Super Bowl LVI did a great job of reflecting the wild, turbulent and thoroughly-entertaining 2021 NFL season. There were no perfect teams during the most wide-open and unpredictable campaign in living memory. It was a postseason that saw its last seven games decided by three points six times and by six points in overtime once.
And there were no perfect teams on Sunday night in Los Angeles. The hometown Rams committed two turnovers via Matthew Stafford interceptions but were able to buck a major trend which had seen teams winning the turnover battle post a 38-5 record in the Super Bowl.
The reason for the Rams' 23-20 win was a second-half collapse from Cincinnati's offensive line. The Bengals ended the night giving up seven sacks, including six after the break.
As this back-and-forth game progressed, the Rams were getting painfully thin in passing game targets. Odell Beckham Jr. had gone down with a serious-looking knee injury and Stafford was forced to air passes in the direction of the likes of third-string tight end Brycen Hopkins, reserve receiver Ben Skowronek and backup running back Darrell Henderson.
In the end, the Rams had stars who stepped up with the game in the balance. And that's not a knock on Joe Burrow – there is not a huge amount you can do as a quarterback when your protection repeatedly breaks down as it did in SoFi Stadium on Sunday evening.
In a second half where it looked, for a while, like the Rams would not find another touchdown; Sean McVay's men saw their drives end with an interception, a Matt Gay field goal and then three successive punts.
At that point, schemes went out of the window and it became about players not plays. Stafford was going to Cooper Kupp, no matter what. The NFL's triple-crown receiving winner touched the ball five times for 46 yards and the game-winning touchdown on a 15-play, 79-yard drive to seal the Lombardi for LA. Kupp also drew three penalties down near the goal line to set up his winning one-yard reception.
There was still 1:25 left on the clock for Burrow and he did move the Bengals to the Rams' 49-yard line with quick completions to Ja'Marr Chase and Tyler Boyd. After an incompletion on second down, Aaron Donald closed this game out in emphatic fashion.
He dragged Samaji Perine down short of the first down on third-and-one and then forced Burrow into a fourth down incompletion. Game over. Super Bowl, Rams!
The second half was a gentle reminder that you need your stars to step up in big spots to win championships. And that defenses can still very much impact the outcomes in playoff games.
Cooper Kupp… I don't think he should have been named the game's Most Valuable Player and I was left wondering how much a defensive player has to do to win this coveted prize. Kupp himself looked a bit sheepish when learning he was the Super Bowl MVP with 92 receiving yards on eight receptions. But he did step up huge when his team needed him most and he had to do so with all the attention from the defense being steered in his direction. As I just mentioned, the Rams got Kupp going again at just the right time in the game and their reward was a Super Bowl victory.
The Rams' pass rush… Aaron Donald and Von Miller could certainly be staking a claim for the Super Bowl MVP award. Both had two sacks in the second half after a quiet first two quarters. Donald did what the true greats are required to do – he took over the biggest game of his life and delivered a championship. But the pressure came from many different angles on Sunday as the Rams pressured Burrow on 41.5 percent of his dropbacks. That was a season-high by some margin with the previous best being 26.6 percent during the regular season. It was a swarming and dominant display and Burrow had no time to breathe back there.
Cincinnati's defense… The Bengals kept shutting the door on the Rams in the second half, setting the table for a Burrow-led victory. But Cincinnati's offensive line spoiled that plan over and over again. The Bengals came up with two turnovers, sacked Stafford twice and held the Rams to 23 runs for 43 yards (1.9 average). They may have buckled at the end, but Cincinnati's defense did enough to put the Bengals in position to win this Super Bowl. But it all comes back to those five guys up front for Cincinnati. Their poor play – and excellent play from the Rams – undid all the good defensive work.
The Bengals' offensive line… Cincinnati's worst nightmare came to fruition. The Bengals' ultimate weakness was exposed by the Rams' strength. After keeping Burrow clean for much of the first half (he was sacked just once), Cincinnati imploded up front. Burrow was sacked six times in the third and fourth quarters and pressured in very similar way to last year's Super Bowl when Patrick Mahomes faced Tampa Bay. Cincinnati allowed Burrow to be sacked 19 times in this playoff series – the most of any quarterback in playoff history. During the regular season and the playoffs, Burrow was dropped 70 times – third-most in league history. You can't win it all that way. Everything else was in place for the Bengals on Sunday night.
Cincinnati's 'money down' play… The Bengals rolled the dice on fourth down plays at the start and at the end of the Super Bowl and failed on both. The first – on their very first drive – ended near midfield and gave the Rams excellent field position. They converted that into seven points on Stafford's touchdown strike to OBJ. They had no choice but to go for it on fourth down at the end and Donald ended the game by a forcing Burrow into a desperation heave that might have been caught if Perine had at least dived to see what might have happened. Throughout the night, the Bengals went three of 14 on third down conversions. Not good enough.
