AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez
On Sunday Feb. 13, the Cincinnati Bengals and Los Angeles Rams faced off in Super Bowl LVI at SoFi Stadium in Los Angeles. The nail-biting game was quite memorable, as the Rams won their first title in 22 years with a 23-20 victory.
The two teams’ journeys to the Super Bowl were vastly different. The Rams had been perennial Super Bowl contenders for years but went all in last offseason with the acquisition of quarterback Matt Stafford. The former 1st overall pick spent his first 12 seasons with the Detroit Lions, where he earned a reputation as a tough, loyal player despite being doomed by the poorly run organization that drafted him. He somehow willed the Lions to the playoffs three times, but they always lost in the first round. However, Stafford had clearly paid his dues and the Lions let him choose his next destination out of respect.
The Rams were an ideal spot for Stafford—they were in an exciting city and were well equipped at every position except quarterback. Their defense was anchored by all-time great defensive tackle Aaron Donald. Their offense was already potent with skilled wide receivers like Cooper Kupp and Robert Woods. Under emerging head coach Sean McVay, LA had previously appeared in Super Bowl LIII. They fell short against the New England Patriots and learned that quarterback Jared Goff was not the one to guide them to a ring.
In 2019, the Rams acquired dominant cornerback Jalen Ramsey from the Jacksonville Jaguars, but everything remained limited with Goff. The Rams eventually traded Goff along with some future draft picks to the Lions in exchange for Stafford in March 2021. Later that year, LA acquired linebacker and former Super Bowl MVP Von Miller via a trade with the Denver Broncos and wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. via free agency.
Beckham Jr. was relatively controversial upon acquisition. The former Offensive Rookie of the Year rose to stardom early, earning three consecutive Pro Bowl selections to begin his career with the New York Giants. However, this fame quickly soured into notoriety when he became known as a “diva” upon leaving the Giants for the Cleveland Browns. His career stalled completely in Cleveland, leading to much tension and media discourse.
Beckham was released after his father posted a highly controversial video that highlighted how Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield was not targeting Beckham for receptions appropriately. When Beckham went unclaimed on waivers, the Rams jumped at the chance to sign him for less than his originally extravagant salary. From there, Beckham’s career and image rehabilitation began. In just eight games with the Rams, Beckham caught 5 touchdown passes, just two shy of his receiving touchdown total in his 29 games with Cleveland.
However, Cooper Kupp’s meteoric rise to success this year was even more impressive. Kupp earned his first Pro Bowl and All-Pro selections while putting together one of the most dominant individual seasons of all time. He won the wide receiver triple crown after leading all NFL wide receivers in yards, receptions and touchdowns. He also tallied the second most receiving yards in a season ever. However, Kupp’s road to becoming a legend did not stop at the end of the regular season.
While the Rams were on the brink of winning it all for years, the Bengals had come from nowhere. Cincinnati drafted Louisiana State University quarterback and Heisman winner Joe Burrow with the first overall pick in 2020 to help guide the flailing franchise. Though he impressed many in his rookie year, his paper-thin offensive line offered little protection from the defense, and the Offensive Rookie of the Year candidate tragically suffered a season-ending injury.
Burrow’s ACL and MCL tears tanked the Bengals’ 2020 campaign and many suspected that the Bengals would use the high first round draft pick on University of Oregon offensive lineman Penei Sewell to help protect Burrow. However, Cincinnati drafted wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase instead. Though Chase was a star college teammate of Burrow at LSU, many doubted the chemistry between the two would outweigh the risks of keeping a poor offensive line. As Chase struggled to catch the ball in the preseason without Burrow as quarterback, Bengals fans began to fear another season of misery. The franchise had gone 31 years without a playoff win and had lost two Super Bowls to the San Francisco 49ers in the 1980s.
When Burrow returned for the regular season, the effect was dramatic. The Bengals had eclipsed their 2020 win total by Week 7 of the 2021 season, and both Burrow and Chase were making waves in the media. The team had their ups and downs but finished the season at 10-7 atop their division. Burrow was awarded Comeback Player of the Year and Chase was awarded Offensive Rookie of the Year.
The relationship between Burrow and Chase instantly made the Bengals a fan favorite, but many feared their defense and inexperience would create problems in the playoffs. However, after victories over the visiting Las Vegas Raiders, the top-seeded Tennessee Titans and the Kansas City Chiefs, who were the prior AFC champions, the Bengals found themselves on the cusp of a true Cinderella story.
