The NFL season wound up with an incredible run.
The last six games of the playoffs were all decided by 3 points, capped by a Super Bowl filled with thrilling moments, and captivating emotion.
The Los Angeles Rams are the new champs.
Not really a surprise when you looked at the contenders at the start of the year.
But considering their highs and lows, the moves they made during the season to reach the top, and the tense final moments of the final game, it was more of a time to exhale, than acknowledging a foregone conclusion.
Now, the team the Rams defeated, well, that’s another matter. For the Cincinnati Bengals, winners of a total of only six games in 2019, and 2020, their Super Bowl appearance was unthinkable back in September.
But they came within a whisker of pulling an upset for their first Super Bowl title.
The flow of the Big Game went this way:
The Rams looked dominant early. But then came adversity.
A missed extra point, the loss of great receiver Odell Beckham to a knee injury in the second quarter, and a non-call on an apparent face mask penalty on a Cincy TD on the first play of the second half, put the Rams behind the 8-ball.
Beckham gets hurt
With the Bengals doing a good job of double teaming the best defensive player in the league, Aaron Donald, focusing more on the league’s best receiver, Cooper Kupp (with Beckham out), and an interception thrown by Matthew Stafford resulting in a field goal, the NFC champions were trailing by 7 points and in desperate straits.
Then, the momentum shifted again.
Donald started getting to Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow.
Stafford led a drive that cut the Cincinnati lead to four with a field goal.
Going into the final quarter, the score was 20-16.
The failed conversion loomed large, and the ultimate game settled into what we all witnessed in post-season.
Back and forth.
Who would get the last shot?
The Rams had the first chance at the last shot and Matthew Stafford who was acquired in a trade with the Lions for this very purpose, led the telling 15-play drive for the touchdown which regained the lead they held earlier.
Critical, was a 4th and 1 on the LA 30.
Failure here would crush the Rams’ dreams.
A clever call for a handoff to the pass-catcher Kupp kept it going.
Then it seemed Cooper Kupp was involved in every play, including the go-ahead score with 1:25 remaining.
It was surreal, actually.
In a game where only six penalties were called, a game where the officials let the players play their game, three calls were made in the last two minutes.
One, resulted in a touchdown that was called back.
The other two, gave the Rams a first down.
First -and one on the one.
Then the winning pass from Stafford to Kupp.
Kupp catches the winner
The Bengals then had the true final shot.
Needing a field goal to send the game into overtime, which was Cincy’s bread and butter in the playoffs, the Bengals were shut down by Donald.
Needing one yard on third down, Aaron Donald came up big.
He did it again on the do-or-die 4th and 1.
Aaron Donald finally a champ!
Later, I wondered why Aaron Donald wasn’t the Most Valuable Player of the Super Bowl.
That honor went to Cooper Kupp.
He deserved it, but Donald did as well, perhaps even more.
I loved the way the Rams played it to win this year.
They got Stafford who came through when they needed him the most.
They picked up Von Miller as added pass rusher and Odell Beckham as a much needed receiver when Robert Woods went down.
They surrendered a slew of draft picks, but so what?
If you look at the roster of most successful teams, it’s the draft choices on the rounds other than number one that really pay off.
The Rams have plenty of picks, just not the top ones.
Who would trade what the Rams have achieved for boasting a lot of picks? Not many.
The Bengals had no choice. They were bad.
They needed a bevy of talented youngsters and they got them, none more significant than quarterback Joe Burrow.
The cold truth is, without a franchise QB you have no chance.
After that, you need a pass rusher or two.
Someone once said, putting the quarterback on the ground is the best coverage.
Cincinnati needs to upgrade that area.
The post-game scene looked like something from a Disney fantasy movie.
Confetti was flying all around in never-ending fashion. The winning players and coaches were joined by their wives and children in celebration.
Stafford and family
For Matthew Stafford it was a redemption he might have thought would never happen during his 12 grueling seasons with the Lions.
People wondered how good he was, doing great things for the Lions, fighting off tough injuries, and nothing to show for his efforts, playing for a team that never could put it together.
People also wondered whether the great warrior of the Rams defensive line, Aaron Donald would ever achieve the big prize in a career of brilliance?
Now we know.
Matthew Stafford and Aaron Donald can now be called world champions.
No need to go beyond that.
The 2021 NFL season has ended.
In storybook fashion.