The Los Angeles Rams went all-in for a championship, and in Super Bowl 56, each of their big guns went off to win in dramatic fashion.
INGLEWOOD — Aaron Donald. Of course.
That’s how my game notes ended before heading to the bowels of SoFi Stadium following the Los Angeles Rams’ 23-20 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals in Super Bowl LVI.
Donald, who had two sacks, saved his most important play for perhaps his final one. With Cincinnati trailing by a field goal and facing 4th and 1 at the Los Angeles 49-yard line, Donald beat left guard Quinton Spain and spun quarterback Joe Burrow before his desperation pass fell incomplete.
Ultimately, the story of Sunday night was the one many expected to unfold coming in. The Rams’ pressure was unrelenting up front, and Burrow finally found a force he couldn’t overcome.
“We had made a third-down stop,” Donald remembered of the final Cincinnati drive. “Fourth down, I thought they would run, but they dropped back to pass. Found a way to get the chop-club and bend the edge and found a way to get to the quarterback and make him throw an errant pass. I actually tried to get the ball out, but he threw it up so I was a little nervous at first. It was a huge play. It was a great few stops for the defense that we made leading up to that. I think we started taking over the game up front when we needed to. We’re world champs.”
In the first half, Los Angeles’ vaunted front was absent. The Rams only sacked Burrow once and hit him thrice in the first two quarters. Then, in the third, Los Angeles sacked him five time before Von Miller got him in the fourth, giving the Rams a total of seven on the evening.
For all the big names brought in by general manager Les Snead over the past year, it was Donald, one of the few superstars who played in and lost Super Bowl LIII for the Rams, who made the play to finish off the victory.
And yet while Donald was his typically incredible self, his effort falls flat without the high-profile additions all playing their parts.
Quarterback Matthew Stafford shook the shackles of the Detroit Lions this offseason, with the Rams sending two first-round picks and Jared Goff to acquire him.
Trailing 20-16 with 6:13 remaining and 79 yards ahead of him, Stafford began the march which would define his career, regardless of the outcome. While his 1-yard touchdown toss to Cooper Kupp will always be the game-winner, it was actually his 22-yard laser down the seam to Kupp moments earlier which should be remembered for all time as one of the Super Bowl’s best.
“You wanted to put the game in one of your best players’ hands and the guy you feel like has led you to this position,” Rams head coach Sean McVay said. “Give the Bengals credit, they did a great job. We didn’t run the ball very well. … They are a tough run defense and they’ve done a great job of getting timely stops throughout the course of the playoffs. You put the ball in your best players’ hands when it matters most. That’s what we did with Matthew and he delivered in a big way. He’s a world champ.”
Kupp, who was limited by the Bengals to only four catches for 53 yards until Los Angeles’ final drive, caught four balls for 39 yards and his second touchdown — both beating Bengals corner Eli Apple — to put the Rams ahead for good.
It was the perfect finish to an almost perfect season, with Kupp joining former San Francisco 49ers great Jerry Rice as the only receivers to lead the league in receptions, receiving yards, and receiving touchdowns, and win the Super Bowl.
“I just want to achieve my job to the best of my ability, and I trust that as the game goes on I will have opportunities as well and I just want to stay ready for those things and stay locked in,” Kupp said of his patience.
Kupp’s quiet game early on was largely due to another star acquisition in Odell Beckham Jr. Beckham was everywhere before leaving in the second quarter with a left knee injury, catching two passes for 52 yards, including a 17-yard touchdown on a beautiful wheel route out of the slot to beat corner Mike Hilton.
Beckham, who was thought by many to be finished after the Cleveland Browns cut him in November, scored seven touchdowns for the Rams in 12 games, including the postseason.
Ultimately, the Rams mirrored their city, believing in the star system.
In the biggest game on the grandest stage, they performed beautifully.
Top 10 teams in terms of 2022 cap space (per OverTheCap)
1. Miami Dolphins – $63.8M
2. Jacksonville Jaguars – $59.2M
3. Cincinnati Bengals – $57.3M
4. Los Angeles Chargers – $56.3M
5. Denver Broncos – $38.8M
6. Indianapolis Colts – $37.3M
7. Seattle Seahawks – $36.6M
8. Washington Commanders – $31.9M
9. Pittsburgh Steelers – $31.2M
10. Chicago Bears – $28.6M
"“I do know they’re looking for Murray to take a step forward in a number of areas. We’re talking about maturity, body language on the sideline, having a bigger voice with his teammates, and leadership.”"
