No plan is perfect, especially in the NFL. In the week before Super Bowl LVI, Rams general manager Les Snead explained there’s “good luck on bad luck” that’s inherent to team building. Over the years, the Rams have purposefully and aggressively collected stars with the goal of perennially competing for—and winning—Super Bowls. Through the first 58 minutes of Sunday’s contest, the Rams’ plans nearly crumbled numerous times. But with under two minutes left, Los Angeles found itself 1 yard away from their goal.
Matthew Stafford and Cooper Kupp delivered. The Rams quarterback, whom the team traded a haul of premium picks for last year, dropped back and lobbed Kupp a pass. The triple-crown winning, All-Pro receiver contorted his body and clutched the ball in the end zone, ending an agonizing 40 minute-long touchdown-less streak for the Rams offense and giving L.A. a 23-20 lead.
IT'S BEEN COOPER KUPP ALL YEAR.— NFL (@NFL) February 14, 2022
HE DOES IT AGAIN. #RamsHouse
: #SBLVI on NBC
: https://t.co/K02y40b5Nu pic.twitter.com/02QlsZmirX
Then, Aaron Donald put the icing on the cake. After the ensuing kickoff, the Bengals quickly drove to midfield. With 43 seconds remaining, Joe Burrow, a frequent orchestrator of thrilling victories, needed to convert a fourth-and-1 to give Cincinnati a chance. But as Burrow dropped back, Donald breached the pocket. He spun Burrow around and the quarterback’s desperate pass fell incomplete, cementing Los Angeles’s win.
AARON FRICKIN' DONALD.#RAMSHOUSE #SBLVI pic.twitter.com/KbmZYWmjN9— NFL (@NFL) February 14, 2022
“We talk about competitive greatness all the time, being your best when your best is required,” coach Sean McVay said after the game. “For the offense to be able to find a way, and then for Aaron [Donald] to be able to finish it off, it’s poetic, man.”
These Rams were built to hoist the Lombardi Trophy. They were built to hoist this Lombardi Trophy, the one awarded at the end of Super Bowl LVI, hosted at the $5 billion stadium the team calls home. Their stars—well, those left standing—came through when it mattered, lifting the team to immortality. Receiver Odell Beckham Jr. scored the game’s opening touchdown and added a 35-yard catch. But early in the second quarter, the midseason free-agent acquisition injured his left knee—he tore his ACL in the same knee in 2020—on a non-contact play and didn’t return. With receiver Robert Woods and tight end Tyler Higbee already on the sidelines, the Rams’ starry receiving group was suddenly diminished to just Kupp. On the final drive, Kupp shined brighter than he has all season.
L.A. methodically moved the football, with Stafford finding Kupp for gains of 8, 22, and then 8 yards again. The Rams faced third-and-goal from the Bengals’ 8-yard line with 1:47 left when Kupp drew a crucial defensive holding penalty on linebacker Logan Wilson. With a fresh set of downs, Stafford found Kupp again at the back of the end zone, but a pair of penalties negated the touchdown. Stafford went back to Kupp again on the next play, this time drawing a pass interference in front of the pylon. Two plays later, Stafford and Kupp finally achieved their breakthrough, capping a 15-play, four-minute and 48-second drive. Kupp, who recorded eight catches for 92 yards and two scores, earned the Super Bowl MVP trophy as a result.
“That’s hard work,” Stafford said. “That’s hours together. I just thank coach for putting it [like], ‘Hey, Matthew: You and Coop are gonna get this done.’ He kept calling plays for him, kept finding ways for him to get the ball and he made unbelievable plays. That’s what he does.”
The Rams believed Stafford was the missing piece who could push them over the top. But Donald and Kupp represent the foundation of this era for the franchise. On defense, Los Angeles surrounded Donald with stars such as Jalen Ramsey, Von Miller, and Leonard Floyd, but those players faced adversity of their own Sunday night.
