The Los Angeles Rams have been accused of trading away their future to build a team of superstars, but their fans are unlikely to care when the present looks this good. Six years after the team returned to California – after a 20-year sojourn in St Louis – the Rams are Super Bowl champions for the second time in their history.
Their last title-winning team was led by a turbocharged offense known as the Greatest Show On Turf. This victory was a lot grittier but just as welcome.
“I can’t say enough about the resilience of this team,” Rams coach Sean McVay said after the game. “Guys stepping up when they had too and it’s going to sound like a broken record, but that’s what makes this team great. That’s why they’re world champs.”
Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford arrived in Los Angeles last March after spending the entirety of his career in the football wasteland of Detroit. The Rams hoped that he was the final piece in a team of stars that would push them to their first championship since the 1999 season. He certainly looked the part early on in this game. On his first throw, he connected on a short pass to Cam Akers for a first down. But the drive fizzled out and it was the Bengals’ chance to make an early impression.
It had taken Stafford 13 years to reach his first Super Bowl. His opposite number, Joe Burrow, had arrived here in just his second in the league. Like Stafford, he completed his first pass. The Bengals, showing the confidence of a team that had already beaten the No 1 seeded Tennessee Titans and fearsome Kansas City Chiefs to get to Sunday’s game, elected to go for it on fourth down at midfield. Burrow couldn’t complete his pass though and the Rams took over with excellent field position.
That was enough of an opportunity for Stafford. He connected with Cooper Kupp for 20 yards and then found Odell Beckham Jr with a 17-yard strike for a touchdown. Beckham tore into the NFL as a rookie in 2014, famous for his spectacular athleticism and ability to pull off breathtaking catches. In recent years he had been judged as little more than a walking distraction and, like Stafford, a player whose reputation fell short of his output. But the two men had given their team a vital early advantage, particularly when their formidable defensive line and star cornerback Jalen Ramsey are capable of shutting down opposing offenses.
It was Ramsey who broke up a would-be touchdown pass for the Bengals on third down at the end of the first quarter. Evan McPherson kicked the ensuing field goal to make it 7-3 and the Bengals were on the board.
Stafford had supplied Beckham with a touchdown and he went to his other top receiver, Kupp, for his second. The 28-year-old had clocked up 1,947 receiving yards in the regular season, the second-highest total in NFL history, and few of his catches were easier than this one as he found himself free of any coverage in the end zone.
Burrow’s favorite target throughout this season has been his old college teammate, Ja’Marr Chase. But neither player was involved in the Bengals’ opening touchdown, which came on their next drive. Running back Joe Mixon showed off his arm, finding Tee Higgins with a six-yard pass and the score was 13-10. It was the first time a running back had thrown a touchdown in a Super Bowl since January 1980.
Stafford was playing flawlessly but even when he’s at his best the siren song of an inadvisable pass is never far away. He duly delivered on the Rams’ next possession. At the Cincinnati 43-yard line he heaved it into the end zone and Jessie Bates leapt in front of Van Jefferson, who could have fought harder for the catch, to make the pick.
The teams went into half-time separated by a field goal but the game so far had not gone as most had predicted. The Rams defensive line, led by one-man wrecking crew, Aaron Donald, had been expected to tear into a Bengals offensive line that had failed to protect Burrow for much of the last two seasons. But Burrow was enjoying more time to find his targets than he was used to.
And that point was backed up with the first play of the second-half. Burrow danced around the pocket, Higgins lost Ramsey with far too much ease for the Rams’ liking, scooped up the pass, and scampered away for a 75-yard touchdown. The Bengals had the lead for the first time in the game, 17-13.
Stafford, meanwhile, was reverting to type: a spectacular start followed by an impressive implosion. A knee injury had ended Beckham’s game which meant more snaps for Ben Skowronek, a rookie with just 11 career receptions. Stafford attempted to find him with his first throw of the half, but was slightly off target and Skowronek deflected it into the welcoming arms of Chidobe Awuzie. That led to a second field goal from McPherson and one in reply for the Rams to make it 20-16.
As the game wore on, the defenses started to take control. Stafford was hauled down behind the line and shaken up by DJ Reader. Then Burrow was brought down twice on the ensuing Bengals’ possession, two of the Rams’ seven sacks on the night which set a Super Bowl record.
“They have a really good front. Aaron Donald, Von Miller and Leonard Floyd are three of the best players in the league and we expected they were going to get some pressure,” said Burrow after the game. “I think they did a good job.”
Stafford had led 34 fourth-quarter comebacks during his career and he would need to make it 35 as the Rams entered the final stanza trailing by four points. Crucially, his defense was continuing to harry Burrow as the Bengals offensive line tired.
With less than two minutes left, the Rams drove to the Bengals’ one-yard line, with help from a series of penalties on the Bengals. This is what the Rams had traded for when they acquired Stafford: a quarterback who could push them over the line when it mattered. He duly wheeled out and threw his third touchdown pass of the game to Kupp, who was later named Super Bowl MVP for his two-touchdown performance.
“You put the ball in your best players’ hands when it matters most,” said McVay, who became the youngest winning head coach in Super Bowl history at 36 years, 20 days. “That’s what we did with Matthew and he delivered in a big way. He’s a world champ.”
The Rams were three points up with 85 seconds to play.
Now it was Burrow’s time to lead his team. He had shown a cool head in crucial situations throughout the playoffs but by now the Rams’ defensive line were rampant. Appropriately it was Donald, arguably the most talented player in the entire league, who ripped through the line to force Burrow into an incompletion on fourth down and seal the 23-20 victory for the Rams.