, pointed to his ring finger, gesturing for his prize as the Rams’ defense held up after the game-winning drive by Stafford.
Stafford completed 26 of his 40 passes for 283 yards, three touchdowns, and two interceptions. Kupp had eight receptions for 92 yards and two touchdowns, winning Super Bowl MVP. Burrow went 22-of-33 for 263 yards and a touchdown. Higgins had four receptions for 100 yards and two touchdowns. Chase had five receptions for 89 yards. Neither team could run the ball well (Rams 43, Bengals 72). Burrow was sacked seven times, just two shy of the divisional round game.
Neither team was perfect. The Bengals had critical penalties (and got away with one) and couldn’t protect their quarterback in the second half. Stafford threw two interceptions and his team had a botched snap on an extra point, which could’ve bit them had the Bengals kicked a field goal at the end of regulation. But at the end of the day, the Rams made the plays they needed to make with heart.
Stafford, a №1 pick who wears №9, outdueled Burrow, who has the same pick and jersey number. It was destiny. The Highland Park (Dallas) product, who went to school with a friend of mine and has four daughters akin to me having two, was brought to L.A. for this stage. Yes, he takes risks and sometimes they bite him with interceptions, but he also makes a lot of plays and can be pretty clutch.
Kupp redeemed himself after tearing his ACL in 2018 and not being in that Super Bowl. Beckham, the troubled receiver who has had issues wherever he’s been, was happy and fit in, especially after Woods’ injury. His story is similar to Antonio Brown’s last season where was signed midseason and won a championship. The question is: Will the joy wear off next season when things may not work out as well?
Head coach Sean McVay, the offensive genius who was outcoached in his last Super Bowl, becomes the youngest to win a Lombardi Trophy at 36. He’s getting married this summer and might step away at some point, seeing how it impacted his family when his grandfather coached.
It’s only fitting Donald made the play to win the game like he did the previous contest. He doesn’t get anywhere near as much attention as a quarterback or any skill player, but if it didn’t matter, he would have a couple of MVPs by now. He’s only 30, but he might walk away as he said so over the weekend.
As for the Bengals, they were happy to be there and wanted it bad but should be proud of themselves for the run made. No one expected this, even when the postseason started. Burrow and this offense along with the defense is young with plenty of years ahead of contending if they can stay together. The other “Joe Cool(s)” were Namath and Montana, who both won Super Bowls, so I think Burrow will get one eventually.
It’s sad to see football season ending as we won’t see real football (no, not USFL) for another six months, but this isn’t a year-round sport. It takes a toll. I don’t see any reason for a casual fan to hate the Rams or Bengals going into the game yesterday. It was a great game, probably the best in four or five years. Many fans should be happy Tom Brady and/or New England didn’t win or be in the Super Bowl. Plus, he finally retired if that helps anyone.
A long offseason is ahead, but what builds up in these months is what determines the future. Time to go fishing.