How on Earth did the Los Angeles Rams, which started the 2020 playoffs with John Wolford under center, make it to the Super Bowl? It began with a crystal clear objective and a unique strategy that has paid off this season.
Few NFL teams have been as upfront about their desire to win now as the Rams. Mortgaging first-round picks is one thing. Acquiring a new starting quarterback, running back, wide receiver and pass rusher in the same calendar year is another. But Los Angeles did just that in 2021, going all in on its already all-in philosophy, and guess what? It paid off, at least so far. A year after falling in the divisional round of the playoffs, Sean McVay's Rams are in the Super Bowl for the second time in four seasons, looking to ride their hot new lineup all the way to a Lombardi Trophy.
Let's review with a look back at their key acquisitions, most important wins and other notable moments from their 2021 run:
- QB Matthew Stafford (trade, Lions)
- RB Sony Michel (trade, Patriots)
- WR Odell Beckham Jr. (free agent, Browns)
- OLB Von Miller (trade, Broncos)
It's hard to overstate how bold -- and right -- the Rams were on all their top moves of this season. The Bucs proved in 2020 that you can, in fact, spend your way to a championship, luring Tom Brady and his pals to Tampa Bay. L.A. has done its best to follow suit. Stafford isn't Brady, of course, reminding Rams fans of his worst Detroit tendencies with a slew of untimely forced throws late in the year. But he's also truly elevated McVay's offense, generally looking far more like an MVP than an overpriced upgrade. Stafford almost single-handedly preserved the Rams' divisional-round win -- against Brady, no less -- and has already proven he was worth the steep price tag, which included ex-starter Jared Goff.
Michel, Beckham and Miller have all been Grade-A contributors in the Stafford-led army. The former Patriots back was curiously quiet in the early goings of the Rams' divisional-round win, but his reliable late-season vision helped power an underrated ground game. Beckham hasn't posted gaudy numbers since bidding Cleveland farewell, but he's delivered almost every time Stafford has thrown his way, offsetting the in-season loss of Robert Woods in an underappreciated way. Miller, meanwhile, doesn't get the attention that Aaron Donald does, but he's now logged seven sacks in 11 games (including playoffs) as a top edge presence.
Rams general manager Les Snead may be shortchanged when he looks to restore the team's long-term pieces through the draft, but goodness, if anyone deserves credit for properly flipping draft capital for proven assets, it's him. He and McVay haven't run from, but rather embraced turnover -- typically an unfortunate reality of the NFL -- and used it for immediate results.
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Key draft picks
- LB Ernest Jones (third round, 103rd overall)
One look at the previous section will explain why this list isn't extensive; the Rams are truly a win-now operation, relying more on quick-fix pieces than incoming youth. That's not to say they don't have homegrown stars or stars-in-the-making. Cooper Kupp deserves MVP votes at wide receiver, for crying out loud, and guys like Donald, Taylor Rapp and Tyler Higbee all emerged from inside the organization. Suffice to say, the 2021 rookie class has been far from the biggest reason for their rise. Jones, however, has played a key role on Raheem Morris' defense when healthy, serving as one of the team's top cover linebackers.
Week 14 at Cardinals: You could make a case for Week 3, when Stafford and the Rams fully arrived as an offensive powerhouse, rolling over the reigning champion Bucs in a 34-24 win that wasn't as close as the score suggests. But that's too early for a turning point. The team's first rematch with Arizona -- a is more fitting, coming not long after a sour three-game losing streak. Stafford had his way against the Cards secondary, throwing three scores and leading a bunch of long drives, while the Rams picked off Kyler Murray twice, solidifying McVay's team as the most formidable in the NFC West and helping extend an eventual five-game winning streak that lasted until the season finale.
Wild Card vs. Cardinals: Arizona played a big role in the Rams' surge, as you can see. Stafford and Co. looked in danger of falling apart after blowing a Week 18 game against the 49ers, in which San Francisco stormed from behind to win in overtime. But then the Cards came back to town to open the playoffs, and the Rams made light work of their rivals. Wisely leaning on a smooth run game featuring Michel and Cam Akers, McVay helped take pressure off Stafford and gave the entire team a major confidence boost going into the divisional-round rematch with Brady and the Bucs.
Biggest reasons for their run
- Star power on offense: There's a difference between having talent on paper and delivering on the field, but the Rams have struck the right balance in some important spots this year, most notably during their current playoff run. Stafford, in particular, proved in the waning seconds of the Rams' divisional-round upset of the Bucs why his big, confident arm is so invaluable. It also helps that the Rams just have so many outlets for him, from the target machine Kupp to the savvy OBJ to the athletic duo of Akers and Michel. If they need to win a shootout, they have the personnel and penchant for play-making to do it.
- The defensive front: Jalen Ramsey deserves plenty of credit for giving shutdown swagger and production to the secondary, but the Rams have earned their money in the trenches for as long as Donald has manned the interior. Their D-line logged more sacks this season than all but two teams -- the record-setting Steelers and defensive-oriented Vikings -- and was the chief reason Tom Brady took an entire half to get going in their most recent playoff win. Morris' unit has also been feisty against the run, finishing 2021 as the league's No. 1 rush defense. That's a recipe for January success if there ever was one.
Full 2021 results
L, 27-24 (OT)
|NFC Championship||vs. 49ers||W, 20-17|
|Super Bowl LVI||vs. Bengals||TBD|