The Los Angeles Rams and their roster full of stars are headed to Super Bowl LVI, where they’ll try to win a world championship on their home field.
And it was three of their biggest stars who helped get them there.
On the one-year anniversary of his trade to the Rams, quarterback Matthew Stafford led three straight fourth-quarter scoring drives to erase a 10-point deficit against the San Francisco 49ers in Sunday’s NFC Championship Game at SoFi Stadium.
All-Pro receiver Cooper Kupp caught a pair of touchdown passes, one coming during that late rally. And Aaron Donald, the three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year, helped the Rams slam the door shut after Matt Gay kicked a 30-yard field goal to break a 17-17 tie with under two minutes left.
Donald’s pressure forced 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo into a desperation throw that was intercepted by linebacker Travin Howard to seal a 20-17 Rams win. That snapped a six-game losing streak to their divisional rivals and punched their ticket to Super Bowl LVI, where they’ll face the Cincinnati Bengals on Feb. 13 at SoFi Stadium.
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“I’m so proud of this group,” Stafford said. “We’ve had high expectations all year, done nothing but everything in our power to try to meet those. It’s a terrific group we have in there. Today wasn’t easy. It wasn’t perfect in some spots, but we found a way to win the game and that’s what it’s all about. I’m just happy and proud to be a part of this group. We’ve got some more work left to do.”
Los Angeles opened as a four-point favorite over Cincinnati at Caesars Sportsbook. The line had moved to 3.5 by later Sunday evening.
The outcome that owner Stan Kroenke had in mind when he built $5 billion SoFi Stadium — and the outcome the Rams aggressively pursued by loading up their roster with one big name after another — is one step closer to reality. Even if the road to get there was more stressful than they might have preferred.
A week after holding off a furious comeback bid by Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the Rams needed their own rally after trailing 17-7 entering the fourth quarter. And they needed some good fortune as well. Namely, 49ers safety Jaquiski Tartt dropping a would-be interception and extending a Rams drive that resulted in a 40-yard Gay field goal that tied the game at 17.
The Rams reached the red zone on their next drive but had to settle for another field goal — Gay’s game winner — after Stafford was sacked for a 7-yard loss on second down.
“Wish I could have gotten that ball out maybe,” Stafford said. “Made them burn a timeout. But at the same time, wish we’d have put seven up there. It would have felt a whole lot better sitting on the sideline, but I’ve got so much trust in our defense, so much faith in those guys. They went out there and did their thing and got the win.”
Matthew Stafford will be the seventh quarterback to start a Super Bowl in his first season with a team and will attempt to join Tom Brady (2020 Tampa Bay Buccaneers) and Trent Dilfer (2000 Baltimore Ravens) as the only ones to win it. Christian Petersen/Getty Images
Before Sunday, the Rams had been 0-14 under coach Sean McVay when trailing by 10 or more points entering the fourth quarter, including playoffs. That included 0-4 this season.
Donald didn’t have a QB pressure through the first three quarters Sunday, as the Rams as a whole pressured Garoppolo on just four of his 22 dropbacks in the opening three quarters (18%). In the fourth quarter, however, Los Angeles pressured Garoppolo on seven of his nine dropbacks (77%).
Donald and Von Miller combined for seven QB pressures Sunday, all in the second half, and Garoppolo was 1-of-7 passing on those plays.
“It was great,” Miller said when asked about Donald’s message to the defense with the Rams trailing 17-7. “He’s been Aaron Donald — vocally, physically, emotionally. … That’s what leaders do. He’s a great leader. It just feels good to contribute. Like I said, a Super Bowl is all he needs. He could walk off into the sunset, and I’m going to do everything in my power to make that happen for him.”
Miller (QB hit, tackle for loss) said it was “surreal” to reach the Super Bowl with his close friend, receiver Odell Beckham Jr. The two were acquired by the Rams two weeks apart in November in a continuation of the team’s all-in approach to 2021, and they answered questions postgame Sunday while standing next to each other at the podium.
Beckham caught nine passes for 113 yards. That included a 29-yard reception on the Rams’ tying field goal drive.
The one-year deal he signed with the Rams reportedly included up to $3 million in incentives tied to the team’s postseason success. He earned $1.25 million with their first two wins and another $750,000 Sunday.
“Everything about this place is right, and it’s done right,” Beckham said. “It’s just been an incredible opportunity that I feel like I’m just trying to make the most of. Here we are playing in the Super Bowl, one game away from our dreams. Just keep going.”
The Rams will play in the Super Bowl for the fifth time in franchise history and the second time since they moved from St. Louis following the 2016 season. They lost Super Bowl XIV, won Super Bowl XXXIV, lost Super Bowl XXXVI and lost Super Bowl LIII to Brady and the New England Patriots after the 2018 season, their second season under McVay.
Before the Bucs won the Super Bowl last season at Raymond James Stadium, no team had even played in the game on its home field.
“To be able to play at home in this house that Stan Kroenke built, this iconic venue, is really unique,” McVay said. “A little bit easier travel schedule for us since we traveled all over the country during the course of the year. … Just so happy with this group. Proud to be associated with it.”
“A Super Bowl is all he needs. He could walk off into the sunset and I’m going to do everything in my power to make that happen for him.”
Von Miller on Rams teammate Aaron Donald
The Rams’ six straight losses to the 49ers included an overtime defeat in Week 18, when they blew a 17-0 lead. As it was in that game, the crowd at SoFi Stadium was heavily packed with 49ers fans on Sunday.
“The previous six games where we didn’t find a way to finish had nothing to do with what’s going to occur at 3:30 or 3:40 when we kick this thing off. Those are separate entities,” McVay said. “Our guys did a great job of continuing to compartmentalize. We always talk about being totally and completely present, having a short memory for good and bad. Being able to hit that reset button. I thought our guys did that in a big way.”
Stafford finished 31-of-45 for 337 yards, two touchdowns and an interception on a goal-line throw to Cupp that was tipped. He was 0-3 in the playoffs over his first 12 seasons with the Detroit Lions and has now led winning drives in consecutive playoff victories after a stress-free win over the Arizona Cardinals in the wild-card round.
Stafford will be the seventh quarterback to start a Super Bowl in his first season with a team. He’ll try to join Brady (2020 Buccaneers) and Trent Dilfer (2000 Baltimore Ravens) as the only three to win it.
“It’s great that it’s here,” Stafford said of the Super Bowl. “If we were playing in it, I didn’t give a hell where it was. I’m like, I just want to play in the dang thing. But the fact that it’s under this roof, it’s going to be awesome. Our fans did an unbelievable job tonight, making it a tough environment. And it’s nice to send some of those red jerseys home.”
Gay’s 30-yard game winner was the same distance as the field goal he made as time expired to lift the Rams to a win over the Bucs in last week’s divisional round, after Brady had led the defending world champions back from a 27-3 deficit.
Kupp, the fifth player since the 1970 merger to win the NFC’s receiving triple crown, finished with 11 catches for 142 yards and two touchdowns, giving him four this postseason. His 386 yards are third most in a postseason before the Super Bowl.
“We have no chance of being here without Cooper Kupp,” McVay said.
ESPN Stats & Information contributed to this report.
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