INGLEWOOD, Calif. (AP) — Aaron Donald was in the Cincinnati backfield one last time, his arms closing in around Joe Burrow with everything on the line. On a Rams team loaded with stars, this was his moment in his town and Donald wasn’t about to let go.
Matthew Stafford and Cooper Kupp had just finished giving Los Angeles the late lead with a long drive that came out of nowhere. Now it was up to Donald and the rest of the Rams defense to seal the deal.
No real pressure. Just the first Super Bowl championship at stake in a city rediscovering its love affair with the Rams.
No real problem, either. Donald held on long enough to force Burrow into a desperation heave that went nowhere on a fourth-and-1 with just 43 seconds left.
When he did let go, the celebration began. The Rams were finally champions in the city where they always belonged.
“I wanted it so bad,” Donald said. “I dreamed this.”
Owner Stan Kroenke probably dreamed it, too, while spending some $5 billion to build the iconic stadium where it all took place. The setting was spectacular, but what will be remembered on this day was Stafford and Kupp playing pitch and catch on the final 79-yard drive that put the Rams up 23-20 with just seconds remaining.
And what might be remembered even more was Donald wrapping up Stafford to make sure it was not all in vain.
“We talk about competitive greatness all the time, being your best when your best is required,” Rams coach Sean McVay said. “For the offense to be able to find a way, and then Aaron to be able to finish it off, it’s poetic, man.”
A game that could have gotten away from the Rams after a shocking 75-yard touchdown toss from Burrow to Tee Higgins on the first play of the second half was still in reach in the fourth quarter largely because of the unrelenting pressure the Rams brought up front.
Donald had two sacks and Von Miller had two of his own on a night when Burrow was sacked seven times. The defense was dominant when most needed, holding the Bengals scoreless the rest of the way after they scored 10 points in the first 4:45 of the second half.
It wasn’t always pretty. It certainly wasn’t easy.
But in a matchup of teams that seemed to have an uncanny knack for finding ways to win late, Donald made sure the Bengals weren’t going to get in field goal position and ruin the party.
“I’ve played with a lot of great players and he’s the best,” said safety Eric Weddle, who was brought out of retirement for the playoff run. “He makes you want to be better by his aura, his mindset.”
That mindset was simple, especially on the final play. Donald had come too far, worked too hard, not to finish this one off.
“Give it everything (I’ve) got,” Donald said when asked what was running through his mind.
“He had his opportunity, he delivered in a big way,” McVay said. “And he’s a world champion.”
So are the rest of the Rams, something that was in doubt after receiver Odell Beckham Jr. went out with a knee injury and Kupp went silent for a long stretch of play. But when it mattered it was Stafford, the quarterback brought in for just this kind of drive, and Kupp playing pitch and catch before finally connecting on a 1-yard score with 1:29 left.
A few plays earlier, Kupp also converted a crucial fourth down with a run that helped add the title Super Bowl MVP to one of the greatest seasons by a wide receiver in NFL history.
The reward was deserving, and Kupp admitted afterward that like Donald he had a dream, too. His was the Rams would win the Super Bowl and he would be the MVP. But Donald could have won the award just as easily, as the leader of a defense that ended up saving the game.
“Our front really carried us in the second half and really deserve all the praise for getting this win,” Weddle said. “We really played lights out on defense.”
On a magical night at SoFi Stadium, that was enough to eke out a win.
And now the Los Angeles Rams can finally be called Super Bowl champions.
Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at email@example.com or http://twitter.com/timdahlberg