Murray, 24, is an Offensive Rookie of the Year and two-time Pro Bowler. Enough to earn an extension in his first offseason of eligibility, right? Wrong.
Per league conversations, Murray wiped his Instagram — save for two non-Cardinals-related posts — because he wants a new deal and is unhappy with the lack of talks on that front. For the former No. 1 overall pick, he’s seen quarterbacks Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen, Jared Goff, Carson Wentz and others get such treatment.
But all those men were more accomplished.
Mahomes had an MVP, Super Bowl MVP and championship to his name. Allen had won a division and been named Second-Team All-Pro. Goff and Wentz both led their teams to the Super Bowl, with Wentz earning a ring while injured. Murray hasn’t won a playoff game and has dealt with injuries over the past two years.
Murray is getting the same treatment we’ve seen for Lamar Jackson (also more accomplished), Baker Mayfield and others. He’s going to need a healthy year with a nice playoff run attached to it.
The Indianapolis Colts are the only AFC South team to win the Super Bowl. It’s the only division with just one champion.
Info learned this week
1. Bengals’ blown opportunities loom large in loss
It’s brutal to lose a Super Bowl. It’s even worse when there was so much self-inflicted damage.
For the Bengals, there will be a few haunting moments. Tyler Boyd’s drop on their penultimate drive on 3rd and 9. The pair of 3rd and 1 calls for reserve running back Samaje Perine with Joe Mixon on the bench. The inability to block at all in the second half, allowing six sacks.
Yet perhaps the turning point came after Cincinnati’s most impactful pair of plays on consecutive snaps. After Tee Higgins’ 75-yard touchdown, Chidobe Awuzie intercepted Stafford on a ball off the hands of Ben Skowronek’s hands. Cincinnati had the ball, leading 17-13, at Los Angeles’ 31-yard line with a chance to go ahead by two scores. Instead, an Evan McPherson field goal, and the Rams steadied themselves.
“There are a lot of plays that could have gone either way, but that’s one that you look where we could have really taken control of the game and we just didn’t execute the way we needed to,” Burrow lamented after the loss.
Cincinnati wouldn’t score again. In the Super Bowl, the winners typically take advantage of golden opportunities. The Bengals missed many of theirs.
2. Rams’ victory bails out baffling gameplan from McVay in Super Bowl 56
Sean McVay will get flowery praise after this game, and his body of work deserves it. His game plan in Super Bowl LVI does not.
The Rams were incredibly conservative throughout the first half, even before Beckham’s knee injury. In the first half, Los Angeles had 12 first-down plays and ran eight times for 18 yards. To his credit, McVay only called four runs (not including the kneel-down) on 14 first downs in the final 30 minutes, giving Stafford more of a chance to get in better second-down situations.
Still, first down was a problem all night. On 26 first-down calls (again, excluding the kneel), the Rams only gained 10+ yards twice.
Additionally, there was the non-sensical Philly Special in the third quarter, halting a drive on 3rd and 5 from the Bengals’ 23-yard line when Kupp threw high and wide to Stafford. Kicker Matt Gay retrieved three points, but it was a hideous call considering Cincinnati was struggling to cover much of the night.
McVay earned his Super Bowl ring throughout 2021, but it was a bizarre bit of coaching.
3. All eyes turn to Rodgers before new league year, and we have a theory
The Super Bowl is behind us, and now comes rampant speculation around Aaron Rodgers.
Rodgers, 39, has won two consecutive MVP awards and has yet to decide if he’s playing again, and where he wants to be. From all public indications, the Green Bay Packers want him back, and Rodgers has talked openly about how his feelings toward the team have changed in recent months.
So that means another year in green and gold, right? Maybe.
For Rodgers, the best chance to win a Super Bowl is staying put. Green Bay has a cap crunch but general manager Brian Gutekunst will likely keep a good chunk of his priority free agents. Plus, the NFC is fairly weak compared to the talent pool in the AFC.
However, does Gutekunst see an opportunity?
The Packers could trade Rodgers before the new league year begins on March 16, saving $20 million against the cap. In doing so, they’d potentially land multiple first-round picks, a few additional selections and an impact player. The talk around the league is should Rodgers become available, the Broncos are clear frontrunners between their picks (five in the top 100) and the presence of former Packers offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett.
Should Green Bay believe Jordan Love is ready, it can shed salary, load up on assets and start a new era.
The most likely scenario is Rodgers returning for an 18th year with the Packers. But after wanting out last year only to be denied, there could be a role reversal in Titletown this time around.