On the first play out of halftime, Ramsey was positioned to defend a Burrow pass to Tee Higgins, but Higgins yanked the corner’s face mask, sending Ramsey tumbling to the grass and Higgins sprinting for a 75-yard touchdown. It marked the longest pass Ramsey has allowed in his entire career. Ja’Marr Chase also had his way with Ramsey, beating him for a 46-yard catch late in the first half that helped set up a Bengals field goal.
BENGALS COME OUT FIRING AFTER HALFTIME— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) February 14, 2022
TEE HIGGINS GIVES CINCY THE LEAD
Yet the Rams defense never folded. Their pass rush was relentless, sacking Burrow seven times, matching the Super Bowl record. L.A. generated pressure on 41.5 percent of Cincinnati’s dropbacks (a Rams’ season high) with a 17.1 percent sack rate (also a Rams’ season high). Donald and Miller each collected two sacks. Six different Rams tallied multiple pressures Sunday: Donald (seven), Greg Gaines (five), Ernest Jones (four), Miller (three), A’Shawn Robinson (three), and Floyd (two). They hounded Burrow constantly, weathering the early second-half blow and holding Cincinnati to zero fourth-quarter points. That performance paved the way for the Rams offense to finally find a way to overcome its many injuries and finally give the team a last-minute lead.
“I’m just so proud of this group,” Stafford said after the game. “I mean, that game is the story of our season. It’s up and down, it’s tough. But we’re a frickin’ tough team and we got it done.”
Last week, Snead was asked whether he had a certain “revelation” that led him to the aggressive team-building strategy he’s adopted since the franchise moved to Los Angeles. “Sometimes,” he said, “when we sit here, I don’t know if we look at ourselves as the rest of the league is zigging and us zagging, per se. But maybe that is the case. We definitely try to think differently and do things a little bit differently.” That approach extends beyond player acquisitions, and includes fresh ideas when it comes to schemes, nutrition, and mental health. Those are “the little things” that Snead says compound over time and give the Rams an edge against competition.
“Sean and I have always sat down and say … ‘Wake up sprinting. Don’t be scared,’” Snead said. “And the way Sean and I work together is [we say], ‘OK, let’s try not to do things just to be safe.’ We call it ‘get to 8-8.’ Everything we do is not always going to work out. But if we actually have enough research, enough data to think ‘OK, this is the right thing to do right now, this is what we think we should do. Let’s do it. Let’s not let fear of ‘What if it doesn’t work out?’ keep us from maybe getting that edge.”
After falling just short in Super Bowl LIII, the Rams returned to the edge, then pushed beyond. Their victory is a confirmation of the process that has steadily kept them in contention despite defying convention.
#NFL Teams who carried the most dead cap during their Super Bowl season:— Spotrac (@spotrac) February 13, 2022
1. ’21 #Rams: $49.4M
2. ’16 #Falcons: $26M
3. ’19 #49ers: $25.5M
4. ’19 #Chiefs, $21M
5. ’17 #Eagles, $19.5M
There will be questions about how long the Rams can follow this formula. Snead said last week that he believes the Rams are built to contend for years to come. Retaining their stars—both players and coaches—will be paramount. There will be departures in both realms—Beckham, Miller, cornerback Darious Williams, and other key players will be free agents; offensive coordinator Kevin O’Connell is expected to be the Vikings new head coach; and secondary coach Ejiro Evero is expected to be hired as the Broncos defensive coordinator. Prior to Sunday’s game, rumors swirled that McVay or Donald would retire if the Rams won the Super Bowl. Donald, teary-eyed, stood on the field for a postgame TV interview and was asked about his future, but McVay interrupted the question with a quick embrace.
“I’m in the moment,” Donald told NBC after finally unlatching from McVay. “I’m just enjoying this with these guys. My kids are gonna come on the field—this is the moment I promised to my daughter when she was 5. So we’re gonna play in the confetti, man, and live in the moment.”