Aaron Donald could set sack record with a big effort Sunday

Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald, motivated all season by his record-breaking contract, is three sacks away from tying Michael Strahan at 22.5. Christian Petersen/Getty Images

THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. -- Aaron Donald choked back his emotions last Sunday as he sat on the team bus after a victory over the Arizona Cardinals.

The Los Angeles Rams defensive tackle had just recorded three sacks to bring his season total to 19.5, which set a new single-season record for a defensive tackle and is the most sacks by a Rams player since it became an official individual stat in 1982.

"I kind of had to toughen up and not shed those tears," Donald said Thursday. "That’s stuff you dream about. You always want to have success, but you never think it will be as big as it is."

On Sunday in a regular-season finale against the San Francisco 49ers (4-11), Donald will have another chance to make history. It could be even bigger.

Donald, the defending NFL Defensive Player of the Year, has a chance to tie -- or perhaps break -- Hall of Fame defensive end Michael Strahan’s single-season sack record of 22.5, which Strahan set in 2001 when he starred for the New York Giants.

"You never know what can happen," Donald said. "But just going to play the game and, when plays present themselves, try to take advantage of it and just try to help my team to win."

A victory would secure the NFC’s No. 2 seed in the playoffs and earn the Rams (12-3) a first-round bye.

Donald will need three sacks to tie Strahan’s record and 3.5 to break it. Those are big numbers, but they're certainly attainable for Donald.

Last Sunday, he recorded three sacks against rookie quarterback Josh Rosen. In Week 7 against the 49ers, Donald set a career high when he sacked backup C.J. Beathard four times.

On Sunday, Donald will get his shot at the single-season record against rookie Nick Mullens, an undrafted free agent in 2017 from Southern Mississippi who began this season on the practice squad.

"It'd be great," said defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, who has coached Donald for two seasons.

Before the season, Donald signed a six-year, $135 million extension that made him the highest-paid defensive player in NFL history (one day later, Chicago Bears defensive end Khalil Mack signed a deal that surpassed Donald's).

Phillips said the contract made Donald feel like he needed to "accomplish a lot" in his fifth season. "And he's done that," Phillips said. "It goes hand-in-hand."

Donald confirmed that his play was, at least in part, inspired by his record-breaking contract.

"The word thank you ain’t enough," Donald said. "You’ve got to show it, so just go out there and play at a higher level, and instead of saying thank you, show it."