There aren’t many players in the NFL who better embody the term “go-to guy” than Cooper Kupp.
That’s a cliché, of course, but it sure felt apt during Kupp’s historic regular-season campaign. The Rams’ star receiver won the triple crown of pass catching, finishing tops in the league in receptions (145), yards (1,947), and touchdowns (16). And he kept up that brisk pace during L.A.’s postseason run to the Super Bowl, confounding defenders in wins over the Cardinals, Buccaneers, and 49ers (a stretch in which he had 25 catches for 386 yards and four touchdowns). Then, in the early going of the Rams’ 23-20 win over the Bengals in Super Bowl LVI on Sunday, he did it again.
Kupp made his presence known almost immediately in the back-and-forth affair. He gained 20 yards on a key third-down conversion on the team’s second possession, setting up the Matthew Stafford touchdown pass to Odell Beckham Jr. a few plays later that gave the Rams a 7-0 lead. Kupp caught a score for himself early in the second quarter, too, extending L.A.’s lead to 13-3. But when Beckham went down with a knee injury midway through the second, the Bengals’ hounding secondary was able to clamp down on Kupp, bracketing the playmaker on just about every snap.
The Bengals also knew that Kupp was the Rams’ go-to guy, and had spent the past two weeks preparing to contain him as much as possible. “Our plan was to take him out of the game,” Bengals safety Jessie Bates III told reporters after the game, and “make them play left-handed.”
They succeeded—for a while, anyway. An already injury-depleted Rams pass-catching corps (down Robert Woods and Tyler Higbee, both on IR) was forced to rely on a grim combination of Van Jefferson, Ben Skowronek, and Brycen Hopkins, among other rarely used backups. The results weren’t pretty—and neither was the team’s run game, which struggled to get anything going all game. With few other fearsome options in the passing game, Cincinnati was able to hold Kupp in check, and he caught just two passes during a 38-minute stretch of game time that spanned from the early second quarter to the middle of the fourth.
The Bengals took advantage of that lull, first scratching their way back into the game and then eventually taking a second-half lead. Cincinnati held a 20-16 advantage with 6:13 to go―and that was right about when the Rams decided they’d get Kupp back in action, or go down trying. Head coach and play caller Sean McVay wisely abandoned all semblance of a ground game, instead turning the keys of the offense over to Stafford and Kupp. “You put the ball in your best players’ hands when it matters the most,” McVay said after the game.
Using an up-tempo, no-huddle tack and more shotgun looks, the Rams started the pivotal drive of their season. Stafford hit Hopkins for an easy 9-yard gain to open the possession, but following an incompletion on second down and a stuffed run on third down, L.A. quickly found itself in a do-or-die scenario—fourth-and-1 from their own 30-yard line. McVay dialed up a sweep play to Kupp, knowing Cincinnati would likely be looking for a quarterback sneak. Kupp took the handoff, cut upfield, and picked up 7 yards on the play.
As NBC announcer Cris Collinsworth put it after that play, the Rams just had to “do something to get [Kupp] engaged.” And sure enough, that play acted as a catalyst for more. The Rams stayed in no-huddle looks to try to keep the Bengals on their heels. “We were kind of in a [hurry-up] on that whole last drive,” said Kupp after the game. “[We were] able to keep them from setting some rushes, [and kept] them in zone calls where you can kind of put some pressure on them.”
Keeping Cincy in their more predictable zone looks allowed Stafford and Kupp to finally find some holes in the coverage. Two plays after Kupp’s run, the receiver got lined up against a linebacker on a second-and-10 and had no trouble exploiting the mismatch for a gain of 8.
Three plays later, the Stafford-to-Kupp connection struck again, as Kupp ran a deep dig route to a soft spot in the Cincy zone, and Stafford did the rest. The QB looked left, then stared down Hopkins on a hook route to the right before firing a no-look, cross-body laser to Kupp downfield. The end-zone view of the throw is something to behold.
Kupp caught another 8-yard reception on the next play, again beating a zone look, and Cam Akers ran for a first down to set up a first-and-goal from the 8-yard line. Stafford overthrew Jefferson in the end zone, then subsequently missed Darrell Henderson on second down, setting up a critical third-and-goal from the 8-yard line.
That’s where things got a bit wacky. Kupp drew a holding flag on Bengals linebacker Logan Wilson on the next play, giving the Rams a new set of downs from the 4-yard line. On the play after that, Kupp caught a touchdown, but it was nullified by offsetting penalties. On the next play, he drew a defensive pass interference call on Eli Apple, setting up a first-and-goal from the 1-yard line. And following a failed quarterback sneak, Stafford went back to his go-to guy on the 15th play of the drive. Kupp beat Apple one-on-one for the go-ahead and eventual game-winning score. Aaron Donald and the Rams’ defense would go on to seal the deal.
Kupp’s performance―an eight-catch, 92-yard game capped by the go-ahead touchdown―was hardly a surprise. It’s what we’ve come to expect from the dependable big-play creator, and it felt like a suitable final act for what’s been one of the most unbelievable and magical seasons any player has ever produced. For his late-game heroics, Kupp secured the honor of Super Bowl MVP, completing a whole new triple crown in the process: The Rams’ superstar is now the only player in league history to earn the Super Bowl MVP award, the Offensive Player of the Year award, and the receiving triple crown all in the same season. Stated even more succinctly: Cooper Kupp has cemented himself as one of the greatest go-to guys of all time.