2022 NFL Preview: Rams had a magical Super Bowl ride, which will be hard to repeat

·11-min read

The 2021 Los Angeles Rams were on the ropes multiple times.

In the divisional round against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers the Rams were on the verge of a collapse when Tampa Bay inexplicably called a "Cover 0" blitz in the final seconds. Matthew Stafford found Cooper Kupp downfield for a big play that set up a game-winning field goal. The Rams were really in trouble in the NFC championship game when Stafford threw a sure interception right at San Francisco 49ers safety Jaquiski Tartt, but Tartt dropped it. The Rams came back from a 17-7 fourth-quarter deficit to win.

In Super Bowl LVI, the Rams trailed again. They needed to convert a fourth-and-1 in the fourth quarter or they'd have been all but done. They got it. The Rams' title hopes were barely alive after a third-and-goal incompletion, but Cincinnati Bengals linebacker Logan Wilson was called for a questionable holding penalty on the play. Kupp scored after that. The Rams won a championship.

When the story of last season's Rams is told, the highlights will be remembered. The "America's Game" episode will talk about how they overcame adversity. Stafford could end up being in the Hall of Fame because of those close wins. The rings will sparkle forever and the banner will look good in SoFi Stadium.

The NFL, and all of team sports, can be random sometimes. If the Buccaneers didn't let down in the final minute, Tartt catches a wayward pass or an official decides that Wilson's coverage on Kupp didn't deserve a penalty (or even if the Rams have to play an NFC championship game in frigid Green Bay instead of at home), this preview might be much different. The Rams probably are ranked a lot lower. But when the league flipped coins in the playoffs, they landed on the Rams' side more often than not.

That's football. Legacies can change entirely because a safety drops an interception, or a Super Bowl opponent can't put the game away with a first down it needs. If any that talk about good fortune bothers you, just ask Sean McVay.

“So many things have to go right,” McVay said, via the Associated Press. “We could be a better team this year, and I think we’ve got a chance to do that, and it might not mean we win a Super Bowl, because there are a lot of things that take place throughout the course of a game — the bounce of a ball here — certain things that are out of your control.”

The broad view is that the Rams should be really good, and they may never again catch the breaks most teams need to win a Super Bowl.

There is also something to be said about mental toughness and coming up big when it matters most. Stafford and Kupp did connect on that big play to beat the Buccaneers, after the Rams played very well for three quarters of that game. Los Angeles figured out how to put together three scoring drives in the fourth quarter against the 49ers. They ignored the pressure in the Super Bowl for a franchise-defining drive, Stafford no-look pass and all.

Nobody can take that Super Bowl win away from the Rams and their fans. They earned it. Perhaps they can do it again, no matter how challenging that is.

Los Angeles Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford (9) holds onto the Lombardi Trophy after defeating the Cincinnati Bengals 23-20 in Super Bowl LVI. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
Los Angeles Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford (9) holds onto the Lombardi Trophy after defeating the Cincinnati Bengals 23-20 in Super Bowl LVI. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

While Stafford got hooked up with Sean McVay on the latter half of his career, it's the kind of marriage that can lead to multiple championships (though, after McVay waffled on his return, maybe we should be worried more about the coach leaving before the QB does). Kupp seems destined to be eternally underrated, even though he's coming off one of the greatest seasons in NFL history. That's not "greatest season for a receiver," but for anyone, any position. Counting playoffs Kupp finished with 178 catches, 2,425 yards, 22 touchdowns. Let that sink in. He also caught the game-winning pass in the final seconds against the Bucs, scored both of the Rams' touchdowns in the NFC title game, picked up that fourth-and-1 in the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl and got the game-winning touchdown too. You can't do much more in one season.

Nobody questions Aaron Donald's greatness. He could be the greatest defensive player ever, or he's on a short list. Jalen Ramsey is perhaps the NFL's best cornerback. There are good players around those stars and because the Rams have figured out the salary cap better than anyone, they keep adding more key players.

None of that means the Rams will ever win another championship. Postseason fortune can work both ways. But the Rams have set themselves up to have a chance to be contenders again this season. That's all you can do.

(Yahoo Sports graphics by Amber Matsumoto)
(Yahoo Sports graphics by Amber Matsumoto)

Everyone who follows the NFL wonders how the Rams can consistently massage the salary cap. This offseason the Rams signed receiver Allen Robinson II (three years, $46.5 million) and linebacker Bobby Wagner (five years, $50 million), two coveted free agents. Robinson is a great talent coming off a terrible season with the Chicago Bears, and he should have a big rebound in a better environment. Wagner is a six-time first-team All-Pro and while there should be some concern about him slipping at age 32, he fills a big need in the Rams defense. The Rams weren't able to keep everyone. Outside linebacker Von Miller, cornerback Darious Williams, guard Austin Corbett and punter Johnny Hekker were the big losses in free agency. Odell Beckham Jr. is unsigned as he heals from a torn ACL, though he could be back. Left tackle Andrew Whitworth retired after a remarkable career. He'll be replaced in-house by underrated Joe Noteboom. Receiver Robert Woods was traded to the Tennessee Titans. The Rams didn't have a top-103 pick in the draft, but they're used to that after their years of big trades. The Rams did have some losses but they should still be fine. And if they're not, GM Les Snead will probably pull off a trade or two before the deadline.

