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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Rams’ aggressive roster build pays off in Super Bowl win

Matthew Stafford had never won a playoff game during his 12 seasons with the Detroit Lions before the Rams traded for him in 2021.

By Ben Shpigel

The Los Angeles Rams know that there are many ways to win in the modern NFL, yet every year 31 of them are wrong. The only methodology conclusively confirmed to work belongs to the team hugging and crying beneath cascading confetti after the season’s final game. On Sunday night, that falling royal blue and yellow confetti validated the Rams’ iconoclastic team-building approach that upended a hidebound league.

Los Angeles hired the youngest coach in NFL history. Instead of hoping first-round draft picks would become stars, the team traded them for proven A-listers. The Rams dealt a quarterback who played in a Super Bowl — because they did not think Jared Goff could lead them to another — for one, veteran Matthew Stafford, who had never won a playoff game.

In a fitting climax to this exhilarating, disjointed mess of a season, Los Angeles scored a late touchdown to topple the upstart Cincinnati Bengals 23-20 on its home field at SoFi Stadium, the $5 billion bauble erected in Inglewood, California by Rams’ owner Stan Kroenke. It was the Rams’ second Super Bowl title and first since moving westward six years ago to a land of excess and extravagance that reflects their roster, which abounds with standouts by design.

The electrifying ending — punctuated by Stafford’s third touchdown pass, a 1-yarder to Cooper Kupp with 1:25 remaining — marked a worthy coda to the NFL’s longest season, 23 weeks of the regular season and postseason laced with parity and unpredictability. The staffing uncertainty wrought by the coronavirus, in the second season played amid a pandemic, created a cavalcade of upsets that funneled into the postseason: Five of the past six games before Sunday were decided on the final play.

All that mayhem attracted millions upon millions of viewers — television ratings, the NFL’s highest since 2015, soared 10% from last season — allowing the league to steamroller on past various scandals, play its games into the middle of February and go head-to-head with the Beijing Olympics. On Sunday, all who tuned in, an ever-growing global audience, were treated to a captivating game, with only one possession separating the teams for nearly the final 36 minutes.

Appearing in its first Super Bowl in 33 years, Cincinnati lost in a way that evoked its last visit. With the Bengals leading 20-16 midway through the fourth quarter — the same score they lost by to San Francisco in Super Bowl XXIII in 1989 — a dropped ball again conjured unpleasant memories. Doomed back then by Lewis Billups’ muffed end-zone interception, Cincinnati had to punt Sunday when Tyler Boyd — who had no drops during the regular season — couldn’t hold onto a third-down pass.

“I am human,” said Boyd, adding, “I do not beat myself up over things like that.”

Taking over at their 21-yard line with 6:13 remaining, the Rams stampeded down the field, extending their drive on fourth-and-1 from their own 30-yard line on a 7-yard jet sweep by Kupp that was designed to look like a quarterback sneak.

“We don’t make that play,” Rams coach Sean McVay said, “we’re not sitting up here on the podium.”

A second defensive penalty inside the Cincinnati red zone ushered the Rams to the 1-yard line. As Stafford’s childhood friend Clayton Kershaw, the longtime Dodgers ace, watched from the stands, Kupp — selected as the game’s MVP — reached back to grab a nifty back-shoulder toss.

The Bengals advanced as far as the Los Angeles 49-yard line before Aaron Donald, the Rams’ pocket-wrecking defensive tackle, again proved he is the shortest distance between two points. After Donald dragged down Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow, causing his final pass to fall incomplete, the Rams scampered onto the field, becoming the second consecutive team to win a title in its home stadium after the Tampa Bay Buccaneers did so to end last season.

As a whole, the Rams have been waiting for this moment since Les Snead took over as the general manager in 2012, when he arrived in their former home, St. Louis, abiding by a philosophy he called “Wake up sprinting, don’t be scared.” They floundered for five years before hiring McVay, then 30, in a move that transformed the franchise following a desultory debut season in Southern California.

He was born near Cincinnati, in Dayton, Ohio, and attended Miami University in Oxford, a cradle of coaching that nurtured Woody Hayes, John Harbaugh and Paul Brown, who founded the very franchise that McVay’s team conquered Sunday. All week, McVay said he learned from the Rams’ Super Bowl loss to New England three years ago, when, he admitted, Bill Belichick out-coached him, and Sunday he called plays that reflected his confidence in Stafford, 34, who to him represented the quarterback’s ideal: strong-armed and decisive, capable of expanding the playbook instead of shrinking it.

Whether both sides acknowledged it or not, this season has been freighted with pressure. The score at halftime — 13-10 in favor of Los Angeles — reflected the taut, teetering game to that point, with Stafford proffering a microcosm of why the Rams coveted him. Few quarterbacks have both Stafford’s arm strength and his aggressiveness, his penchant for late comebacks. Aware of that, the Rams imported him from the Lions, accepting the risks inherent in his style because the rewards had the potential to be majestic.

On the Rams’ first scoring drive, in the first quarter, he zipped an inch-perfect fade to Odell Beckham Jr. for a 17-yard touchdown. On their second scoring drive, with Cincinnati slow to adjust to all of Los Angeles’ motions and shifts, Stafford lofted an 11-yarder to Kupp — his fourth consecutive playoff game with a touchdown reception — that extended their lead to 13-3.

As Burrow stayed patient, guiding the Bengals on a seven-minute drive in the second quarter that was capped by an exquisite trick play — running back Joe Mixon’s halfback toss to Tee Higgins. Stafford started firing his passes high, wide or just off. One such throw caused Beckham to reach behind him, and when he did, his body moved one way and his leg, planted in the turf, went another. He rose, eventually, but did not return, felled by a knee injury.

Across his first two stops in the NFL, Beckham developed a reputation as a petulant but popular receiver, as well known for making absurd catches as proposing to kicking nets, appearing in a Drake video and forcing his way out of town. But in Los Angeles, he had found football nirvana and emerged as a viable second receiver, drawing coverage away from Kupp, particularly in the red zone.

With Beckham out, the Rams deployed rookie Ben Skowronek, who dropped a sure touchdown in the NFC championship game against San Francisco two weeks ago. On the team’s first offensive play after halftime — after Burrow connected with Higgins on a 75-yard touchdown — Stafford’s pass deflected off Skowronek’s outstretched left hand and into the arms of Bengals cornerback Chidobe Awuzie for an unlucky interception.

The Bengals converted that takeaway into Evan McPherson’s second field goal — a 38-yarder — which extended their lead to 20-13 with 10:15 remaining in the third quarter, and a Super Bowl win finally seemed possible.

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