In sports movies, the big game inevitably comes down to an unheralded player delivering in the clutch to win a championship. Sometimes, that happens in real life too, which is why you know the names Timmy Smith, David Tyree, and Malcolm Butler. But the reality is, Super Bowl heroes don’t typically come out of the shadows. The simplest way to understand the Los Angeles’ Rams 23-20 win over the Cincinnati Bengals is that the Rams had the best dudes.
The Rams ended the season as champions not because coach Sean McVay had any great tricks up his sleeve, but because their three biggest stars—quarterback Matthew Stafford, receiver Cooper Kupp, and defensive lineman Aaron Donald—were relentlessly themselves. The Rams ran into trouble all night, much of it of their coach’s making and some of it due to injury. But in the end, they found enough ways to isolate their best players against opponents who couldn’t handle them.
The evening’s main mismatch was always going to be line play. The Rams brought the best defensive front in the league, headlined by Donald, the three-time defensive player of the year. The Bengals countered with one of the worst pass-protecting offensive lines in football. All year, Cincinnati had mitigated its line in two ways: by having quarterback Joe Burrow get rid of the ball before his pocket could collapse, and by relying on the QB and his receivers to conjure up magic.
The Bengals followed that script for most of the night, and even ran the ball well, something the Rams seemed content to allow. (Cincinnati tailback Joe Mixon carried 15 times for 72 yards.) In the first half, Burrow rifled the ball out of his right arm almost as soon as he received it, in an understandable effort to prevent the Rams from jackhammering him into the turf. When Mary J. Blige, Eminem, Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, Kendrick Lamar, and 50 Cent took the field at halftime, Burrow had been sacked only once. But it came at a cost, as his 12 completions on 18 first-half attempts netted just 114 yards, a 6.3-yard average attempt that paced well below his typical rate. Burrow completed a 46-yarder down the sideline to his favorite target, rookie star Ja’Marr Chase, but otherwise didn’t have a completion longer than 14 yards in the first two quarters. His rapid releases meant that deep routes didn’t have time to develop, and the Bengals’ offense was competent but not that explosive. L.A. led 13-10 at halftime.
Burrow, though, started the second half with a 75-yard touchdown pass to Tee Higgins, who got away with throwing down All-Pro cornerback Jalen Ramsey by his facemask. The Rams, meanwhile, were low on trustworthy targets for Stafford after Rams receiver Odell Beckham Jr., who scored the game’s opening touchdown, hurt his knee and was unable to return. Beckham’s absence made it easier for the Bengals to focus on blanketing Kupp, who was wrapping one of the great wideout seasons in league history. On the Rams’ first drive of the third quarter, Stafford was forced to look to Ben Skowronek, who bobbled a toss over the middle and redirected it into the hands of Cincinnati’s Chidobe Awuzie. After an Evan McPherson field goal, the Bengals were up 20-13.
As the half dragged on, the Rams found no salvation on the ground, with McVay trying to get efficient carries out of running back Cam Akers for the fourth straight playoff game. (It never happened, and McVay won a ring while making things as hard on himself as possible.) Going into the fourth quarter, the Rams could muster only a field goal, leaving them four points behind as the clock ticked down.
The Rams still had Stafford and Kupp, though. The drive that went down as the Super Bowl winner was a plodding, two-man masterpiece that spanned 15 plays, 72 yards, and nearly five minutes. The Rams couldn’t run with Akers, so on an early 4th-and-1 to keep the drive alive, Stafford simply handed to Kupp, who took a jet sweep seven yards to move the chains. Kupp caught three more balls for 38 yards to get the ball down to the 24-yard line, then drew two penalties to get L.A. even closer. The first was a ticky-tack defensive holding call on linebacker Logan Wilson, whom officials assumed must have committed a penalty to be able to keep up with Kupp. The second was defensive pass interference on cornerback Eli Apple, who desperately clasped at Kupp and as a result gave the Rams 1st-and-goal at the 1-yard line.
Two plays later, Stafford threw to Kupp’s back shoulder for the lead. Defenses can draw up double-teams all they want, but there aren’t many in the playbook for an immediate throw to an outside receiver’s outside shoulder on the goal line. There aren’t many answers for Kupp and Stafford, period. Apple, in allowing a second touchdown to the tandem, had no chance:
Stafford threw two interceptions. The first, a heave into the end zone on a hopelessly long third down, functioned like a punt. The other, which came on the Skowronek ricochet, wasn’t at all his fault. He was mostly excellent outside of those moments and, like he did all season, worked brilliantly with Kupp.
The Bengals got the ball back with 1:25 to play, and their two best dudes—Burrow and Chase—immediately connected for a 17-yard gain. But just as it looked like they were on the march for, at minimum, a game-tying field goal, they found themselves decidedly out-duded.
Burrow, who was under increasing duress as the night wore on, got sacked an astonishing six times in the second half. He found little peace on the Bengals’ final drive, and the main culprit was Donald, football’s greatest player. Burrow’s linemen kept him in check for a while, but when the dam broke, it broke.
Throughout the final 30 minutes, the Rams got Donald one-on-one against the Bengals’ offensive guards, Quinton Spain and Hakeem Adeniji. On one play, Donald walked Adeniji backward until both the Bengals’ lineman and quarterback were in his arms.
When the Bengals faced 3rd-and-1 at the Rams’ 49-yard line, they had Burrow hand the ball to Samaje Perine, who tried to run behind Adeniji. While Perine drew some criticism, this stop was all about Donald, who bench-pressed the helpless guard into the runner’s path to wreck the play. And on fourth down, with the season on the line, Donald breezed past Spain, the left guard, before wrapping up Burrow and forcing a desperation throw that fell harmlessly to the ground.
There’s nobody in football like Donald, and a cascade of double- and triple-teams wasn’t enough to prevent his game-breaking talent from breaking the game. The Bengals overcame nine sacks in their divisional-round playoff win over the Tennessee Titans, which spoke to Burrow and Chase’s herculean talents and the Bengals’ ability to scheme around a major weakness. The Rams proved to be a little too much, for reasons no more complicated than having the league’s most dominant receiver and defensive player. The Bengals’ made some headway against Ramsey, another of L.A.’s best players, but still found themselves limited by how quickly Burrow had to work.
The Bengals have all-world players, too, and they managed to drag Cincinnati within a few yards of overtime despite a supporting cast that lacked in almost every way. The difference between the Rams and Bengals, at least on this Sunday, was that L.A. didn’t need to spend a ton of energy to put their best players in position to be the best players on the field. Burrow was extremely cool all season and all night. But unlike in the movie version of this game, he didn’t have a chance to shake off the best defender in the world to throw the game-winning touchdown pass. Aaron Donald wrecked that ending, just like he wrecked everything else the Bengals tried to do.