Every week this NFL season, we will celebrate the electric plays, investigate the colossal blunders, and explain the inexplicable moments of the most recent slate. Welcome to Winners and Losers. Which one are you?
Winners: Cooper Kupp and Aaron Donald
The game’s greats don’t always get to shine in the biggest moments. Sometimes, opponents craft game plans to remove them from the biggest moments; sometimes, they step aside as their teammates become Super Bowl legends. Sometimes, they play well all game, but have to sit on the sideline as a random kicker comes in and wins the big game. Sometimes, they even lose. But Sunday night, the league’s Offensive Player of the Year and arguably the greatest defensive player in the game’s history both displayed their dominance down the stretch to bring the Rams a Super Bowl victory.
Cooper Kupp became a legend in 2021. A quality part of the Rams’ receiving rotation in his first four seasons in the league, Kupp proved unstoppable in every possible way this season. He was exceptional in the slot; he was exceptional split out wide; he was exceptional on deep balls, short passes, and intermediate routes; he beat zones and man coverage. He led the NFL in receptions, yardage, and touchdowns, and had at least 90 yards in 19 of the Rams’ 21 games this season.
Sunday night, the Rams needed Kupp more than ever. Odell Beckham Jr. scored the game’s first touchdown, but he went down with a non-contact knee injury in the second quarter. His backup, rookie Bennett Skowronek, had a horrific drop for the second time this postseason, and didn’t seem particularly trustworthy. The Rams were already without wide receiver Robert Woods, who was injured in November, as well as starting tight end Tyler Higbee, who missed the Super Bowl after suffering an MCL sprain in the NFC championship game, and Higbee’s backup, Kendall Blanton, who left the game with a shoulder injury. And they needed to move the ball through the air—with five minutes left in the fourth quarter, they were trailing the Bengals 20-16.
And so they went to Kupp. Kupp got the ball on fourth down:
Kupp picked up 22 yards on a slant:
Kupp drew two separate penalties on the Bengals’ secondary to give Los Angeles the ball on the 1-yard line—and then Kupp scored the go-ahead TD:
On the Rams’ final drive, Kupp accounted for 45 of the team’s 79 yards. Matthew Stafford was 4-for-4 targeting Kupp, plus the receiver drew two penalties, plus he picked up a first down on the ground. (Plus, Kupp caught a touchdown that was wiped out due to penalty.) The Bengals knew they needed to cover Kupp. They just couldn’t.
Kupp’s touchdown gave the ball to the Bengals, who had 90 seconds to change their fate. A field goal would likely send the game to overtime; a touchdown could win the game. Trying to stop them was a Rams defense led by Aaron Donald, a three-time Defensive Player of the Year who has been named first-team All-Pro the last seven seasons. Great players have 10 sacks in a season; Donald had 10 sacks … from December 5 onward.
The Bengals got the ball near midfield, but the Rams forced a third-and-1. Cincinnati gave the ball to backup running back Samaje Perine, who seemingly had a clear path to a first down until he ran into Donald’s right arm. Donald casually yoinked the 240-pound running back backward before he could cross the line to gain, like a cartoon cat snagging a cartoon mouse by the tail.
On 3rd and 1 with the game on the line, the Bengals called a handoff to Samaje Perine to the right side of the line, right into Aaron Donald— Ben Brown (@BenBrownPL) February 14, 2022
This play call made zero sense pic.twitter.com/wsrM6unrFF
That brought up fourth-and-1, and Donald decided to win the Super Bowl. He easily evaded Bengals left guard Quinton Spain and got to Burrow almost instantly.
The Bengals’ play design had actually worked—you can see Burrow turn left and start to throw a pass to tight end C.J. Uzomah, who has come open past the first-down marker at the top of the screen—but to make the throw, Burrow would have needed to step into a space occupied by a charging Donald. He spun Burrow down, forcing a desperate, doomed heave to nobody. Super Bowl over. Rams win.
This Super Bowl wasn’t a matchup between an unstoppable force and an immovable object. The Rams had both—one on each side of the ball—and the Bengals had neither. And in the biggest moments of the season, we got to see why the league’s best players are the league’s best players.
Loser: The Bengals’ Achilles Heel
This Bengals squad seemed to be the team of destiny. They won close game after close game, riding their swaggerful hotshot QB to glory. They won their first playoff game in 31 years … then won a road playoff game as an underdog to make their first AFC championship since the 1988 season … then they won that, again on the road, again as an underdog, to give them a chance to win their first Super Bowl in franchise history.
But coming into Sunday night, there was one obvious reason it would be difficult for them to win the championship: Cincinnati had one of the worst offensive lines in the league. Burrow was sacked more than any quarterback in the NFL this season; the team had to bench their right guard during the AFC championship game. The Rams, meanwhile, have arguably the best pass-rushing unit in the league, featuring Aaron Donald, Von Miller, and Leonard Floyd.
Sure enough, that cost the Bengals the Super Bowl. Burrow was sacked seven times, tied for the most in Super Bowl history.
