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NFL

Being A Champion Means You Survived

Matthew Stafford celebrates
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

“What might have been” is what sticks with you, but “what mightn’t have” deserves its place too. I couldn’t get the Jaquiski Tartt dropped interception out of my head in the lead-up to this Super Bowl, and the day after, it’s still with me. As the Rams started a drive down 17-14 in the fourth quarter of that NFC title game, Matthew Stafford dropped back and launched a pass some 55 yards to a dead area in the middle of the field. None of his receivers had even a chance to haul it in, but Tartt, the 49ers safety, was directly underneath it. The Rams could go on to tie the game with a field goal on this possession, then win it 20-17, only because Tartt couldn’t keep the ball in his grasp, and instead watched it slip harmlessly down to the turf.

I’ve been thinking, too—because who could possibly forget?—about the way the Rams ended Tom Brady’s career in the divisional round, with the most spectacular of plays in the slimmest of windows. Given 42 seconds to work with after Leonard Fournette ran the ball into the end zone to tie the game, Stafford took a sack, threw a 20-yard completion, and then sent the ideal version of that Tartt almost-interception way downfield, where this time Cooper Kupp was in position to make the catch and set up the game-winning kick.

Both the Bengals and Rams entered Sunday as the survivors of perhaps the greatest run of close playoff games the NFL has ever seen. While the Rams required late heroics in their previous two games, Cincinnati, as well, had won their games with, in order, an interception on fourth-and-goal with a seven-point lead and 17 seconds remaining; an interception in a tie game with 20 seconds remaining that turned into a walk-off field goal; and finally, a comeback win from a 21-3 deficit against the Chiefs in which they kept Patrick Mahomes out of the end zone in a goal-to-go and even spotted him the ball in overtime and still managed to score first.

These things, for all the Rams’ and Bengals’ abilities, were unlikely things. This Super Bowl was not an instance of unstoppable force vs. immovable object. Neither dominated their opposition this year, or were title favorites heading into the playoffs, or even started quarterbacks who had won postseason games before. And so, fittingly, this was not a Super Bowl where one team steamrolled the other to prove a clear superiority. It was instead yet another nailbiter, where the Rams did just enough at just the right moments to go down in history as the year’s best team.

The beauty of a close football game is that any number of plays can stand out as The One That Mattered Most. Maybe for you it was Aaron Donald’s ferocity at midfield in the game’s final minute. Or perhaps Stafford’s insanely difficult slant to Kupp on the go-ahead TD drive. For me, it was the Kupp sweep on fourth-and-one that prevented the drive from stopping before it even started. What they all have in common are the small-but-obvious ways they could have gone wrong and flipped the final result. One missed tackle here, one slightly inaccurate throw there, or, in my pick, a failed block by Brycen Hopkins on that Kupp run, and the Bengals could be the champs. Something like this perfect cut upfield becomes the difference-maker that ends up defining the entire season.

The way the Rams muscled their way to a touchdown when they most needed it stands in stark contrast to their last Super Bowl trip, in 2019. That was when Brandin Cooks dropped a potential TD pass with four-and-a-half minutes to go and the Rams down seven, and then on the very next play Jared Goff tossed a wobbly interception at the four that allowed the Patriots to ice it. Were those 13-3 Rams, on the whole, worse than the 12-5 team that just became world champs? It’s pretty hard for me to make that case. But entire seasons are defined by single drives, and those drives can be defined by single plays. “Luck” would be the catch-all term for when those plays fall in your favor, but I also don’t mind head coach Sean McVay’s argument, that the Rams’ wins were a result of their stars shining through in the highest-leverage spots.

“I can’t say enough about the resilience of this team,” McVay said afterward. “Guys stepping up when they had to. And it’s going to sound like a broken record but that’s what makes this team great. That’s why they’re world champs—our best players stepped up in the most crucial and critical moments.”

In a series of one-game win-or-go-home scenarios like the NFL Playoffs, timing is just as important as talent, and it was the Rams’ rising to the moment that allowed them to escape game after game even when they never quite played to their full potential for 60 minutes. They summoned the strength to bounce back from a brutal series of possessions to stick the knife in the Bucs’ back-to-back hopes. They took advantage of mistakes and scored just enough to outlast the Death Star trash compactor that was the NFC Championship game. And even after the second half started with a worst-case scenario, a sudden Bengals touchdown and a Stafford pick on the first two plays from scrimmage, the Rams clawed back, holding Cincy scoreless for the final 25 minutes and stringing together the 15-play drive that earned them a trophy.

There was nothing comprehensive about this Rams run. There were glaring weaknesses and struggles all the way until the end. It was rarely pretty. But “Super Bowl champ” carries the same meaning no matter what it took to get there. And for this team, winning like they did in the most nerve-racking situations, they have perhaps even more to be proud of than if they did it the more straightforward way.