Meanwhile, the Rams entered the postseason with high expectations. With the Super Bowl in their hometown, this year was their best shot at a title, as evidenced by last year’s Super Bowl.
Knowing the upside that lay ahead, the Rams played with ferocity throughout the playoffs. They destroyed the Arizona Cardinals 34-11 at home in the wildcard round, ended the Buccaneers’ season in Tampa and knocked out the 49ers in the conference championship to advance to the Super Bowl.
Stafford and Burrow, both quarterbacks who were drafted first overall, came to SoFi on Super Bowl Sunday knowing that this game could seal their respective legacies. With a Super Bowl win, Stafford could advance his case to join the Pro Football Hall of Fame while securing a winning playoff record. Meanwhile, Burrow would be helping the Bengals secure their first ever Super Bowl win. Moreover, winning a ring in just his second year would put Burrow in company with the likes of Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger, Russell Wilson and Patrick Mahomes.
On another note, McVay and Bengals’ Zac Taylor, a former Rams assistant coach under McVay, were set to face off in the youngest head coach matchup in Super Bowl history.
The Bengals won the coin toss and chose to defer receiving until the second half. Unfortunately, history was already against them, as the team that won the coin toss in each of the previous seven Super Bowls ended up losing the game. However, the Rams’ opening drive stalled, largely due to a big sack from Bengals Pro Bowl defensive end Trey Hendrickson, who recorded a career-high 14 sacks in the regular season.
The Bengals returned the punt and began their opening drive, which also came up empty. After a promising first pass from Burrow to wide receiver Tyler Boyd for 8 yards, Cincinnati quickly found themselves in a fourth-and-1 situation at midfield. Figuring there was no place like the Super Bowl for a bold play call, they refused to punt and opted for a fourth down conversion attempt. Burrow’s pass, intended for Chase, fell incomplete and the Rams took over at midfield.
LA punished the Bengals for the turnover on downs, marching downfield en route to the first touchdown of the game. Their run game continued to struggle, but Stafford scampered away from the pass rush for a 7-yard gain and subsequently found Kupp for a 20-yard pass.
A few plays later, Stafford hit Beckham on a 17-yard touchdown pass to put the Rams up 7-0. The Bengals failed to convert for a first down yet again, this time opting to punt. Luckily for them, the Rams answered with a three-and-out of their own, giving Cincinnati a chance to get on the scoreboard. The drive was highlighted by a spectacular deep ball thrown by Burrow and reeled in one-handed by Chase for a 46-yard gain with Ramsey in coverage. Unfortunately, the Bengals couldn’t get into the endzone and settled for a field goal to make the score 7-3.
The Rams looked like they would be forced to punt again on their following possession, but Stafford and Beckham connected on a 35-yard pass on third-and-11. Stafford then completed a pass to running back Darrell Henderson for another 25 yards to put LA in the red zone. Two plays later, Kupp caught a touchdown pass from Stafford for 11 yards. Punter Johnny Hekker botched the hold on the extra point attempt and could not salvage the play with a two-point conversion pass attempt to kicker Matt Gay. The pass was intercepted by linebacker Germaine Pratt and the Rams lead sat at 13-3.
With the ball midway through the second quarter, the Bengals finally picked up some steam. In five straight plays, Cincinnati racked up 42 yards before a completed pass to running back Joe Mixon was held to no gain. However, the Bengals got right back in it and scored a touchdown on a trick play, with Mixon throwing the 6-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Tee Higgins on second-and-goal.
Now with just a 3-point deficit, the Bengals elevated their defense. Unfortunately for the Rams, Beckham suffered a non-contact knee injury that sidelined him for the remainder of the game, giving Cincinnati a major opportunity to capitalize on defense. On third-and-14 at the Bengals 43-yard line, Stafford threw a desperation pass to the endzone that was intercepted by safety Jessie Bates III, putting the Bengals in position to come up with a go-ahead scoring drive before halftime. However, neither team was able to do much, as linebacker Leonard Floyd sacked Burrow and forced a punt that culminated in a scoreless Rams possession.
As the players headed to the locker room, several music titans took the stage for the halftime show. The highly anticipated event, largely an ode to the state of California, was reminiscent of ’90s LA block parties and featured rap legends Dr. Dre, Eminem, Snoop Dogg and Kendrick Lamar, while R&B icon Mary J. Blige serenaded the crowd and hundreds danced on a giant map of the city of LA. Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg opened with “The Next Episode” and “California Love” before rapper 50 Cent made a surprise appearance to perform “In Da Club” to much applause. Blige followed by adding “Family Affair” and “No More Drama” to the set, but Lamar brought the spectacle back to rap with “m.A.A.d city” and “Alright” to energize the crowd. Finally, Eminem stepped up and performed “Forgot About Dre” with Dr. Dre and his own iconic “Lose Yourself” with a surprise appearance by Anderson .Paak on the drums. Snoop and Dre closed out the set with “Still D.R.E.” and the crowd was properly amped up for the 13-10 game to resume.
