INGLEWOOD, Calif. — And in the end, it was Aaron Donald. As it should be. As it had to be.
The Los Angeles Rams were one defensive stop away from a championship, and the Cincinnati Bengals had one play to gain one yard and keep hope alive. There were 70,048 fans at SoFi Stadium on a majestic L.A. evening, and tens of millions of others watching television sets, computer screens and smartphones to see which way Super Bowl LVI would go.
This was it for the Bengals: Down by three. Forty-three seconds to go. Fourth-and-1 from the Rams’ 49-yard-line. Coach Zac Taylor put the ball in Joe Burrow’s hands, in the shotgun formation, and waited for the second-year quarterback to produce another indelible moment on his path to superstardom.
Donald, the Rams’ best player — hell, any team’s best player — wasn’t having it.
“On fourth-and-1, I’m thinking they’re gonna run,” Donald told me Sunday night as he sat in a golf cart with his family, pondering the sweetest moment of his football life — and what may or may not come after it. “I didn’t think they’d drop back and throw it. But when they did, I wasn’t mad.”
Given a chance to decide the outcome of a Super Bowl in the Rams’ home stadium, Donald channeled his inner game-wrecker and took matters — and Burrow — into his own hands.
After blasting through the line and beating Bengals left guard Quinton Spain to the outside, the All-Stratosphere defensive tackle swooped in and grabbed Burrow, spinning him around like a turnstile. The quarterback’s desperation pass to halfback Samaje Perine fell helplessly to the ground, and so did Cincinnati’s dreams of a storybook Super Bowl upset.
Instead, it was a classic Hollywood ending.
“Unbelievable — and perfectly written,” said wide receiver Cooper Kupp, who earned Super Bowl MVP honors after a catching eight passes for 92 yards and two touchdowns, including the game-winner with 1:25 remaining. “It was a great football game.”
It ended this way: Rams 23, Bengals 20 — with Donald, who’d also stuffed Perine cold on the play before his fourth-and-1 act of ferocity and spent the balance of the second half destroying the Cincinnati offensive line, still No. 99 on the field and No. 1 in his teammates’ hearts.
“He’s The Truth,” said edge rusher Von Miller, a trade-deadline acquisition for a Rams organization that took all-in to the max in 2021. “He never changes at all. He’s full speed on the field, in practice, on the way to the game, on the way home and everything in between. He’s a privilege to play with.”
Miller, who like Donald had two sacks in Sunday’s second half, was one of the high-profile acquisitions brought to L.A. for such a moment. Another, wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr., made a huge impact against the Bengals — with two catches for 52 yards, including a 17-yard touchdown that opened the game’s scoring — before suffering a non-contact knee injury that looked to be severe.
And quarterback Matthew Stafford, acquired in a blockbuster trade after the 2020 season that sent former Rams starter Jared Goff to the Detroit Lions, shined when it mattered most, overcoming two earlier interceptions to lead the Rams on a 15-play, 79-yard scoring drive that ended with a 1-yard touchdown pass to Kupp and a 23-20 Rams lead with 85 seconds to go.
It was the first time the Rams hadn’t trailed since the first play from scrimmage of the second half, when Burrow’s 75-yard touchdown pass to Tee Higgins gave the Bengals a 17-13 lead. When Stafford, on the next play from scrimmage, threw an interception to cornerback Chidobe Awuzie, setting up a 38-yard Evan McPherson field goal, it looked like a Cincinnati takeover might be upon us in Tinseltown, if not the football world.
Instead, Donald and his fellow defensive linemen took over.
“Yeah, we did,” Donald told me afterward. “We had to.”
Buoyed by a strategic adjustment from brainy defensive coordinator Raheem Morris, who relied heavily on a “50” defense designed to stop the run, the Rams essentially shut down the Bengals, recording six of their seven sacks after halftime and five in the third quarter alone. Morris’ reasoning was that, with five defensive linemen in the game, Donald might receive favorable matchups (including a decent share of one-on-ones), allowing him — and teammates playing off his disruptive actions — to pressure Burrow enough to slow down the Bengals’ passing attack.
Or, as Morris put it after the game: “Make them block ‘em all.”
Like so many other teams before them, the Bengals couldn’t block Donald when it mattered most.
“That was A.D. just being A.D., man,” running back Cam Akers said while standing outside the Rams’ locker room. “That’s what Aaron Donald does. He’s the leader of our team, the heart of our team. He came up big for us.”
That turned out to be alarmingly necessary because the Rams were also struggling on offense, with a non-existent running game that produced only 43 yards on 23 carries and a glaring drop-off in the passing game after Beckham’s injury. As the second half dragged on, the game was starting to evoke memories of the team’s desultory 13-3 defeat to the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LIII, after which both coach Sean McVay and then-quarterback Goff tried to take the blame for a defeat that wasted a yeoman defensive effort.
Kupp missed that game in February of 2019, having suffered a torn ACL three months earlier. This time, he and Donald — his fellow Rams O.G. — would rise up and shine when it mattered most. After a monster regular season that earned him NFL Offensive Player of the Year honors, and a sterling run of playoff performances, Kupp finished on an even higher note.
“That was the difference — Cooper Kupp,” said Rams offensive coordinator (and soon-to-be-Minnesota Vikings head coach) Kevin O’Connell as he walked to the team bus more than two hours after the game. “Odell probably would have caught 12 for 175 if he hadn’t gotten hurt, and we missed him a lot. But Cooper was there when we needed him to be.”
So was Donald, as is his custom.
“He’s unbelievable,” Rams owner Stan Kroenke said as he left the stadium Sunday night. “Just a fantastic player. He’s been with us a long time, and obviously everybody knows he’s a great player. But he is a special person, too. It’s a great night for L.A.”
To say that a lot was on the line for the Rams organization would be a glaring understatement. In the days leading up to the game, there were reports citing uncertainty about McVay’s future, in the wake of recurring rumors that the 36-year-old coach might step away and take a high-profile television job — though he later told NFL.com he’ll be back to coach the Rams in 2022 and beyond.
Then, on Super Sunday, NBC’s Rodney Harrison said during the network’s pregame show that Donald, who turns 31 in May, told him he might retire if the Rams were to win. “If he wins a Super Bowl, there's a strong possibility that he could walk away from the game and retire,” Harrison said.
Donald, a three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year, has been dominant throughout his eight-year career and would surely be a first-ballot Hall of Famer were he to retire now. On Sunday night, as the best football player on earth sat on a golf cart in the bowels of SoFi Stadium and savored a championship he single-handedly clinched, I asked him if he planned to call it quits.
“I’m in the moment, man,” he said, smiling broadly. “You never know what can happen.”
Whatever happens — in the immediate aftermath of this sweet victory, and beyond — Donald will always be a champion. On this Super Sunday, he wouldn’t have it any other way.