INGLEWOOD, Calif. — The Los Angeles Rams recognize that there are many ways to win in the modern N.F.L., but that every year 31 of them are wrong. The only methodology conclusively proven to work belongs to the team hugging and crying beneath cascading confetti after the season’s final game. On Sunday night, that falling royal blue and yellow confetti validated the Rams’ iconoclastic team-building approach that upended a hidebound league.
Los Angeles hired the youngest coach in N.F.L. history. Instead of hoping first-round picks would become stars, the team traded them to acquire stars. The Rams dealt a quarterback who had played in a Super Bowl — because they did not think Jared Goff could lead them to another — for one, Matthew Stafford, who had been in the N.F.L. for 12 years and had never even won a playoff game.
In a fitting climax to this exhilarating, disjointed mess of a season, the Rams scored a late touchdown to topple the upstart Cincinnati Bengals, 23-20, on their home field at SoFi Stadium. It was the Rams’ second Super Bowl title and first since moving westward six years ago to a land of excess and extravagance that reflects their roster, which abounds with standouts by design. And the team with more star power won.
Appearing in its first Super Bowl since the 1988 season, Cincinnati lost in a way that evoked its last title trip. With the Bengals leading, 20-16, midway through the fourth quarter — the same score they lost by in their last Super Bowl — Tyler Boyd dropped a third-down pass, causing them to punt.
Taking over at their 21-yard line with 6 minutes 13 seconds remaining, the Rams marched down the field, benefiting from two defensive penalties inside the Cincinnati 10-yard line to maintain control of the clock with two minutes remaining.
As Stafford’s childhood friend Clayton Kershaw, the Dodgers’ left-handed ace, watched, the Rams quarterback threw his third touchdown pass, a 1-yarder to Cooper Kupp with 1:29 remaining, which justified his arrival in Los Angeles and the Rams’ intent on upgrading at the position.
The Bengals reached as far as the Los Angeles 49-yard line before Aaron Donald, the Rams’ pocket-wrecking defensive tackle, again proved that he is the shortest distance between two points. Donald dragged down Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow, causing his final pass to fall incomplete. The Rams scampered onto the field, becoming the second consecutive team to win a title in its home stadium after the Tampa Bay Buccaneers did so to end last season.
Donald, the 13th overall draft pick in 2014, was one of the first Rams players to celebrate on the field, and acknowledged the piece-by-piece road to the championship afterward. “Finally, mission complete,” he said. Asked about reports that he would retire, at age 30, victory in hand, Donald said, “I’m just in the moment right now.”
The electrifying ending was a worthy coda to the N.F.L.’s longest season, a 23-week affair laced with parity and unpredictability. The staffing uncertainty wrought by Covid-19, in the second season played amid a pandemic, created a cavalcade of upsets that funneled into the postseason: Five of the last six games before Sunday were decided on the final play.
All that mayhem attracted millions upon millions of viewers — television ratings, the N.F.L.’s highest since 2015, soared 10 percent from last season — allowing the N.F.L. to steamroller past various scandals, play its games into the middle of February and go head-to-head with the Beijing Olympics. All who tuned in Sunday, an ever-growing global audience, were treated to a captivating game, with only one possession separating the teams for nearly the final 36 minutes.
And the score stayed close, despite the Rams’ monstrous defensive front — headlined by Donald and Von Miller, who each sacked Burrow twice — generating pressure for much of the game. All season, Cincinnati had thrived on downfield routes — routes that, even with the Bengals’ fleet of receivers, require time to develop. With that time, not even the best cornerback in the league, Jalen Ramsey, could deter Burrow. After toasting Ramsey earlier on a 46-yard pass to Ja’Marr Chase, his former Louisiana State teammate, Burrow tested the defensive back on the first play of the second half.
As the ball approached, Bengals receiver Tee Higgins yanked Ramsey’s face mask — but was not called for it — to gain separation. Higgins, untouched, raced into the end zone for a 75-yard touchdown. Counting the postseason, it was Burrow’s 14th completion of at least 50 yards, according to Stathead — more than Patrick Mahomes (five), Josh Allen (four) and Justin Herbert (three) combined.
