NFL

Evoking Tom Brady’s heroics, Rams’ best players delivered in crunch time in Super Bowl

Cooper Kupp, Aaron Donald, and Matthew Stafford played brilliantly when the stakes were highest and the situation demanded it.

Aaron Donald was all over Joe Burrow in the second half.


Welcome to the Unconventional Review, an instant reaction to standouts, stats, and story lines from the Super Bowl LVI

During the buildup to this Super Bowl, it was not uncommon to see the 2021 Bengals compared to the 2001 Patriots. Not so much in regard to how their rosters were structured (Joe Burrow was the no-doubt No. 1 pick in the draft 20 years after Tom Brady went No. 199, you know?) but because neither team was expected to be anywhere near the Super Bowl unless they all chipped in on a couple of luxury boxes or something.

As it turned out, there were plenty of reminders of Patriots championships Sunday night, but it was the victorious Rams that supplied them. The one constant in the Patriots’ six Super Bowl victories was Brady playing brilliantly when the stakes were highest and the situation demanded it.

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The Rams, 23-20 winners over the Bengals, are Super Bowl champions this morning for a very similar reason. Their best players — Cooper Kupp, Aaron Donald, and yes, even that old Lion Matthew Stafford — came through again and again and all over again in the final minutes of the game.

Some further thoughts, upon immediate review …

Three players who were worth watching

Cooper Kupp: There’s no doubt now, folks. Kupp just submitted the greatest season by a receiver in NFL history. He led the league in receptions, receiving yards, and touchdown receptions, won the Offensive Player of the Year award, and then slapped an exclamation point on all of it with a tour de force performance in winning Super Bowl MVP.

Kupp caught eight passes for 92 yards and a pair of touchdowns. He hauled in an 11-yard touchdown pass to put the Rams up, 13-3, early in the second quarter, but he saved his best work for the final drive, when everyone knew the ball was going his way and he made play after play after play anyway.

On the Rams’ epic 15-play, 79-yard march, he gained 7 yards on a fourth-and-1 run at their own 30, added a pair of 8-yard catches and a 22-yarder, caught a TD pass from 4 yards out that was nullified by a penalty, then culminated the whole spectacular thing with a 1-yard TD catch with 1:25 left.

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His only mistake of the night came as a passer, when he missed Matthew Stafford on a cutesy third-and-5 play in the third quarter, forcing the Rams to settle for a field goal.

At one point on the final drive, Cris Collinsworth said on the broadcast, “Cooper Kupp has to be engaged in the comeback effort. He just has to.” Turns out he wasn’t just engaged. He was the comeback effort.

Odell Beckham Jr.: Kupp’s degree of difficulty in achieving what he did in the fourth quarter was so high in part because he was the only receiver the Bengals really had to worry about. Van Jefferson had four catches on eight targets while serving mostly to give Patriots fans flashbacks to his dad Shawn running sporadically fruitful deep routes during his Foxborough days. Ben Skowronek looked like the N’Keal Harry of the Rams, noticeable only when he was making a brutal mistake.

Early in the game, Beckham was his vintage self, but he was not there at the end because of cruel football matters beyond his control. Beckham had two catches for 52 yards — a 17-yard touchdown for the first points of the game, and a 35-yard catch-and-run on third and 11 early in the second quarter. But with just under 4 minutes left in the first half, Beckham appeared to suffer a noncontact injury to his knee, and did not return.

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The NBC cameras caught him in tears on the sideline. Hopefully those turned to tears of joy at the end, because he was excellent before the injury.

Tee Higgins: A popular notion heading into this game among analysts is that Higgins was poised for a big game in part because Rams star cornerback Jalen Ramsey would be assigned to contend with rookie sensation Ja’Marr Chase. As it turned out, Higgins did have a big game, catching four passes for 100 yards and two touchdowns, but his biggest play actually came with Ramsey in coverage.

On the first snap of the second half, Higgins torched Ramsey for a 75-yard touchdown, somehow getting away with chucking the Rams cornerback aside by his facemask while the ball was in the air. Earlier, he scored the Bengals’ first touchdown on a pass from running back Joe Mixon.

Grievance of the Game

I suppose it was kind of a bummer that the funniest commercial, featuring Larry David being wrong at some pivotal moments throughout history (now there’s a man who knows a thing or two about grievances) turned out to be a crypto pitch.

Anyone who gripes about that top-three all-time halftime show, featuring Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, and Eminem among other legends, also gets chucked into the annoying pile.

But there wasn’t much to gripe about regarding the game, other than that it turned into somewhat of a referee show in the final minutes after basically taking a no-harm-no-foul approach through the first three quarters.

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The Bengals had a legitimate beef on the defensive holding call against Logan Wilson on third down with 1:47 left, which gave the Rams a first down and the ball on the Bengals 4, since it was a ticky-tack call and the Rams entire offensive line moved before the snap. But it more or less evened things out given that they missed Higgins’s facemask on Ramsey earlier.

The only real complaint here, honestly? That the NFL season is over.

Matchup

Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald versus the Bengals line

For a while, the Bengals’ notoriously porous offensive line held up. The Rams didn’t pick up their first sack of Burrow until 37 seconds remained in the first half, when Leonard Floyd got him.

The second half was a different story. Led by Donald and Von Miller, who each had a pair of sacks, the Rams took down Burrow six times, finishing the game with seven sacks and 18 pressures. If he didn’t habitually get rid of the ball so quickly, Burrow might have been hauled down another half-dozen times.

Watching Donald, the three-time Defensive Player of the Year, destroy the Bengals line down the stretch was reminiscent of what the Packers’ Reggie White did to the Patriots late in Super Bowl XXXI. Donald collected his first sack by shoving Burrow — who was sacked a total of 70 times this season — out of bounds in the first minute of the third quarter, a hit that drew the ire of Bengals players wholly incapable of doing anything about it.

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Donald’s two best plays came on the Rams’ final two defensive snaps of the season. With Burrow (limping after taking an earlier hit to the knee) trying to lead the Bengals on a tying or winning drive, Donald hauled down running back Samaje Perine on a third-and-1 run, then cannonballed through the line on fourth down and forced Burrow to blindly heave the ball incomplete.

I’ll tell you, watching Donald’s dominance made me appreciate the job Joe Thuney and the Patriots line did to nullify him in Super Bowl LIII.

Three notes scribbled in the margin

Bengals defensive back Vernon Hargreaves picked up a taunting penalty for running on the field after Mike Hilton’s interception late in the second quarter. Silly penalty, but hilarious given that he wasn’t even dressed for the game … Stafford (26 of 40, 283 yards, 3 TDs, 2 INTs) outplayed Burrow (22 of 33, 263, 1 TD), but he had the benefit of not being under siege every time he dropped back in the second half … I was sure that Disney+ commercial featuring all of those goats (animal version) would have an appearance by Brady (GOAT, quarterback version) at the end. Missed opportunity there, Mickey.

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