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The Los Angeles Rams have been accused of sacrificing their future to build a team of superstars, but their fans probably won’t care when the present looks so good. Six years after the team returned to California – after a 20-year stint in St Louis – the Rams are Super Bowl champions for the second time in franchise history.

Their last title-winning team was led by a turbocharged attack known as The Greatest Show On Turf. This win was much grittier but just as welcome.

Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford arrived in Los Angeles last March after spending his entire career in Detroit’s football wasteland. The Rams were hoping he was the final piece on a star-studded team that would push them to their first championship since the 1999 season. He certainly looked the part early in this game. On his first pitch of the game, he connected on a short pass to Cam Akers for a first down. But the practice fell through and it was the Bengals’ chance to make a good impression.

It had taken Stafford 13 years to reach his first Super Bowl. His counterpart, Joe Burrow, had arrived here just his second place finish in the league. Like Stafford, he completed his first pass. The Bengals, showing the confidence of a team that had already beaten the No. 1-seeded Tennessee Titans and fearsome Kansas City Chiefs to make it to Sunday’s game, opted to go fourth in the Midfielder. Burrow was unable to complete his pass, however, and the Rams took over with excellent field position.

It was opportunity enough for Stafford. He connected with Cooper Kupp for 20 yards, then found Odell Beckham Jr with a 17-yard strike for a touchdown. Beckham entered the NFL as a rookie in 2014, famed for his spectacular athleticism and ability to pull off jaw-dropping catches. In recent years he had been seen as little more than a walking distraction and, like Stafford, a player whose reputation fell short of his output. But both men had given their side a vital early advantage, especially when their formidable defensive line and star cornerback Jalen Ramsey are able to shut down opposing attacks.

It was Ramsey who interrupted a potential touchdown pass for the Bengals on third down late in the first quarter. Evan McPherson threw the ensuing field goal to make it 7-3 and the Bengals were on the board.

Stafford had provided Beckham with a touchdown and he went to his other top receiver, Kupp, for his second. The 28-year-old had 1,947 receiving yards in the regular season, the second most in NFL history, and few of his catches were easier than this as he found himself free of any coverage. in the end zone.

Burrow’s favorite target throughout this season has been his former college teammate, Ja’Marr Chase. But neither player was involved in the Bengals’ opening touchdown, which came on their next practice. Running back Joe Mixon showed his arm, finding Tee Higgins with a six-yard pass and the score was 13-10. It was the first time a running back had thrown a touchdown in a Super Bowl since 1980.

Stafford was playing perfectly but even when he is at his best, the siren song of an inadvisable pass is never far away. He duly delivered the Rams’ next possession. At the Cincinnati 43-yard line, he pushed it into the end zone and Jessie Bates jumped past Van Jefferson, who could have fought harder for the catch, to make the pick.

The teams entered half-time separated by a field goal but the game so far had not gone as most predicted. The Rams defensive line, led by one-man wrecking crew Aaron Donald, was expected to tear through a Bengals offensive line that had failed to protect Burrow for much of the past two seasons. But Burrow was enjoying more time to find his targets than he was used to.

And that point was confirmed with the first game of the second half. Burrow danced around the pocket, Higgins lost Ramsey far too easily for the Rams’ liking, recovered the pass and ran away for a 75-yard touchdown. The Bengals took the lead for the first time in the game, 17-13.

Stafford, meanwhile, was back to type: a dramatic start followed by an impressive implosion. A knee injury had ended Beckham’s game, which meant more shots for Ben Skowronek, a rookie with just 11 career receptions. Stafford tried to find him with his first pitch of the half, but was slightly off target and Skowronek deflected him into the welcoming arms of Chidobe Awuzie. It led to a second field goal from McPherson and one in response for the Rams to make it 20-16.

As the game progressed, the defenses started to take control. Stafford was tossed about on a sack by DJ Reader, then Burrow was knocked down twice on ensuing possession by the Bengals.

Stafford had led 34 fourth-quarter comebacks in his career and he was expected to make 35 as the Rams entered the final stanza four points behind. Above all, his defense continued to harass Burrow as the Bengals offensive line was fatigued.

With less than two minutes remaining, the Rams headed for the Bengals’ one-yard line, aided by a series of penalties on the Bengals. That’s what the Rams traded when they acquired Stafford: a quarterback who could push them over the line when it mattered. He duly rolled and threw a touchdown pass to Kupp. The Rams were three points up with 85 seconds left.

Now it was Burrow’s turn to lead his team. He had shown a cool head in crucial situations throughout the playoffs, but now the Rams defensive line was rampant. Fittingly, it was Donald, arguably the most talented player in the entire league, who fired Burrow on fourth down to seal the 23-20 victory.

theguardian

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