The score at halftime — 13-10, in favor of Los Angeles — reflected the taut, teetering game to that point, with Stafford proffering a microcosm of why the Rams coveted him so. Few quarterbacks have both Stafford’s arm strength and his aggressiveness, his penchant for late comebacks. Aware of all that, the Rams imported him from Detroit, accepting the risks inherent in his style because the rewards had the potential to be majestic.
On the Rams’ first scoring drive, in the first quarter, he zipped an inch-perfect fade to Odell Beckham Jr. for a 17-yard touchdown. On their second, with Cincinnati slow to adjust to all of Los Angeles’s motions and shifts, Stafford lofted an 11-yarder to Kupp — his fourth consecutive game with a touchdown reception — that extended their lead to 13-3.
But, like trick candles at a child’s birthday party, the Bengals are impossible to extinguish. All postseason, they had adapted, perhaps never so exceptionally as in their victory two weeks ago at Kansas City, overcoming an 18-point deficit. Their tactical shift — dropping eight defenders in coverage — scrambled Mahomes then, and it started to flummox Stafford on Sunday, too.
Burrow stayed patient, guiding the Bengals on a seven-minute drive in the second quarter which was capped by an exquisite trick play — Joe Mixon’s halfback toss to Higgins. Stafford started firing his passes high, wide or just off. One such throw caused Beckham to reach behind him, and when he did, his body moved one way and his leg, planted in the turf, went another. He rose, eventually, but did not return, felled by a knee injury.
With Beckham out, the Rams deployed the rookie Ben Skowronek. He dropped a sure touchdown in the N.F.C. championship game two weeks ago, and on the team’s first offensive play after halftime, Stafford’s pass deflected off his outstretched left hand and into the arms of Bengals cornerback Chidobe Awuzie, an unlucky interception.
The Bengals converted that takeaway into Evan McPherson’s second field goal — a 38-yarder — which extended their lead to 20-13 with 10:15 remaining in the third quarter, and a Super Bowl win finally seemed possible.
After all those hollow years in Cincinnati, with all those dumbfounding defeats and playoff malfunctions and cursed injuries, the chant still rang out, less a greeting or a declaration than a rhetorical question: “Who dey think gonna beat dem Bengals?”
The Bengals franchise was founded four months after the first Super Bowl, in 1967, and since, the team has finished last in its division for a full one-third of its existence. More than three decades passed between playoff wins until the Bengals triumphed three times in three weeks last month.
The scars run real and deep and long. Though this season brought with it a culture-changing quarterback who inoculated fans from despair, they won’t soon heal.
In constructing this championship roster alongside Coach Sean McVay, Rams General Manager Les Snead heeded an adage voiced by a mentor, Jim Collins, who wrote the management manual “Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap … and Others Don’t.” Fire bullets, then cannonballs, Collins wrote.
Under Snead, the Rams took a series of smaller risks before marshaling resources into bigger moves, like acquiring Ramsey in 2019, Stafford in 2021 and Miller at midseason.
The Rams’ philosophy is subject to the misconception that the team mortgages its future for annual contention. Even though it hasn’t picked in the first round of the last five drafts, the Rams have selected more players since 2017, according to Stathead, than every other team but the Minnesota Vikings. One of Snead’s trusted colleagues, the Rams consultant J.W. Jordan, kept a photo in his office of Malcolm Butler — the undrafted New England cornerback whose goal-line interception secured a Patriots title against the Seattle Seahawks — as a reminder of the full might of the roster.
The Rams rely on their scouts to excavate late-round picks and their staff to develop them. Players like Cam Akers, Van Jefferson, Jordan Fuller — and, especially, Kupp, the third-rounder turned offensive player of the year, who caught the most famous touchdown in Los Angeles Rams history. The touchdown that made them right, the touchdown that made them all champions.