LA story: in the Rams’ blockbuster victory it was their stars who shone

The Super Bowl champions made aggressive moves to acquire big-time players. They combined with homegrown talent to secure the franchise’s second title

As the confetti fell at SoFi Stadium, Odell Beckham stood alone amid the revelry, eyes welling, hands on his head in disbelief. No sooner than the dazed receiver appeared on the stadium’s massive video screen did the Los Angeles Rams partisans, in slight majority among the 70,048 attendees, loose a deafening roar. To find their common emotional trigger, one needn’t have looked further than the message writ large on Beckham’s matching hat and T-shirt: Super Bowl Champions.

Nothing gets LA in a froth like a big sparkly prize. On Sunday the Rams’ 23-20 dismissal of the upstart Cincinnati Bengals was recognized with a Lombardi trophy, the second Super Bowl crown in the franchise’s 86-year history. It was a capstone achievement that was realised in Los Angeles, on the Rams’ home turf, with more A-listers in attendance than at most recent award shows. There was the Rock, Cardi B, Bennifer – and those sightings all came before the Grammy-grade halftime show.

So it was fitting that it was the Rams’ stars who delivered the Hollywood ending that was every bit as sappy as the one in American Underdog – an actual film about the Rams that was released this year. Even game MVP Cooper Kupp’s acceptance speech was note-perfect. “I just feel so undeserving,” he said in an emotional postgame news conference while thanking his high school sweetheart Anna Croskrey for the years of support and sacrifice that helped him to this career pinnacle – the greatest season by a receiver since the immortal Jerry Rice.

Beckham set the tone during the game; facing third and three from the Bengals’ 17-yard line, he quickly manoeuvred from the inside of the Rams spread formation and caught a fade pass over Cincinnati’s Mike Hilton in the right corner of the endzone to stake Los Angeles to a 7-0 lead. He celebrated in the endzone with a moonwalk. Another third-down reception in the second quarter for 35 yards set up an 11-yard Kupp TD catch that extended the Rams’ lead to 13-3.

Beckham was a a bargain bin signee added to the Rams roster at midseason, and he appeared well on his way to an MVP night. But then late in the second quarter, while reaching for a shallow pass, he fell to the ground clutching his left knee and had to be helped off the field, never to return to action. And without their X-factor or much of a run game to keep Cincinnati’s ferocious defensive front honest, LA struggled to move the chains, and Matthew Stafford got desperate. Facing third and 14 from the Cincinnati 43 yard line, Stafford forced an end-zone to Van Jefferson that was intercepted by Jessie Bates III. Thanks to the blunders, the Bengals rallied to a 20-13 third-quarter lead.

On the Rams’ first possession of the third quarter Stafford bounced a ball off Ben Skowronek that was picked off by Chidobe Awuzie. The next time the Rams had the ball Stafford went out for a pass, echoing the Bengals’ “Chilli Special” scoring play earlier in the game, but couldn’t gather the throw from Kupp. It was enough to make you wonder: Is this what the Rams traded away Jared Goff and all those draft picks for – to take the ball out of Stafford’s hands?

Aaron Donald had another huge defensive game on Sunday
Aaron Donald had another huge defensive game on Sunday. Photograph: Charles Baus/CSM/REX/Shutterstock

With the whiff of defeat in the air as thick as the stench of marijuana in the SoFi’s upper bowl, Aaron Donald seized control. After the second Stafford interception, the Rams’ all-world defensive stalwart dropped Joe Burrow twice; the second sack helped hold the Bengals to a field goal.

It wasn’t until late in the fourth quarter that the Rams offence shook off the loss of Beckham and started forcing the ball to Kupp – the Rams’ true No1 receiver. With time ticking away and Stafford struggling to connect with Van Jefferson (who may have been distracted by his wife going into labour during the game), Kupp carried a fourth-down handoff seven yards and caught four balls for 39 more yards, not least a one-yard back-shoulder touchdown against the Bengals’ Eli Apple to nudge the Rams back in front for good.

When Cincinnati seemed as if they’d drive for the win with 1:25 left, Donald hurried Burrow into a fourth-down incompletion that gave the Rams the ball back with 43 seconds left. After a Stafford kneel down, the most exclusive party in sports was on.

Altogether, the Rams sacked the Bengals QB a Super Bowl record seven times. “Our best players stepped up in the most crucial and critical moments,” said LA’s Sean McVay, validating his status as the NFL’s ‘It’ coach. “When you look at the way the second half started, a lot of teams would’ve folded.”

Of course this being an LA story – a 20-year reunion, of sorts – there’s no telling how long this happy ending will last. After all, this vibrant, thrumming moment of SoFi Stadium bliss wouldn’t have been possible without the Rams mortgaging their future to redeem their Super Bowl defeat against New England just three years ago. The tags were barely off the Rams’ Super Bowl gear before speculation raged about whether Donald, Miller and Beckham will return for the title defence. Even the 36-year-old McVay, who displaced Mike Tomlin as the youngest Super Bowl-winning coach, has been frank about not wanting to be in this business in his 60s.

This championship seems less like one for the ages than yet another piece of Tinseltown ephemera, something to savour in the moment – like, well, the Lakers’ 2020 NBA title run.

But not all the Rams’ stars are flashy blow-ins, brought in through costly expenditures. “I promised my daughter this when she was five-years-old,” said the 30-year-old Donald, like Kupp a homegrown cornerstone acquired through the draft. “She got to play in confetti? I’m going to enjoy this with my teammates, my family. I’m just going to enjoy this for today, a couple days.”

It’s quite conceivable that in a year’s time few in his ever-changing city will remember who won Super Bowl LVI. But for one night at least it was a blockbuster entirely of the Rams’ making, one that wouldn’t have been possible had their brightest stars not aligned.


Andrew Lawrence at SoFi Stadium, Inglewood

The GuardianTramp

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