INGLEWOOD, Calif. — After so many years of disappointment, it all came down to this for Matthew Stafford:.
His team was down by four points in the Super Bowl.
It was 79 yards away from the end zone.
And there were only 6 minutes, 13 seconds left in the game.
But Stafford pulled it off – barely. Fifteen plays later, the Los Angeles Rams quarterback delivered the winning touchdown pass that capped a Super Bowl drive for the ages, lifting the Rams over the Cincinnati Bengals 23-20 on Sunday at SoFi Stadium.
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“You put the ball in your best players’ hands when it matters the most, and that’s what we did with Matthew,” Rams coach Sean McVay said afterward. “And he delivered in a big way.”.
The drive redefined Stafford as a champion in the clutch one year after the Rams traded three draft picks and their previous starting quarterback to obtain him from the Detroit Lions. Before he moved west, Stafford had never won a playoff game in 12 seasons in Detroit despite engineering 31 fourth-quarter comebacks and 38 game-winning drives.
On Sunday, he worked the same magic, only with a few key changes in circumstance from last season – a different team with everything on the line in the biggest game of his life.
Yet it all came so close to never happening. Stafford even had to make do without one of his top receivers, Odell Beckham Jr., Who left the game with a knee injury in the second quarter and never returned.
“That last drive was a special drive, one I’ll never forget,” Stafford said afterward. “It was so many great plays by so many great players. Just so happy to get it done, and I don’t know … I’m speechless.”.
The turning point came four plays after the drive started with the Bengals leading, 20-16. Stafford faced fourth-and-1 at the Rams’ own 30-yard line. If the Rams didn’t convert, they likely would have lost the game with Stafford cast as the scapegoat with the offense mustering only three points after halftime.
Instead, McVay gambled based on how the Bengals had defended the Rams previously in short-yardage situations.
“You know what, sometimes you just go with a gut feel,” McVay said.
It worked. Star receiver Cooper Kupp took a handoff from Stafford and went around the right end for a 7-yard gain, keeping the drive alive for the Rams.
“We don’t make that play, we’re not sitting up here winning that game for sure,” McVay said. “Big-time play.”.
It still only got them to the Bengals’ 37-yard line with 4:36 left. At this point, McVay was staring down the barrel of another Super Bowl loss just three years after he saw his Rams suffer a 13-3 defeat against the New England Patriots. McVay even admitted then he had been out-coached by the Patriots’ Bill Belichick.
This time, the Rams moved with tempo and danced with the man who brought them there – Kupp, who was named the game’s MVP after leading the NFL this year in catches, touchdown catches and receiving yards.
Over the next six plays, Stafford connected with Kupp three times for a combined 38 yards, including catches of 22 and eight yards that helped bring the Rams to the Bengals’ 16-yard line with a little over two minutes remaining.
“On that final drive, I thought Sean did an unbelievable job of letting us go out there and play with a bunch of tempo,” Stafford said. “Coop (Kupp) obviously had some huge plays, and the game-winner was just icing on the cake.”.
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Those final 16 yards were hard to come by, though. Rams running back Cam Akers had struggled all game, gaining only 13 yards on 12 carries until he finally barreled through for an 8-yard game on second-and-2 to bring the Rams to the Bengals’ 8-yard line.
After two straight incomplete passes from Stafford, the Rams then faced third down and goal with 1:47 left.
Stafford tried to connect again with Kupp, only this time his pass fell incomplete. But then came another big break for the Rams. Bengals linebacker Logan Wilson was penalized for defensive holding on the play despite making only slight contact with Kupp, giving the Rams a first down at the 4.
The Rams’ offensive line also avoided getting flagged for a costly false-start penalty on that play after game officials apparently missed it. If officials had flagged the Rams for that instead, the Rams would have faced third down again.
Wilson said afterward that Kupp “came up to me and tried to push off of me, and I thought I made a good play on the ball. The refs saw otherwise, so it’s a tough call.”.
On the next play, Kupp caught an apparent touchdown pass from Stafford in the back right corner of the end zone. Yet penalty flags flew on that play, too – offensive holding by the Rams and unnecessary roughness by the Bengals. The penalties offset each other, keeping the Rams at the 4-yard line on first down.
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And then it happened again – another penalty, putting much of the focus in the final two minutes on the referees instead of Stafford. Before this drive, both teams had combined for only four penalties.
On this one, Bengals cornerback Eli Apple grabbed Kupp’s jersey from behind in the end zone, drawing a flag for pass interference and giving the Rams another first down one yard from the goal line.
The game officials “were letting us play all three quarters, and when it got down to that fourth, they started being a little more flag-happy,” Bengals cornerback Mike Hilton said.
After the game, McVay said that it felt like it took the Rams 60 plays to punch the ball in the end zone after getting inside the 25-yard line. All they needed was one big one. Stafford tried to run it in from the 1-yard line but got stuffed short of it, leading to a timeout by the Bengals with 1:29 left.
Now it was second down from the 1. Finally, Stafford sent a pass up for Kupp on the right side of the end zone, where he jumped to snatch it over Apple.
The Rams took a 23-20 lead on a drive that took 4:48 off the clock.
Cincinnati got the ball back after that with 1:25 left but got shut down by Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald. Game over.
Stafford “made a great back-shoulder throw, and I was able to come down with it,” Kupp said.
McVay had another way to describe it.
“Cooper Kupp is the man,” he said.
As for the final drive, McVay said, “It was unbelievable.”.
Stafford finished the drive by completing seven of 11 passes for 57 yards and the game-winning touchdown. He noted his time in Detroit afterward, saying “for twelve years that goal wasn’t reached.”.
“It tore me up inside,” he said. “But I knew I could keep playing and try to find a way and the fact that we reached that goal today is so special.”.
Follow reporter Brent Schrotenboer @Schrotenboer. Email: [email protected].