By: OSCAR FOCK / NEWS CO-EDITOR
Great players shine when the lights are the brightest. That was the case on Sunday night in SoFi Stadium in Los Angeles, as the LA Rams beat the Cincinnati Bengals in Super Bowl LVI, 23-20.
Going into the big game, two storylines, one for each team, traveled parallel to each other.
On one side there was the Rams, who both before and during the regular season made it clear that they were going all in this year.
It began when they traded for veteran quarterback Matthew Stafford in the offseason, and continued throughout the fall as the team acquired future Hall of Fame pass rusher Von Miller and star wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. Despite their ups and downs in the regular season, the team managed to come together for the playoffs and now they had a chance to become the second team in two years to win a Super Bowl in their home stadium.
On the other side of the battlefield stood the Bengals.
After going 2-14 in 2019 and 4-11-1 in 2020, Cincinnati rose from the ashes in 2021 to take home the AFC North. Led by second-year quarterback Joe Burrow (who came back in 2021 after suffering an ACL tear early in his first season) and rookie wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase (Burrow and Chase were college teammates at LSU), the Bengals captured the hearts of NFL fans across the country with their explosive offense and swagger.
After being the NFL’s laughingstock for years, Cincinnati now had the opportunity to win their first ever Super Bowl.
After “America the Beautiful,” the national anthem, and an appearance from Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, the Bengals kicked off the battle for the Lombardy trophy.
The game began tentatively, with both teams stalling on their first drive. The first touchdown of the day was scored by the Rams on the team’s second possession. Starting at the 50-yard line after a Cincinnati turnover on downs, Stafford connected first with wide receiver and NFL Offensive Player of the Year Cooper Kupp, and then with their other star wideout Odell Beckham for the first points of the contest.
Despite the touchdown, both offenses struggled early. Both defenses, deploying similar gameplans, stuffed the run, forced short passes and tackled well.
But with this amount of star athletes on the field, the big play is never far away. The first came from Ja’Marr Chase on a deep ball from Joe Burrow. Chase ran past Jalen Ramsey, made a great adjustment and caught the ball for a 46-yard gain to the Rams’ 11-yard line. The drive ended with a field goal by playoff-phenom Evan McPherson.
Los Angeles responded immediately, driving all the way down the field for another touchdown. Rams head Coach Sean Mcvay showed why he is one of the best offensive minds in the league, utilizing all of the weapons in his arsenal. Utilizing crossing patterns, wheel routes and play-action the LA offense hit multiple big plays: first to Beckham, then to running back Darrell Henderson, then capping off the drive with a beautifully executed touchdown-pass to Cooper Kupp.
By this point, both offenses seemed to be heating up. Cincinnati answered back with a touchdown of their own, when head Coach Zac Taylor looked deep into his bag of tricks and pulled out a halfback-pass from Joe Mixon to Tee Higgins.
On the following drive, Odell Beckham dropped the ball on a short pass over the middle. The pass-catcher immediately fell to the ground and grabbed at his left knee, his facial expression indicating that something was very wrong. Training staff helped him off the field and he was quickly ruled out.
Beckham had been the Rams’ best offensive player to that point, and without him on the field, LA quickly began to struggle. Following three drives ending in punts and one ending in an interception, the two teams went to halftime with 13-10-score in favor of the Rams.
The Super Bowl halftime show is always a grandiose spectacle, and it did not disappoint this year.
In a tribute to West coast rap, genre-icons Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, Kendrick Lamar, Mary J. Blige and Eminem performed some of their most legendary tunes. To the surprise of many, 50 Cent and Anderson .Paak also appeared in the show.
After a spectacular performance filled with nostalgia, it was time for the two teams to take the field again.
On the first play, Burrow faked the handoff, stepped up in the pocket and launched it deep towards Tee Higgins. Higgins was lined up against Ramsey and was able to make the contested catch and take it all the way to the endzone. A flag should probably have been thrown on the play as Higgins clearly grabbed Ramsey’s facemask and twisted his head just before the ball arrived, depriving the cornerback of the chance to make a play.
Then, after the Bengals touchdown, Matthew Stafford threw an interception and just like that, Cincinnati was set up in the red zone. This time, however, the Rams defense put the clamps on their opponents, and after a huge sack on 3rd and 3 by Aaron Donald, the Bengals had to settle for three points.
Still, the team from Ohio had flipped the game on its head, turning 13-10 into 13-20 in a matter of minutes. From this point on, the Rams defense, in particular the defensive line, would not allow another point.
The best defender of this generation, Aaron Donald, Von Miller and the rest of the front-four terrorized Joe Burrow in the pocket, and kept the game from getting away from the Rams, even as the offense struggled mightily to sustain drives.
After a field goal from LA to make the game 16-20, the teams traded punts for over a quarter of gametime. After only sacking Burrow one time in the first half, the Rams racked up five quarterback takedowns in the third quarter alone.
Eventually, Stafford found the drive they needed and turned to Cooper Kupp, the best offensive player in the league. With 6:13 left in the fourth quarter, Stafford orchestrated a four-minute drive to the Cincinnati 8-yard line, with Kupp catching four passes and converting a crucial 4th and 1.
Facing a tough 3rd and 8, Kupp then drew a defensive holding-penalty that made it 1st and goal. A few plays later, Stafford found Kupp in the endzone and the Rams had taken back the lead.
The stage was set. Joe Burrow and the Bengals offense with one minute and 25 seconds, needing a field goal to tie the ballgame.
And it started off great, with Chase taking a quick pass to the outside for 17 yards. After a 9-yard pass and an incompletion, Burrow faced 3rd and 1 from the Rams 49-yard line. Game on the line.
Football is a team sport, but even in team sports it happens that an all-time great simply wants it so much that he takes the game into his own hands. LeBron James did it in game 7 against the Warriors in 2016, and for you soccerheads out there, Lionel Messi did it against Real Madrid in the 2011 UEFA Champions League semi-final.
This time, it was Aaron Donald.
First, he kept running back Samaje Perine from getting past the first down-line by simply wrapping his bear-like arms around him and refusing to let go. Then, on 4th and 1, Donald made the biggest play of his life.
As Burrow dropped back to pass, Donald, as if shot out of a cannon, ran past the guard gave Burrow no chance. He got the ball away, but only to see it fall to the ground in front of Perine. Turnover on downs. Game over.
With a simple kneel-down from Stafford and the Los Angeles Rams celebrated their second Lombardy trophy in franchise history.