INGLEWOOD, Calif. — Things looked grim for the Rams with just under two minutes left in the third quarter Sunday night. They had given up a touchdown to the respected but hated 49ers to fall behind 17-7, which normally wouldn’t be a cause for concern except they had already lost to San Francisco twice this season and six consecutive times in the past. past three years, including last month when they squandered a 17-0 lead.
With 49ers fans dressed in red celebrating as if a Super Bowl appearance was now a accomplished fact, Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald called his defensive teammates together on the sideline and spoke from a place deep in his soul. He had been transparent with the media all week, telling them that a Super Bowl win was the only thing missing from his resume. Professional balls? He was at eight. All-Pro selections? He has seven. Defensive Player of the Year award? He has three.
The former Pitt star even made an appearance at the Super Bowl, having been there three years ago. But the Rams lost that game, robbing him of a chance to experience the pinnacle of athleticism. And now, with the sand in the hourglass of the game going away, he felt like an opportunity to fill that void came with it.
“We were down,” said security Eric Weddle. “AD rallied us. He asked us to give more. He said let us be the reason we were winning this game. We knew what that meant to him.”
With that, the 49ers have failed to cross midfield on any of their last three possessions. The turnaround was the foundation on which the Rams built one of the most significant comebacks in franchise history — and certainly the most significant since returning to Los Angeles in 2016 — scoring points on their next three possessions for a 20-17 victory that earned them a spot in Super Bowl LVI, where they will face the Cincinnati Bengals.
Fittingly, it was Donald who played a key role in sealing the result. With San Francisco only needing a field goal to force overtime, and facing third-and-13 from their 22-yard line with just over a minute to play, quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo tried to short running back JaMychal Hasty. However, Donald got his hands on the ball, which bounced off the hands of Hasty and into linebacker Travin Howard’s, ending the Rams’ three-year skid against the 49ers and sparking a vocal celebration at SoFi Stadium, home of the Super Bowl. LVI.
“Aaron does that,” defensive coordinator Raheem Morris said. “He talked all week about what this game meant to him. He calmed everyone on the sidelines and said to do well longer. There hasn’t been a greater moment.”
From a macro perspective, the moment was about more than one game. It was an organizational strategy to go all-in this season, potentially jeopardizing the future for a chance at euphoria in the present. They traded two No. 1s, a third-round draft pick and former No. 1 overall pick Jared Goff to Detroit for veteran quarterback Matthew Stafford. They also sent second- and third-rounders to Denver on a midseason deal for point carrier Von Miller, then signed wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. after being released by Cleveland.
The goal was to win now, host the Super Bowl in its own stadium and, by extension, accelerate its re-entry into the Los Angeles market. A loss to San Francisco could have been devastating in the short term, dampening the momentum and any excitement generated by their personnel moves. But just when things looked bleak, the Rams fell back on the mantra coach Sean McVay likes to preach: Perform at your best when your best is required.
For Stafford, that moment came with 1:59 remaining in the third quarter, with the Rams down 17-7. It was then that he was the greatest, completing his five passes on a 75-yard walk that culminated in his fine 11-yard touchdown strike against Cooper Kupp.
After a defensive save, the Rams again staged another down march on the arm of Stafford, who sandwiched Beckham Jr.’s 29-yard and 7-yard carries around a 16-yard gain to Kupp. That set up a 40-yard field goal that tied the game with 6:53 left. Some good fortune helped the drive, as safety Jaquiski Tartt dropped what should have been an easy interception on a deep post.
“I see (the ball) and I’m like, ‘He screwed up. We’re about to win this game,'” Tartt said. “It hit my hands and I thought I had it, then I don’t know how I dropped it. I haven’t dropped a ball in practice all week.”
The Rams got another defensive save and then drove for points on a third straight possession, going for 49 yards in 10 plays, the biggest being a 25-yard completion to Kupp in third and 3 from the San Francisco 37. Los Angeles was 11 of 18 on third down, with one of the conversions leading to Matt Gay’s 30-yard field goal and a 20-17 lead with 1:49 left.
“You lose games like that when you can’t leave the field on third down,” safety Jimmie Ward said. “That’s one thing I think we struggled with this game.”
Stafford finished 31 of 45 for 337 yards and two touchdowns, with one interception. It was a gritty performance against a physical and fast opponent. The superficial extent of physicality was clear to everyone when Stafford spoke to the media afterwards. There was blood on his uniform pants, scratches on his throwing hand, and rips in his tights. Like most quality leaders, he was quick to shine the spotlight on his teammates and step away from himself, praising Kupp (11 catches, 142 yards, 2 TDs), Beckham Jr. (nine receptions for 113 yards) and a persistent running game. otherwise too productive with 70 yards on 29 attempts.
But all this could have been in vain if the defense had not made a last fight. It’s unclear if Donald said anything after taking the field with a three-point lead and less than two minutes to play. Again, he didn’t need to say anything. The message was clear to him.
Let’s be the reason we win this game.
On the first try, the unit pushed Garoppolo to an incompleteness. On second down, he dropped Hasty for a 3-yard loss. On third down he pressured Garoppolo again, with Donald getting the tip that led to the decisive hold. According to NextGen Stats, Donald had five quarterback pressures including one that led to a takeaway. His 20 pressure-forced turnovers ranked second in the league since 2016, according to NextGen.
Donald didn’t meet the media afterward, but the truth is he had told his teammates everything he had to say. He was the tide that helped them raise their game, the consciousness that made them look within and find a deeper commitment.