The Rams' running game… The Bengals played really well in stopping the LA rushing attack and that made life even harder for Stafford in the second half… until that one moment of magic with the longest go-ahead fourth quarter drive in Super Bowl history (15 plays and 79 yards). Cam Akers carried 13 times for just 21 yards and LA's longest runs of the night covered seven yards (from Kupp and Stafford). There was no balance to the Rams' attack but they just about got it away with it and won't care now they are the new NFL champs.
The Fast Five…
- Rodney Harrison, of NBC, dropped a massive news bomb in the buildup to the kickoff of Super Bowl 56, reporting that Aaron Donald might retire if he won the big game. Minnesota Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins, who joined us for the pre-game on Sky Sports NFL, confirmed that he had such whispers on the gridiron grapevine in recent weeks. Donald did nothing to dispel the report after the game. He could easily of said it was false and he was coming back. But, instead, he said he needed time to "be in the moment." There is now a very real possibility that the greatest defensive player of his generation walks away after just eight seasons in the league.
- The bravado of Burrow rubbed off on the entire Bengals' team and it comes as no surprise to hear that Cincinnati were talking about getting back to this big game time and again in the future. We would be foolish to write Burrow off at any turn, but a return won't be easy. We may look back on this game in 10 years and think, 'that was Cincinnati's moment and they blew it with the Rams there for the taking in the second half.' The AFC is loaded with great quarterbacks and teams who are going to be difficult to get past… Josh Allen and the Buffalo Bills, Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs and maybe even Justin Herbert and the Los Angeles Chargers, to name a few.
- Odell Beckham Jr. was off to a fast start with two catches for 52 yards and a touchdown and looked on pace for his first back-to-back 100-yard receiving days since Weeks 7 and 8 of the 2018 season. Everything changed for the Rams with a tearful OBJ on the sidelines. Prior to the injury, Stafford went 10 of 12 for 140 yards (11.7 yards per attempt) with two touchdowns and no picks. With OBJ out, Stafford hit on 16 of 28 throws for 143 yards (5.1 yards per attempt) with one touchdown and two interceptions. While it must have frustrated him and he may now face some lengthy rehab (injury details are not known at the time of writing), Beckham can take solace in the fact he played a major role on a championship winner. He has indeed made it to the top of the NFL mountain.
- Matthew Stafford went through eight losing seasons in Detroit and was 0-3 in the playoffs coming into this Super Bowl run. After years of misery and frustration, Stafford delivered to become just the third quarterback in NFL history to win a Super Bowl in his first season with a new team. As was the case with Stafford throughout the season, there were some bumps in the road. But his good definitely out-weighed the bad. And it is somewhat fitting that his journey to becoming a Super Bowl champion came with some adversity along the way.
- There has been a lot of talk in the last couple of weeks about how Rams head coach Sean McVay handled his first Super Bowl experience, losing to New England three years ago. And there has been some criticism in the last few hours about the Rams sticking with the run for too long on Super Sunday. But they had to try to find some semblance of offensive balance, so I didn't see that as much of an issue. We should give McVay huge amounts of credit for his late gamble with the game on the line. Facing a fourth-and-one at his own 30-yard line with five minutes remaining, McVay could have been forgiven for kicking the ball away and trusting his defense one more time. Instead, McVay made sure the ball got into the hands of his best player and Kupp gained seven yards on a critical end-around. It was a bold move that paid off with a Super Bowl victory.
Facts of the Week…
- Sean McVay is the youngest head coach to win a Super Bowl at the age of 36 years and 20 days, breaking the 'old' record set by Pittsburgh's Mike Tomlin, who was 36 years and 323 days when winning his league title at the end of the 2008 season.
- Cooper Kupp ended his 2021 campaign as the AP Offensive Player of the Year and the Super Bowl MVP. He racked up a record 2,425 receiving yards in the regular season and playoffs – the most in a single season in NFL history and by quite some margin (448 yards). His 33 receptions in a single playoff run are also an NFL record. Kupp and Odell Beckham Jr. combined for 766 receiving yards in these playoffs – another all-time record.
So, in the past two seasons, we have seen Tom Brady win a Super Bowl in his first year with Tampa Bay and now Stafford in his first campaign with the Rams. Make no mistake about it, veteran quarterbacks around the league will be watching and wondering where they can go to win immediately. I don't think the Russell Wilson drama is over in Seattle, we should keep an eye on Aaron Rodgers and the Packers and some Kyler Murray headlines are just waiting to be written in the Arizona desert. Add in the news that the Indianapolis Colts are keen to cut or trade Carson Wentz before the new league year begins in March and you will quickly realise that the impending offseason is going to be far from quiet. Quarterbacks and star players have more power than ever and I think we will see at least one big-name superstar engineer a move to a contender in the coming months. Stay tuned.