ESPN uses a metric called pass block win rate, which calculates how often blockers are able to sustain their blocks for more than 2.5 seconds. Sunday night, the Bengals were able to do that only 14 percent of the time, the lowest figure of any team in any game all season long. And they did it in the Super Bowl.
The Bengals ran five plays on third- or fourth-and-1 … and got stopped on all but one of them. They could not move forward.
We knew the Bengals’ offensive line sucked when Burrow suffered a season-ending injury as a rookie; we knew the Bengals’ offensive line sucked heading into last year’s NFL draft; we knew the Bengals’ offensive line sucked when Burrow was sacked more than any quarterback in the NFL this season; we knew the Bengals’ offensive line sucked when Burrow was sacked nine times against the Titans in the divisional round. I’m not sure how they could’ve fixed it—not letting Andrew Whitworth sign with the Rams in 2017 would’ve been a pretty good start—but they didn’t. Burrow was sacked 19 times in the postseason; nobody else had ever been sacked more than 14 times in one postseason.
And as young and lovable as these Bengals are, a return to the Super Bowl isn’t guaranteed. They’re in a conference with Patrick Mahomes and Josh Allen. They’re in a division with Lamar Jackson. It’s entirely possible that these beautiful Bengals will never get closer to winning a Super Bowl than they did Sunday night, when their most glaring flaw kept them from getting the championship.
Winner: Evan McPherson
I’m 31 years old and have back pain—so Sunday night’s Super Bowl halftime show, featuring the greatest hip-hop hits of the late 1990s and early 2000s, was the coolest thing I’ve ever seen. From Dr. Dre banging out the iconic opening to “Still D.R.E.” on a piano, to Mary J. Blige telling 200 million people that she demands a dancery free of hateration, to 50 Cent performing “In Da Club” while suspended upside down like a middle-aged vampire bat—just absolute perfection.
Unfortunately, if you actually go to the Super Bowl, you don’t necessarily get to see the halftime show. The L.A.-themed set was one of the coolest in Super Bowl history … but it was not exactly see-through. What about the fans on the wrong side? I guess, uh, watch on the SoFi Stadium’s extremely fancy video boards. And if you’re actually playing in the Super Bowl? I guess you have to watch it on YouTube later.
Unless you’re the kicker. Bengals kicker Evan McPherson decided to spend halftime out on the field watching the performance:
McPherson staying on the field to watch the half time show is awesome haha pic.twitter.com/Nhp3RDMMJG— Jomboy (@Jomboy_) February 14, 2022
And you know what? Why wouldn’t he? HE’S THE KICKER! He doesn’t need any halftime adjustments or pep talks. He just needs to go out there and kick. Skipping the halftime speech didn’t have any effect on his game whatsoever, as McPherson made all four kicks he attempted and kept Los Angeles inside the 25-yard line on all of his kickoffs. The Bengals lost, but he did his job, and he got to see the big show. He had one shot—one opportunity—to really experience the Super Bowl. And he captured it, instead of letting it slip.
It’s gotta be tough being inactive for the Super Bowl. You work hard week-in, week-out, you make it to the Super Bowl, you fly out and go through all the practices and media sessions and then you just … can’t play. If your team wins, you get to say you’re an NFL champion for life. If they lose, well, you can’t, and there’s nothing you could have done about it.
One inactive player was determined to make a difference. Vernon Hargreaves III, a former first-round pick by the Buccaneers, had fallen out of the Bengals’ cornerback rotation and hadn’t seen the field since the wild-card game against the Raiders. So he decided that he would take the field after a first-half interception:
Unfortunately, doing so is against the rules. He was flagged for excessive celebration, which cost the Bengals 10 yards as they attempted to drive for a score late in the first half. I don’t really think Hargreaves deserved a penalty—he didn’t really delay the game in any meaningful way by taking the field—but it was a pretty easy call for the refs. It’s pretty easy to spot the only guy not wearing a uniform as he sprints onto the field. When you’re inactive, you don’t even look like a member of the team, and all you can do is cost them.
After winning the Super Bowl, Rams safety Eric Weddle announced he’s retiring, again. It’s not much of a surprise—the bearded safety had been retired for two seasons until last month, when he rejoined his last NFL team as they ran into depth issues after a season-ending injury to safety Jordan Fuller. Remarkably, Weddle proved himself game-ready and earned the on-field headset to be the Rams’ defensive leader in the Super Bowl. He tore a pectoral muscle in the game, but still managed to play all 61 defensive snaps. Now he can retire in peace, as a champion.
But it’s possible that other Rams will follow suit. The most likely option is Andrew Whitworth, the dominant left tackle who became the NFL’s oldest player after Tom Brady’s retirement. While he’s officially undecided, he just won the Super Bowl and the Walter Payton Man of the Year Award in the span of a few days. He’s one of the league’s most beloved players, as much for who he is as how he plays. He’s older than his head coach, Sean McVay—it’s time to rest.
As it turns out, McVay might be thinking along the same lines. There are rumors that McVay is contemplating leaving the team; although he’s still under 40, coaching is a ridiculous grind, and he’ll obviously be welcomed back to the league after a stint away, especially now that he’s won a Super Bowl.