4. Franchise tag looms, and here are the candidates
On Feb. 22, teams can begin using the franchise and transition tags. So enjoy the next eight days of relative quiet to recharge.
By March 8, teams have to use or lose their tags. As for possible tag candidates, here are a few stars to watch for:
- Davante Adams, WR, Green Bay Packers
- Orlando Brown, LT, Kansas City Chiefs
- J.C. Jackson, CB, New England Patriots
- Mike Williams, WR, Los Angeles Chargers
- Jessie Bates, S, Cincinnati Bengals
- Harold Landry, EDGE, Tennessee Titans
- Mike Gesicki, TE, Miami Dolphins
- Marcus Williams, S, New Orleans Saints
Barring a deal precluding the tag deadline, it’s unlikely any of these men hit the market. This will help other star, non-tagged players enjoy more lucrative deals, including receiver Chris Godwin, tight end Dalton Schultz, edge rushers Chandler Jones and Von Miller, corner Carlton Davis and others.
Free agency doesn’t start until March 14, but it begins taking shape next week.
5. Colts, Wentz headed for split? There are a lot of variables
Carson Wentz on a third team in as many seasons? Reports say it’s likely. Not so fast.
Wentz could very well get sent packing by the Colts this offseason, but it’s not a given. If Indy either trades Wentz, it needs either a first-round pick or an immediate replacement in the deal. Otherwise, the Colts aren’t picking until the second round in a draft with precious few options at quarterback. Additionally, Wentz’s backup is Sam Ehlinger. Not an ideal spot for a team hoping to contend in 2022.
For general manager Chris Ballard, the need to upgrade from Wentz is clear but a difficult task. After trading for him last winter, the Colts don’t have a top pick in April’s draft and the free-agent pool is atrocious. Would Ballard really cut Wentz to sign Jameis Winston or Marcus Mariota? Seems lateral at best.
Finally, why cut Wentz? The Colts have approximately $37.4 million in cap space. They save $13.2 million by releasing him, but get no compensation and are left with a gaping hole at the league’s ultimate position.
Indianapolis is certainly intrigued by getting better under center, but it will be tough doing so.
The Kansas City Chiefs and Buffalo Bills have opened as co-favorites to win Super Bowl LVII over at WynnBet, getting +750 odds.
A sleeper to consider? The Eagles at 40/1. There’s talk around the league they’re looking into landing a star quarterback by way of trading some of their three first-round picks. In a weak NFC East, Deshaun Watson or Russell Wilson would be intriguing.
You’ll never get a joke about Bengals fans out of this space.
In a Super Bowl which was supposed to be a home game for the Rams, it was Cincinnati that roared inside SoFi Stadium. The amount of black and orange was stunning, easily outnumbering the hometown Rams’ faithful. With 90 minutes to go before kickoff, the building roared any time a significant Bengals player came onto the field or was shown on the enormous video board.
For years, Cincinnati failed to sell out home games with a bad on-field product and little investment made by ownership.
It’s a safe bet you won’t see many empty seats moving forward. The Jungle is back.
Inside the league
Keep an eye on the New York Giants with their pair of first-round picks.
New York is slated to select fifth-and seventh-overall, but will it trade back with one of those choices? The Giants desperately need to upgrade their offensive line, and there will be options led by Alabama’s Evan Neal and North Carolina State’s Ikem Ekwonu. Furthermore, don’t forget owner John Mara talking about how badly they’ve supported quarterback Daniel Jones.
But after that? Makes sense for first-time general Joe Schoen to give himself more ammo to fix multiple trouble spots.
New York has weapons, but the defense needs another pass rusher and a quality corner opposite James Bradberry would be ideal. If the Giants trade back, perhaps they nab both along with a left tackle across the top 50 picks.
There have now been 13 Super Bowls played in the state of California. Only Florida, with 17 between Miami, Tampa Bay and Jacksonville, has hosted more.
Welcome to the shortest offseason in NFL history.
The Super Bowl is behind us, and in four weeks, free agency begins. In the meantime, we have the franchise tag window and the NFL Scouting Combine. By extending the season, the league ensured less dead time and it’s certainly working.
If the league eventually gets to an 18-game schedule — and it will in the next few years — we’ll see the offseason start almost immediately after the confetti settles.
For years, there was a lull in February. Now, we’re seeing the NFL mimic the NBA’s approach, which is almost never out of the news. It’s a smart business move to shrink the dead periods and create speculation, rumors and news, something we’ve seen over the past few years in May with the schedule being released a few weeks later than in years past.
The 2021 season has ended. Welcome to 2022.