INGLEWOOD, Calif. (AP) — Even the star-studded Los Angeles Rams have a limit to the number of injuries they can withstand, and they were all but out of playmakers in the second half of the Super Bowl.
But the Rams still had MVP Cooper Kupp, and they still had Matthew Stafford.
That was enough to win a championship.
Los Angeles' 23-20 victory Sunday night was a remarkable final chapter in a story of perseverance through injury setbacks that would have crushed most teams — including the Rams, if not for one final scoring drive catalyzed by Kupp and Stafford.
“Those guys just did a great job,” coach Sean McVay said. “They took over the game. ... So many contributions. It’s about these players.”
The Rams played the fourth quarter of their home Super Bowl with rookies Ben Skowronek and Brycen Hopkins logging significant playing time. That’s because Odell Beckham Jr. went down with a knee injury in the second quarter, leaving the Rams to finish their final game without four of their top six pass-catchers by yardage from the regular season.
In their place, the Rams sent out their two rarely used rookies along with tight end Kendall Blanton, a borderline third-stringer when the season began. Running back Darrell Henderson, who hadn't played since Dec. 26 because of an injury, was used extensively as a pass-catching target in the Super Bowl partly because the Rams had no other bodies to do it.
The injuries freed up the Bengals to focus their defense on Kupp, who caught just two passes between his TD reception early in the second quarter and the Rams' final drive, barely getting a look at the ball in the middle quarters.
Improbably, the Rams still made it work with the game on the line.
With the insistence of a video gamer who incessantly mashes the button for his most talented receiver, Stafford targeted Kupp repeatedly on the final drive, all the way to Kupp's decisive 1-yard TD catch with 1:25 to play.
“It just comes down to this team and they way we prepared, they way we loved each other, trusted each other,” Kupp said.
The Rams won the Super Bowl with nobody other than Kupp catching more than four passes. For an offense built on star power and variety of attack, this scenario probably wasn't ideal for McVay — but the Rams found a way.
The Rams lost Robert Woods, their productive veteran receiver, at midseason with a torn knee ligament. Right before that injury, disgruntled veteran DeSean Jackson asked to leave the team after just seven games — a disastrous decision that meant Jackson had to watch his hometown team win the Super Bowl without him.
Los Angeles then lost tight end Tyler Higbee to a knee injury in the NFC championship game, depriving Stafford of one of his most reliable targets.
And then in the second quarter of the Super Bowl, Beckham fell to the turf holding his left knee without a defender near him. He returned to the sideline in the second half, urgently cheering on his teammates — and then crying openly in the postgame celebration.
The players who replaced them in the Super Bowl were highly unlikely candidates.
Hopkins made one reception in the entire regular season, but he had four catches for 47 yards in the Super Bowl.
Skowronek, whose play on special teams has been much better than his work in the offense this season, was targeted five times by Stafford, but came up with just two catches.
The Rams' lack of depth partly is an unfortunate side effect of loading the top of their roster with big names and huge paychecks. When injuries hit the Rams this season, the depth players that they could afford were not up to the same standard — and they struggled mightily at times with backup receivers, linebackers and defensive backs forced to play as starters.
Somehow they overcame it all, winning the franchise's first Los Angeles championship with that severely depleted receiving group and a defense that included a 37-year-old safety who had been retired for two years before this postseason (Eric Weddle) backing a largely undistinguished group of linebackers that somehow survived Joe Burrow's persistent targeting of receivers over the middle.
“We just stuck to it,” two-time Super Bowl champion Von Miller said. "It wasn’t a speech or nothing. We just stuck to it. We kept doing the same things we’ve been doing all season. We fought through adversity all season long. Just take it one play at a time. We believed in the rush.”
The Rams' passing problems were compounded by their utter inability to run the ball — and McVay's insistence on continuing to try. Los Angeles repeatedly ran first-down plays into the immobile line for setbacks and minor gains, but McVay continued to run it with Henderson, Cam Akers and Sony Michel.
Los Angeles had 23 rushing attempts for 43 yards — and it still won the Super Bowl.
“Not a lot of good situations I put us in,” McVay said. “But you put the ball in your best players' hands when it matters the most, and that's what we did with Matthew. And he delivered in a big way, and he's a world champ.”
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