And Sunday night, NBC reported that Aaron Donald would consider retirement if he won. If he’s gone, he dominated up until his final snap. It’s clear how much this Super Bowl meant to him. Here he is last year, weeping after the Rams’ playoff loss to the Packers, when he was hampered by injury. He had given 100 percent of his body, and it allowed him to be the best he could possibly be—but it wasn’t enough. Football does that. It forces players to give 100 percent, every snap, every week, every year, and it still often isn’t enough. This year, we saw Donald crying as a champion. He gave everything, and finally got the thing he’d been trying to get. Maybe the question isn’t “Why retire?” It’s “Why push for more?”
It makes sense that there is an air of finality around these Rams. They went all in on the chance to win in 2021, building the NFL equivalent of a superteam with blockbuster trades and in-season pickups. These Rams had a One Last Job vibe, like a squad from a heist movie. They recruited a bunch of experts from around the country to fulfill specific tasks, they had a guy pulled out of retirement, and they had a grizzled vet who is too old for this shit. And they had the best guy in the business, who knows how hard this job is, and knows that he can’t keep doing it forever. Well, they got their big score. Maybe there’ll be a sequel—or maybe this really was One Last Job.
Loser: The Midwest
The Super Bowl was in L.A., and the Rams were playing in their home stadium—but according to pretty much all reports, SoFi Stadium was filled with Bengals fans, eager to see their city win a championship for the first time since the Reds won the World Series in 1990. Instead, they lost to a Rams team whose city was notably more excited for the Lakers’ and Dodgers’ championships less than 18 months ago. Bengals fans spent a lot of money to be sad, and now have to fly back to Cincinnati, where it is currently 14 degrees Fahrenheit, according to Google.
But the Rams are filled with people who flew to L.A. and had a good time. Like Matthew Stafford, who was traded from the Lions to the Rams last March, and finally got to win a Super Bowl in his 13th season. Many in Michigan rallied around Stafford’s Super Bowl run, even printing up “Detroit Rams” shirts. To a certain extent, I get it—Stafford never did anything wrong to the Lions, and it’s nice to see him be happy. On the other hand—Jesus Christ, that is depressing. I thought Patriots fans rooting for Tom Brady to win a Super Bowl after he left their team in free agency was kinda sad, but at least they got to look back on the six Super Bowls he won in New England! Stafford’s instant success in Los Angeles after suffering for so long in Detroit pretty clearly proves that “winning the Super Bowl” and “being a Detroit Lion” will remain mutually exclusive forever. Detroit fans watching their longtime hero thriving elsewhere are simply wishing that they, too, could escape the permanent suck of Lions fandom and enjoy life for once.
And there’s another cursed Midwestern fan base that … wasn’t as excited to see their former player thriving. The Rams also picked up Odell Beckham Jr., who scored the game’s first touchdown before getting injured. It was his seventh touchdown in 12 games with the Rams—as many as he scored in 29 with the Browns. Cleveland fans seem to feel he never gave 100 percent for their team, and was eager to be out the door. Beckham doesn’t seem to care, as he exploded in sheer joy after becoming a champion:
I guess the lesson is: Only people in L.A. get to be happy. All the players toiling in sadness in the Midwest must wait to be called upon by a team in a warmer climate; all the fans of their original teams must decide whether to cheer or sneer when their onetime stars finally get a chance to enjoy life.
Winner: The Jefferson Family
Congratulations to Taylor Rapp, who proposed to his girlfriend—now, fiancée!—after winning the Super Bowl! Every other guy in the country is officially fighting for the second-best Valentine’s Day gift; Rapp won this one pretty clearly.
Rams safety Taylor Rapp wins a Super Bowl ring, then gives his long-time girlfriend a ring of her own. What a day! pic.twitter.com/7NHoMEUXrK— Lindsey Thiry (@LindseyThiry) February 14, 2022
But you know what? Cliché. Been done before. Seen it once, seen it a million times. Find me a guy who hasn’t won the most prestigious championship in their sport and proposed to his girlfriend while getting showered with celebratory confetti, right?
And now, the game has been changed—thanks to Van Jefferson’s wife, Samaria. She attended the Super Bowl, but didn’t stick around to see her husband win the big game. She went into labor during the second half and was rushed to a local hospital. The Rams wide receiver won the championship but left the postgame ceremony.
Having a Championship Baby requires so much more coordination than a championship proposal. Who knows when Rapp decided to go for the ring-ring combo—he didn’t even know he’d be playing in the Super Bowl until two weeks ago! Was he just going to wait his entire career for a Super Bowl to propose?—but we have a pretty good idea when the Jeffersons began prepping for this one. Probably sometime around May 13, 2021. (Odell Beckham Jr. and his partner were apparently similarly occupied.)
The Rams delivered in the clutch on Sunday—but Samaria Jefferson literally delivered in the clutch. Her timing and execution were absolutely incredible. The Rams began prepping for this season in August, but Samaria spent nine months ensuring that these two incredible moments happened back-to-back on Sunday night. Congratulations to all the Jeffersons on their Super Bowl Sunday accomplishments!