From the Bleachers: Going Out in Style
Baily Deeter looks back on last Sunday’s Super Bowl LVI in this week’s edition of “From the Bleachers.”
The NFL tried to prolong the 2021 season for as long as it could, but the inevitable has finally happened: the greatest football season I’ve experienced as a fan is over. It finished with a storybook ending for the approximately 360 people that make up the Los Angeles Rams: 53 players, 21 coaches, 276 employees and 10 fans.
Los Angeles triumphed over the Cincinnati Bengals in Super Bowl LVI by a score of 23-20 in one of the better Super Bowls in recent memory. The game fell short of being an all-time classic, but it still provided us with thrilling moments and a great way to cap off an unbelievable postseason. Six of the final seven playoff games (every game from Divisional Round on) was decided by a three point margin. The only outlier was the Chiefs-Bills Divisional Round track meet, arguably the greatest game ever played, that ended in a six-point margin in overtime. As football fans, we are lucky to have witnessed these last few weeks of action.
We’ve been spoiled to the point where any game without an 18-point comeback or a 25-point two-minute burst is a disappointment. But Sunday’s clash was still comfortably within the top 20 Super Bowl of all time, and there’s a lot to unpack from the action.
Let’s start with the deserving winners, the Rams. Matthew Stafford was firing on all cylinders early in the game, until he lost Odell Beckham Jr. to what appeared to be an ACL tear. Beckham caught the first touchdown of the game and had the longest reception of the day for the Rams. Star wideout Robert Woods tore his ACL earlier in the season, and the team’s top two tight ends, Tyler Higbee and Kendall Blanton, were already out for the game. Only one of the team’s top five receiving options, and only one of the three pass-catchers that made up an all-time great receiving trio, was available in crunch time.
Fortunately, that one receiver was on his way to winning a Super Bowl MVP after winning Offensive Player of the Year honors earlier in the week. Cooper Kupp caught eight passes for 92 yards and two touchdowns, and he made his presence felt most of all on the final drive. Kupp caught four passes for 39 yards on the last drive and converted a key fourth-and-one in Rams territory.
There was only one way the Rams could reliably move the ball at the end of the game after scoring just three points in the prior 30 minutes. If the definition of insanity is trying to do the same thing over and over again expecting different results, then Sean McVay is insane for repeatedly running Cam Akers for a one-yard loss on second and short. Akers, Darrell Henderson and Sony Michel combined to run the ball 19 times for just 30 yards. Maybe the Rams would have had better results if they replaced running backs coach Thomas Brown with Dartmouth’s own Thomas Brown ’22, a known fantasy football wizard.
The Rams ultimately came to their senses on the final drive, where they moved 79 yards to the end zone. Brycen Hopkins, the third-string tight end who rose to the occasion in the absence of Higbee and Blanton, had two catches for 15 yards. To his credit, Cam Akers picked up a crucial first down in the red zone on an eight-yard run and caught a pass for three yards, picking up 11 yards on the drive. The Rams also gained seven yards on penalties, much to the chagrin of Cincinnati fans.
The remaining 46 yards came from Kupp, who turned in arguably the greatest Super Bowl performance from a wide receiver since Santonio Holmes in Super Bowl XLIII. I will go to my grave hating the goal-line fade instead of a run, a quarterback sneak, or a play-action pass, among anything else. But for once, the goal-line fade to Kupp was the best thing the Rams could have done. Give your best player a chance to make a play and watch him do it.
Kupp was fantastic, but the main reason why the Rams were victorious was the defense. The second half started with Cincinnati taking the lead on an absurd 75-yard touchdown pass to Tee Higgins that should have easily been called for a facemask. Rams fans don’t exactly have the right to complain about a missed pass interference call, as Saints fans would point out. But this missed call was pretty bad, and it’s why I don’t feel bad for Bengals fans complaining about a questionable holding call on the final drive.
On the next play, Stafford threw an interception on a tipped pass, opening the floodgates for Burrow and the Bengals to move 30 yards and take a two-score lead. But the defense held Cincinnati to just a field goal, and it then didn’t give up any points the rest of the way. Los Angeles sacked Burrow six times in the second half, and it bent but didn’t break on Cincinnati’s final drive. Aaron Donald came up clutch on back-to-back plays to ice the game. He stuffed Samaje Perine (not Joe Mixon, somehow) on 3rd and 1, and then pressured Burrow to force a game-ending incompletion on fourth down.
The Bengals benefited from the Beckham injury and the Higgins no-call, but their offensive line woes proved to be too costly. With Burrow, Ja’Marr Chase, Tee Higgins and many others still young, the championship window could still be large.
With that said, everything lined up perfectly this year with a few close victories and a lack of injuries. The Super Bowl hangover is real — the Rams and 49ers both missed the playoffs the following year after losing the big game in 2018 and 2019, respectively. Burrow is also in a dangerous position having already torn an ACL and throwing behind one of the worst offensive lines in football. His health is a question mark going forward, and the Bengals need to make protecting him priority number one this offseason.
All in all, this was a beautiful, unexpected season of football. The Bengals were supposed to be a 5-12 team heading into the season, and few saw Matthew Stafford winning a Super Bowl in his first year. Parity is alive and well.
Next year, I expect the Bengals to miss the playoffs and the Rams to take a step back as well, with two new teams taking the field on Super Bowl Sunday. Perhaps we’ll see one of this year’s rookies make the leap in year two just like Burrow did en route to a Super Bowl appearance. Perhaps we will see Mac Jones and the Patriots do this against the San Francisco 49ers and a no-longer-retired Tom Brady. Crazier things have happened.