The Bengals entered the second half with the ball and the odds stacked against them. The Rams are famously 45-1 under McVay when leading at halftime in the regular season, a true testament to their head coach’s ability to control the game.
But this was no regular season game. On the first play, Burrow launched a 75-yard touchdown pass to Higgins to instantly put the Bengals up 17-13. To make matters worse for the Rams, Stafford was intercepted on the very next play by cornerback Chidobe Awuzie, giving the Bengals possession with just 31 yards to go. On the verge of disaster, the Rams mercilessly got after Burrow. Donald sacked the Bengals quarterback twice on the drive, effectively holding them to a field goal.
Down 20-13, the running game stalled and forced Stafford to shoulder the load. He spread the ball around and helped put together a 52-yard drive capped off by a field goal to trim the Cincinnati lead to 4. From there, both offenses hit a wall. Linebacker Ernest Jones sacked Burrow and the Bengals punted. Defensive tackle D.J. Reader sacked Stafford on the ensuing drive and the Rams punted. Defensive tackle A’Shawn Robinson and Miller each piled sacks on Burrow on the next drive, forcing yet another punt out of the Bengals, but the Rams’ poor running game forced a punt right back to Cincinnati and carried the game into the fourth quarter.
Miller sacked Burrow again, but this time Burrow didn’t get up so easily. As he lay writhing in pain on the ground, a fight broke out between the two teams and the Bengals were pushed even further back due to an unnecessary roughness penalty. Cincinnati booted the ball away yet again, but they were far more concerned for the health of their quarterback, who was grabbing the same knee he injured in his rookie season. Though the Bengals defense was able to force a stop out of the Rams, the drive only lasted 90 seconds and rushed Burrow back on the field while still injured. However, knowing he was the team’s best chance at a championship, Burrow put his helmet on and led a time-consuming drive, though it too ended with a punt.
Just over six minutes remained and LA needed a touchdown to win. They quickly found themselves in a fourth-and-1 situation at their own 30-yard line, but the game had reached its tipping point and another punt might’ve closed the door on them. McVay called an unusual play and Kupp ran the ball for 7 yards to pick up the first down. Kupp then caught 4 more passes for 49 yards and the go-ahead touchdown to put the Rams up 23-20 with just 1:25 remaining. Flags flew near the end of the drive, but Kupp was simply unguardable.
Needing at least a field goal to stay in the game, the Bengals took the field in front of a deafening crowd. Burrow hit Chase for 17 yards and Boyd for another 9, but Burrow’s next pass to Chase fell incomplete and Donald dragged running back Samaje Perine backwards to prevent him from picking up the first down on third-and-1. Faced with a fourth-and-1 situation and the championship on the line, Donald ripped through the offensive line and made a legacy-defining play by pouncing on Burrow and forcing an incomplete pass to turn the ball over on downs.
The stadium erupted into cheers as Stafford took the field to run out the clock, and the Rams were crowned Super Bowl champions, with McVay becoming the youngest head coach in NFL history to win the Super Bowl at age 36. Kupp’s instrumental role, especially on the game-winning drive, expectedly earned him Super Bowl MVP, though an argument could have easily been made for Donald as well. With the honor, Kupp joined Jerry Rice as the only wide receivers in NFL history to win the receiving triple crown, offensive player of the year and Super Bowl MVP. However, Kupp had ascended to a distinction of his own as the only one to accomplish all of this in one season.
As for the Bengals, the decision to draft Chase over an offensive lineman arguably lost them the game, as they infamously tied the record for the most sacks allowed in a Super Bowl with 7. However, many expect the young and explosive team to be a playoff threat for years to come.
The city of LA and its many stars had much to celebrate that night. Rams wide receiver Van Jefferson raced to the hospital shortly after the game to welcome his newborn and Rams safety Taylor Rapp popped the question to his girlfriend on the field under the bright lights and confetti while fellow Rams safety Eric Weddle, who came out of retirement for one last shot at that first ring, celebrated with his family nearby. Adding on to the Lakers NBA title and the Dodgers World Series win in 2020, the Rams have made the future of sports look bright in LA. For now one can only wonder if, in a city of stars, these athletes can keep shining.