Los Angeles Rams' all-in, star-heavy approach results in Super Bowl LVI win over Cincinnati Bengals

INGLEWOOD, Calif. -- Super Bowl LVI was shaping up to be a supersized disappointment for the Los Angeles Rams.

They had lost their lead during a disastrous start to the second half. They had lost one of their best players in wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. to a knee injury. They were about to waste MVP-caliber performances from Aaron Donald and Von Miller, not to mention what might be their best shot at a championship in the foreseeable future.

Then, as they have so many times during the Rams' championship season, quarterback Matthew Stafford and wide receiver Cooper Kupp came to the rescue.

In a drive that will go down in NFL lore, Kupp converted a fourth down with an end around, drew three straight penalties and caught four passes from Stafford, the last of which produced a 1-yard touchdown with 1:25 left, capping a 79-yard drive that started with 6:13 remaining.

Donald then closed the door with another pressure of Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow on fourth-and-1 from the Rams' 49 with 39 seconds left.

The Rams' return to the top of the NFL world is the perfect ending to a story that reads like a Hollywood script.

They mortgaged their future, trading high draft choices in an all-in effort to win Super Bowl LVI at SoFi Stadium -- in the first season with fans at owner Stan Kroenke's $5 billion venue -- and it paid off with a 23-20 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday. It was the Rams' second Super Bowl championship and first title in Los Angeles since 1951.

"It feels outstanding. You talk about a resilient team, coaches, players. I'm so proud of this group, just proud to be associated with it," Rams coach Sean McVay said. "We talk about competitive greatness all the time, being your best when your best is required. For the offense to be able to find a way and then Aaron to be able to finish it off, it's poetic, man."

They moved back to Los Angeles in 2016, a homecoming that followed a 21-year run in St. Louis that was highlighted by a win in Super Bowl XXXIV in 2000. They fell hard in Super Bowl LIII to the Patriots after the 2018 season, setting the stage for eventual redemption.

They got it thanks to a string of bold moves.

  • Hiring 30-year-old McVay as head coach in 2017, making him the youngest head coach in the league's modern history.

  • Trading two first-round draft choices to the Jacksonville Jaguars for cornerback Jalen Ramsey in October 2019.

  • Trading quarterback Jared Goff, two first-round picks and a third-round pick to the Detroit Lions for Stafford in January 2020.

  • Trading a second- and third-round pick to the Denver Broncos for Miller on Nov. 1.

  • Signing Beckham Jr. to a one-year contract on Nov. 11.

Kroenke brought his team back to a highly saturated sports market long owned by the Los Angeles Dodgers and Los Angeles Lakers and their 24 combined world championships, a relocation that came with the promise of a new stadium and later led to a lawsuit from St. Louis settled for $790 million.

The Rams also took a chance on McVay after a bad and boring 4-12 campaign under coach Jeff Fisher in the team's first season in L.A. McVay, who has openly pondered his future as he tries to balance his professional and personal life, is now the youngest head coach to win a Super Bowl at 36.

"Many people had danced around Los Angeles," Rams chief operating officer Kevin Demoff said earlier this month. "No one had been willing to say, 'I'm going to go buy land, build a stadium, bring my team and really plant my flag without knowing the outcome.' That first risk followed by Sean McVay, those two risks set us up for where we are today."

There was plenty of risk in the way the Rams built their championship roster. They continually gave up high-end draft capital while trading for one marquee player after another -- Ramsey, Miller, receivers Sammy Watkins and Brandin Cooks and cornerback Marcus Peters, to name a few. They believed that approach was necessary to capture the attention of a city that loves its stars and to build up what remains a lukewarm fan base.

But their biggest trade of all was the blockbuster for Stafford, which gave them a needed upgrade over Goff -- whom they drafted first overall in 2016 after trading up 15 spots -- and, as they had hoped, the missing piece to a Super Bowl run. It was well worth the risk.

