Super Bowl LVI between the Los Angeles Rams and Cincinnati Bengals was a fitting finish to an NFL season that began in historically chaotic fashion. L.A. somehow managed to trot out the worst rushing attack in Super Bowl history. The officials appeared to miss an important penalty that led to a Tee Higgins touchdown to start the second half, then threw a controversial flag that kept the Rams’ go-ahead scoring drive alive. Both starting quarterbacks suffered lower body injuries (but managed to stay in the game), and Rams receiver Odell Beckham Jr. left in the second quarter with a noncontact knee injury and did not return. After the final snap, L.A. safety Taylor Rapp proposed to his girlfriend. And receiver Van Jefferson’s wife, Samaria, went into labor during the game.
In the midst of all that, the Rams won the second Super Bowl in franchise history by relying on two of their many stars. But it wasn’t the big-name hired guns who led Los Angeles to the Lombardi Trophy; instead, it was the team’s homegrown superstars who made the difference at SoFi Stadium.
L.A. had fallen behind Cincinnati on the first play of the second half and struggled from then on to sustain its offense. But everything changed when the team started manufacturing touches for star wideout Cooper Kupp. The Rams looked to Kupp eight times on the decisive 18-play drive,1 beginning with a 7-yard run on fourth-and-1 from the L.A. 30-yard line. Kupp sprinkled in catches for 8, 22 and 8 yards before drawing a defensive holding penalty on third-and-goal at the 8-yard line with 1:47 left in the game.
The next two Kupp targets were also nullified by penalties, including a touchdown that was called back due to offsetting penalties on both teams. But Kupp’s back-shoulder catch on quarterback Matthew Stafford’s toss on second-and-goal from the 1 ultimately put the Rams ahead with 1:25 remaining — and secured Kupp the title of Super Bowl Most Valuable Player.
But the game wasn’t over until the Rams’ other superstar, Aaron Donald, officially shut the door on the Bengals’ comeback attempt. In what may end up being his last NFL snap, Donald closed out the game with a hit on Joe Burrow on fourth down, spinning the Bengals QB to the ground and forcing him to throw an off-balance pass short of running back Samaje Perine. The play punctuated a night of defensive dominance for Los Angeles: The Rams’ defensive line created pressure against the Bengals’ offensive line on 82.1 percent of their defensive snaps, most of any team in any game in the NFL this season. The Rams converted that pressure into seven sacks, with Donald and Von Miller tying for the team lead with two apiece.
L.A. needed Super Bowl MVP-caliber performances from Kupp and Donald in large part because the team was historically inept at running the ball against a stout Bengals run defense. L.A. averaged just 1.9 yards per rush, worst ever among Super Bowl winners. Running back Cam Akers rushed 13 times for just 21 yards, and he never really stood a chance. The Rams’ offensive line was unable to open holes for him all night long: Akers netted negative 1 yard rushing before first contact.
Behind center, Stafford struggled after Beckham left the game. In the first half, with Beckham playing a heavy role, Stafford scored a Raw Quarterback Rating of 72.2, completing 12 of 18 passes for 165 yards, two touchdowns and an arm-punt interception in the end zone that was basically harmless. In the second half, his Raw QBR dropped to 47.9 on 14 of 22 passing for 118 yards, one touchdown and one interception. In the end, Stafford was serviceable but unspectacular, and it wasn’t until head coach and play caller Sean McVay decided to funnel the Rams’ offense through Kupp that L.A. returned to the form it showed before Beckham got hurt.
The game itself mirrored the Ram’s season, with L.A. starting hot before falling into a funk at the midway point and then finishing strong with elite performances from its star players. And that was always the plan for the Rams this season after going all-in for Stafford, Miller and Beckham. All they needed was to avoid injuries to bring general manager Les Snead’s vision to fruition.
Injuries nearly caught up with them in the biggest game of the year. But in the end, it was the elite, homegrown talent of Kupp and Donald — rather than the more recent additions via high-profile trades — that has L.A. celebrating its first Rams Super Bowl victory in the city’s history.