It’ll be memories of Sean McVay’s fourth-down gamble that won. Cooper Kupp making play after play. Matthew Stafford finally finding holes in a defense for the first time in the second half. Then the final catch of Kupp’s historic season to give the Rams the lead.
If you’re a Cincinnati Bengals fan, all you’ll remember is one questionable penalty.
As time goes on, that Rams’ drive will become legendary. The holding call on Bengals linebacker Logan Wilson against Kupp on third-and-goal from the 8-yard line, when it seemed Wilson did little wrong, will be mostly forgotten. Bengals fans will always wonder if that call cost their team a Super Bowl.
“Cooper came up to me and tried to push off me and I thought I made a good play on the ball,” Wilson said. “The refs saw otherwise. Just a tough call.”
Before the game-winning drive, the Rams trailed 20-16. They had nothing going offensively after Odell Beckham Jr.‘s knee injury. They had to go 79 yards to win it. And the drive almost stalled before they could even get a first down.
Rams’ offense needed a spark
The Rams’ soon-to-be-famous drive started like most of their drives from the middle of the second quarter on. They got 9 yards on first down and nothing on second or third down. It was fourth-and-1 from their own 30, with five minutes to go. it was clear the best move was going for it, but it wasn’t automatic. The Rams had three timeouts and there was plenty of time left to get the ball back. McVay went for it.
Often when fourth-down chances don’t work, the decision to go for it is fine but the play call is bad. The Bengals had shut down the Rams’ run game to that point. McVay decided his best player was going to touch the ball rather than try to run up the middle.
Kupp went in motion, got the ball on a jet sweep and picked up the first down. It wasn’t easy. Kupp cut inside a block by tight end Brycen Hopkins and barely avoided a tackle behind the line of scrimmage by safety Vonn Bell. In a historic season with more than 2,000 receiving yards including playoffs, Kupp’s biggest play might have been a 7-yard run.
“Sometimes you go with a gut feel,” McVay said. “I felt like based on the way they’d played some of those short-yardage situations that Kupp would have a chance to circle the defense. They defended it really well but it was a great player making a great play.
“We don’t make that play, we’re not sitting up here winning that game, for sure. Big-time play.”
Kupp said the Rams were trying to make the play look like a quarterback sneak, hoping the Bengals would pinch inside, allowing him to get outside.
“The belief in Sean that I was going to be able to get the ball and just be able to get 1 yard, that’s really what it is,” Kupp said. “Just get a body on a body, get me the ball on the edge and try to get 1 yard was the idea behind that.”
Still, there were 63 yards to go. Take away one 52-yard field-goal drive in the third quarter, and the Rams had 15 yards on their other five previous drives combined. The Rams started hurrying the pace, and that helped open some things up. The Bengals were playing a lot of man coverage and doubling Kupp in key situations, without Beckham there to worry about. On the game-winning drive, the Rams played uptempo more often, forcing the Bengals to line up quickly and call more zone coverage.
Kupp had gains of 8, 22 and 8 yards. Hopkins converted a big third-and-6. Cam Akers had a rare successful run for the Rams, picking up 8 yards to set up first-and-goal.
Then came two incompletions and a call that will live in Cincinnati infamy.
Cooper Kupp’s touchdown caps clutch drive
It was a tough holding call on Wilson. Instead of fourth-and-goal at the 8-yard line, the Rams had first down at the 4.
“Logan made a hell of a play I thought on Cooper Kupp,” Bengals cornerback Chidobe Awuzie said. “I’m not a ref, I don’t know what happened on that play.”
After that, Kupp had a touchdown taken off the board due to offsetting penalties. There was another penalty on a Bengals defender covering Kupp, but cornerback Eli Apple’s holding infraction was hard to argue. From the 1-yard line Stafford was stopped on a sneak, then the Rams decided to let Kupp finish it. He ran a fade, Stafford threw to his back shoulder and Kupp came down with the touchdown with 1:25 to go.
“Coop did a great job winning on his route,” Stafford said. “I tried to put it in a good spot, and he made a great catch.”
The Rams held after that, with Aaron Donald’s pressure forcing a Joe Burrow incompletion on fourth down. The Rams won on the final play against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the divisional round and came back from 10 points down in the fourth quarter to beat the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC championship game. The game-winning drive in Super Bowl LVI was another clutch moment.
“In the most critical moments, that’s when they were at their best,” McVay said.
In the Bengals’ prior Super Bowl trip 33 years ago, they led the San Francisco 49ers late in the fourth quarter. Joe Montana led a 92-yard drive, capped by John Taylor’s touchdown with 34 seconds left. This drive might not be remembered like that one to crush the Bengals’ dreams, but the result was the same.
“It was a great drive, one I’ll never forget,” Stafford said. “So many great plays by so many great players.”