"I'm just really pleased to be associated with a group that is not afraid to shoot their shot, take chances on things that we feel like is in the best interest of the football team," McVay said. "There's a lot of rolled eyes at us, but we believe in those things and we're going to do things that we think is in the best interest whether it's myself, Les, Kevin Demoff, [VP of football and business administration]Tony Pastoors and it all starts with Mr. Kroenke and his trust and willingness and then the players being able to onboard the guys in the right way. It's sweet. Really happy for these guys."

Stafford told ESPN after the trade he wanted to play in big games after going winless in all three of his playoff appearances over 12 seasons with the Lions. He got that chance after leading the Rams to a 12-5 record and NFC West title. He proved worthy of the big stage by leading game-winning drives in the divisional round, NFC Championship Game and Super Bowl.

Not that it was an entirely smooth ride for the Rams or their quarterback.

Stafford looked like an early-season MVP candidate as the Rams raced to a 7-1 start, but then he committed six turnovers as they lost three straight November games to eventual playoff teams. They also lost receiver Robert Woods to a season-ending knee injury during that skid, immediately turning their addition of Beckham from a luxury to a necessity as the No. 2 wideout behind Kupp, the NFL Offensive Player of the Year.

The Rams won their next five games despite Stafford's turnover problems continuing and a COVID-19 surge hitting their locker room, leading the NFL to move back their Week 15 game with the Seattle Seahawks to a Tuesday.

They had a chance to eliminate the San Francisco 49ers from playoff contention in Week 18 but blew a 17-0 lead at home -- in front of a sea of red-clad Niners fans who had invaded SoFi -- en route to a sixth straight loss to their divisional rivals.

The Beckham and Miller signings further signaled their all-in approach to 2021. In 11 games, including playoffs, Beckham caught seven touchdown passes while Miller recorded nine sacks.

"They were very impactful down the stretch," general manager Les Snead said earlier this week, "and that was the intention in bringing them in."

Miller and Beckham were the latest stars to join an ensemble cast that included Kupp (who won the NFL's receiving triple crown during the regular season), Ramsey (who led the team with four interceptions) and Donald (who had another Defensive Player of the Year-worthy season). All three were named first team All-Pro.

Yet the Rams might not have gotten to Super Bowl LVI if not for some of their lesser-known players coming through with big plays in the playoffs. There was backup safety Nick Scott picking off Tom Brady in the divisional round and linebacker Travin Howard sealing the NFC Championship Game by coming down with an errant Jimmy Garoppolo throw that Donald's pressure had forced. And there was Matt Gay kicking the winning field goal vs. Tampa Bay, then doing it again vs. the 49ers, capping the Rams' rally from a 10-point fourth-quarter deficit.

"To come back, to fell your biggest rival in the biggest game in your new stadium for the right to play a Super Bowl, that is the Hollywood story," Demoff said. "I don't want to have to write the sequel where we disappoint at the end of the first version and come back and have to try to climb the mountain again."

That would have been especially tough given the questions about the long-term viability of a roster that was built to win now. The Rams aren't scheduled to pick in the first round until 2024 -- which would mark seven years without doing so -- after giving up their 2022 and 2023 No. 1s in the Stafford trade. They parted with this year's second- and third-rounders for Miller, which leaves them without a pick within the top 100.

They're also nearly $14 million over the 2022 salary cap, which will make it tough to re-sign pending free agents such as Beckham and Miller, and to keep high-priced starters like left tackle Andrew Whitworth, who might retire anyway.

"It is not for the faint of heart," Demoff said about the approach the Rams have taken in building their roster. "It's not for the faint of wallet. We have to prove that this is going to be successful ... We need to go prove that this can work and that we can continue to do it."

But the Rams don't have to worry about pulling off the sequel right now after nailing the perfect ending in Super Bowl LVI.

"There's so many hard-workers, so many talented guys, so many guys on my team that was deserving of this moment, man, and it feels good to give it to them," Miller said. "It feels good to give it to Aaron Donald, Andrew Whitworth, Jalen Ramsey, all of these guys that have been working their whole careers to get to this point."