NFL

Super Bowl LVI: Kupp and Donald shine bright again to end wait for star-studded Rams

By Sports Desk February 13, 2022

The abiding image of Super Bowl LVI looked as if it would be the sight of Odell Beckham Jr. in tears on the sideline, desperately disappointed at being unable to help his Los Angeles Rams team-mates as they laboured against the Cincinnati Bengals in his absence forced by a knee injury suffered in the second quarter.

Cooper Kupp and Aaron Donald refused to let that be the case.

As they have done throughout a rollercoaster 2021 campaign, the Rams' two biggest stars stepped up to ensure the loss of the one they acquired in a blockbuster midseason signing would not prove decisive, once again rising to the occasion to propel the franchise to its first Super Bowl title in Los Angeles with a 23-20 win at their SoFi Stadium home, which was awash with Bengals fans.

Until the penultimate drive, the injury to Beckham, who scored the Rams' first touchdown, appeared set to be the turning point. After he limped off the field, the Rams saw a drive end in points just once, kicking a field goal in the third quarter to trim the Bengals' lead to 20-16. Other than that, their offensive series in the wake of Beckham's injury produced a pair of interceptions and four punts.

Having enjoyed a stunning postseason, Matthew Stafford was struggling for chemistry with any of his receivers minus the attention Beckham commands. It was a problem the Rams did not look like solving, but the solution ultimately proved a simple one, as they reverted to a policy that has often served them well this season on the final drive: feed Kupp.

Kupp had touched the ball just twice after Beckham went down. A lack of involvement for the Offensive Player of the Year and now Super Bowl MVP was never likely to produce the desired result for the Rams, so on fourth and one with the game on the line they made sure the ball ended up in his hands, Kupp coming across the formation and receiving a hand-off from Stafford that he took for seven yards.

From there, the final drive was the Kupp show, the wide receiver's final act of one of the most exciting seasons of recent memory sure to be one that will live in NFL lore.

Kupp racked up 46 scrimmage yards as he was targeted six times by Matthew Stafford, those targets resulting in 39 yards, two critical penalties and, most importantly, a leaping grab in the endzone that finally ended the Rams' wait for a title in the city they returned to in 2016 after over two decades away.

A key defensive holding call against Logan Wilson on third and eight from the Cincinnati eight-yard line was dubious, while a pass interference penalty on Eli Apple that put the ball on the one-yard line was more obvious, but there was no doubt about the quality from Kupp as he sold Apple an inside release and then adjusted perfectly to a back-shoulder throw from Stafford to erase the Bengals' 20-16 lead.

As he did in the Divisional Round and the Conference Championship, Kupp had struck a telling blow, but the Rams needed a closer on defense with a Bengals reply initially looking promising. Enter Donald.

The man most consider the best player in the NFL hadn't quite succeeded in wrecking the game even as a much-maligned Bengals offensive line disintegrated in the second half and left Joe Burrow hobbled, yet he saved his best for the most significant play of the game on a do-or-die fourth down for Cincinnati, powering past Bengals left guard Quinton Spain with a two-hand swipe move and flinging Burrow to the turf as he let loose a desperation pass that fell short of Samaje Perine.

It meant that tears of joy from Beckham – rather than his earlier anguish – would, along with that of Donald gesturing to put a ring on his finger, be one of the abiding images from a game that saw Sean McVay become the youngest Super Bowl-winning head coach in NFL history.

The Rams' road to Super Bowl glory has come the hard way, Los Angeles becoming the first team to win three successive postseason games by three points or fewer, and there has been a common thread across each of those wins. When they have needed them the most, the Rams have seen their stars – be it Stafford, Kupp and Beckham on offense or Donald and Co. on defense – deliver.

As a franchise, the Rams have eschewed the traditional team-building methods, trading away draft pick after draft pick to build a top-heavy roster and inviting scrutiny with each setback the team suffered as a result. In Kupp and Donald, though, it is two homegrown draft picks who have ensured those stumbles and any questions about the construction of their roster can now be forgotten, with the Rams free to enjoy the feeling of vindication for the next six months.

Los Angeles went off-script to build a perennial playoff contender and, thanks to that approach and the Rams' ability to come through in a cliffhanger, it is the team from the city of stars that ends the year outshining all others.

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