Ensemble all-star casts can still be smash hits in Hollywood. “Don’t Look Up” — Adam McKay’s clever political satire starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Lawrence, Meryl Streep, Jonah Hill, et al. — is getting some much-deserved Oscar buzz. There’s a sports production in town getting rave reviews, too.
Except this star-studded cast has achieved what other ambitious Los Angeles sports teams have struggled to do of late — put themselves in position to take home the hardware.
Unlike the Dodgers (who acquired All-Stars Max Scherzer and Trea Turner but fell short of the World Series) and the Lakers (who traded for Russell Westbrook and are struggling to make the playoffs with a collection of aging future Hall of Famers), the Rams took a giant step Sunday toward their goal of winning it all, booking their spot in Super Bowl LVI with a 20-17 NFC title game victory over the rival 49ers at SoFi Stadium.
Over the past year, L.A. teams have acquired star players in pursuit of championships because, in Tinseltown, if you’re not going big, you’re not trying. The Rams had already made major moves for standouts like perennial Pro Bowl cornerback Jalen Ramsey, and they spent additional draft capital to swing the offseason blockbuster trade for quarterback Matthew Stafford. Their all-in strategy also led to the additions of two more NFL stars, wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. and outside linebacker Von Miller, during the season.
This method of roster building is not the norm. In fact, it’s often been ridiculed. Typically, front offices prefer to construct competitive teams through the draft and also fill pressing needs via free agency. The Rams happily do the opposite, leveraging draft picks to acquire star players and then unearth key contributors in the draft’s later rounds.
Big-name, high-salaried veterans are proven commodities, but they must produce at peak levels for a team to get its money’s worth. Underachieving assets are problematic and difficult to overcome.
Of the Rams’ galaxy of stars, Stafford was the one they could ill-afford to have underperform.
His predecessor, Jared Goff, became the scapegoat for the team’s playoff failures, so when the 2016 No. 1 overall selection was sent to Detroit in exchange for Stafford, the No. 1 overall pick in 2009, the bar not surprisingly was set as high as can be for the 33-year-old. Never mind that Stafford had never won a playoff game in his 12 seasons with the Lions. With a rocket right arm that would allow him to make the throws Goff could not, he was immediately anointed as the missing piece to the Rams’ championship puzzle.
That’s quite a burden to place on a quarterback who had an 0-3 postseason record. But Stafford didn’t shoulder these expectations alone. The trade, which included two first-round picks along with Goff, turned up the pressure on Sean McVay and general manager Les Snead, who was tasked with giving the wunderkind head coach a roster supremely talented enough to make owner Stan Kroenke’s dream come true — his $5.5 billion palace hosting a Rams home game in the Super Bowl.
But you don’t spend that much money on an all-in, win-now roster just to be happy to be playing against the Bengals, the surprising AFC champions after upsetting the Chiefs 27-24 in Kansas City. The Rams will go into Super Sunday on Feb. 13 motivated to win their first championship since returning from St. Louis in 2016 and the city’s first NFL title since the 1983 Raiders (the only L.A. team to win a Super Bowl) because a victory would be monumental in the team's mission to win over football fans, especially those who are still loyal to the Silver and Black despite the Raiders' departure from Southern California 28 years ago.
Los Angeles is the most unique market in the league, with thousands of Angeleno transplants who already have their lifelong NFL team allegiances. But L.A. also loves a front-runner. One sure-fire way to convince people to jump on the bandwagon is to be the best and become a hot ticket. Beating the Bengals would go a long way toward bridging the gap between the Rams and the fickle L.A. fan base that can't be bothered outside of following the Dodgers in the summer and fall and the Lakers in the winter and spring.
In 13 days, a golden opportunity awaits the Rams in their own backyard. Their stars could align even further.
“I’m so proud of this group,” Stafford told reporters afterward. “We’ve had high expectations all year and done nothing but do everything in our power to meet those.”
Best offensive performances
Matthew Stafford and Cooper Kupp, Rams. They both deserve recognition after helping the Rams rally in the second half. Stafford completed 31 of 45 passes for 337 yards and two touchdowns, both of them to Kupp, who had 11 catches for 142 yards.
Their 11-yard TD connection brought L.A. within a field goal with 13:30 remaining in the fourth quarter.
Their 25-yard hookup on third-and-3 set up Matt Gay’s go-ahead field goal with 1:46 left in the game.
Stafford has now thrown for 905 yards, six touchdowns and one interception in the Rams’ three playoff wins. Kupp has 23 receptions for 386 yards (16.8 average) and four TDs.
“I’m just happy to be part of this group,” Stafford said. “(But) we’ve got some more work left to do.”
Best defensive performances
Aaron Donald, Rams. When a play needed to be made on the 49ers’ last drive, the three-time Defensive Player of the Year came through, pressuring Jimmy Garoppolo into an ill-advised throw that was picked off by Travin Howard.
The Niners had done a decent job minimizing the impact of Donald, who implored his fellow defensive teammates on the sidelines to produce the requisite stops to complete the Rams’ comeback from a 17-7 deficit. He ended up making the biggest play of all.
“It’s a great sign of the stars shining the brightest when they needed to,” McVay said of Donald’s heroics.
Sam Hubbard, Bengals. The defensive end had two huge sacks to help derail the Chiefs’ final drive in regulation. Kansas City had to settle for a tying field goal and overtime after Hubbard sacked Patrick Mahomes on consecutive snaps.
“I don’t think I’ve ever had sacks on back-to-back plays, let alone back-to-back plays to (help) send us to the Super Bowl,” said Hubbard, a Cincinnati native, who also had eight tackles (one for loss), two QB hits and one forced fumble. “I guess that’s what happens when you keep getting after it.”
The Bengals defense came up with a key stop at the goal line just before halftime, as the Chiefs ran out of time and failed to add to their 21-10 lead. Vonn Bell's interception of Mahomes set up the winning field goal in overtime.
Best special teams performance
Evan McPherson, Bengals. The rookie continues to astonish with how calmly he converts pressure kicks in the postseason. For the third straight playoff game, the fifth-round pick from Florida was a perfect 4-for-4 on field goals, splitting the uprights from 32, 31, 52 and 31 yards — the latter FG in overtime to send the Bengals to Super Bowl LVI.
"It's so surreal that this game came down to a field goal," McPherson said. "Obviously, it wasn't just me. Our defense put us in a great position with the interception, and then I had a lot of confidence in our offense. ... I thought we were gonna score. I thought the game was going to end on a touchdown, not a field goal."