GRADE: C+

(Yahoo Sports graphic by Amber Matsumoto)
(Yahoo Sports graphic by Amber Matsumoto)

You never want to start training camp answering questions about your quarterback's elbow. Matthew Stafford received an injection for an unspecified right elbow injury this offseason. He didn't throw in offseason practices. He is throwing to start training camp but the team will be cautious.

“It’s an interesting thing trying to have a little bit of governor on there, and at the same time, just trying to be as smart as I can,” Stafford said at the start of camp. “It’s a process. Just going to have to sit there and work through it, trust it. We’ll figure it out as we go.”

It shouldn't be an issue for Stafford once the season begins. It's something worth keeping in mind, however, especially with Stafford entering his age-34 season.

(Yahoo Sports graphics by Amber Matsumoto)
(Yahoo Sports graphics by Amber Matsumoto)

The Rams don't have the best odds among NFC teams to win the Super Bowl at BetMGM. That would be the Buccaneers. The Rams have the fourth-best Super Bowl odds in the NFL at +1100. The Rams' win total is 10.5 and their odds to win the NFC West are +120. I don't hate a bet on the Rams' over, though I wouldn't take them to win the division at those odds. The 49ers will be in the race all season and Kyle Shanahan has done well against Sean McVay (except, you know, that whole NFC championship game last season). The Rams will be good again. However, there isn't much value in their future odds.

(Yahoo Sports graphics by Amber Matsumoto)
(Yahoo Sports graphics by Amber Matsumoto)

From Yahoo's Scott Pianowski: "Allen Robinson posted horrible stats in his final year with the Bears, and you should completely ignore them. He was sacked by a horrible supporting cast. To be fair, he’s often overcome this type of thing before — he has WR4, WR12, and WR12 finishes on his pro resume — but the 2021 Bears were capable of sinking anyone.

"Now Robinson has died and gone to fantasy heaven — to the L.A. Rams, where he’ll catch Matthew Stafford passes and work in Sean McVay schemes. Sure, the Rams passing game centers around Cooper Kupp, but the distribution tree is narrow and Robinson should be targeted plenty. Robinson has an excellent chance to make a par, or a profit, on his reasonable Yahoo ADP of 66.2."

[Set, hut, hike! Create or join a fantasy football league now!]

(Yahoo Sports graphics by Amber Matsumoto)
(Yahoo Sports graphics by Amber Matsumoto)

Cam Akers' return last season from an Achilles tear was incredible. He was back on the field in less than six months. He was a starter in the Super Bowl. However, by now most dedicated fans know he wasn't the same. He averaged just 2.4 yards on 72 carries after his return.

“I don’t feel like I played the best games throughout that time span, so there wasn’t really a lot of celebrating for me,” Akers said, via the Los Angeles Times. “It was more, ‘How can I get better?’”

The history of running backs coming back from Achilles tears is really bad. Hopefully for Akers, he regains his pre-injury form with an offseason to recover. But the Rams will have to make some difficult decisions if Akers struggles early on. They have a capable backup in Darrell Henderson.

(Yahoo Sports graphics by Amber Matsumoto)
(Yahoo Sports graphics by Amber Matsumoto)

Who on the Rams' defense will step up?

Aaron Donald is the best player in the NFL. Jalen Ramsey is perhaps the best cornerback. Bobby Wagner is a tremendous off-ball linebacker. Does the Rams defense have enough around those three stars? Losing pass rusher Von Miller and cornerback Darious Williams in free agency hurts, though the Rams did get cornerback Troy Hill in a trade with the Cleveland Browns. Leonard Floyd has been quite good for the Rams, and he'll be the key to the edge pass rush with Miller gone. Other lesser-known defenders like lineman A'Shawn Robinson, safety Jordan Fuller and linebacker Ernest Jones do their jobs well. It'll probably work out, mostly because Donald ruins offensive plans by himself, but staying healthy is very important for this defense.

(Yahoo Sports graphics by Amber Matsumoto)
(Yahoo Sports graphics by Amber Matsumoto)

The Sean McVay Rams had been knocking on the door for a while. They finally caught some playoff breaks and won a Lombardi Trophy. Now that the Rams know they can do it, their confidence will be high. Matthew Stafford is no longer the QB who put up numbers but never won anything. McVay can put the regrets over the Super Bowl loss to the New England Patriots behind him. Sometimes it just takes one run like that to spark another one. Stafford has another offseason in the offense and that helps. The defense still has Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey. Los Angeles finished last season in the top 8 of Football Outsiders' DVOA in offense, defense and special teams; the only other team to do that was the Dallas Cowboys. It's a good, balanced, well-coached team. Maybe the Rams are better than a year ago and win another Super Bowl. The pieces are in place for a repeat.

(Yahoo Sports graphics by Amber Matsumoto)
(Yahoo Sports graphics by Amber Matsumoto)

We think the Rams will brush off any personnel and coaching losses because that's what they do. But Andrew Whitworth has a Hall of Fame case, Von Miller seems like a HOF lock, Odell Beckham Jr. was a huge part of the Rams' playoff run and the Minnesota Vikings thought enough of 2021 Rams offensive coordinator Kevin O'Connell to make him their new head coach. And those weren't the only losses, just the highest profile ones. There's also the possibility of a Super Bowl hangover. It doesn't just hit the losers. It's hard to maintain an edge when you've been celebrated all offseason. Winning the NFC West isn't a given either; the San Francisco 49ers and maybe even the Arizona Cardinals can give the Rams a challenge. The Rams' floor is pretty high. They're not going anywhere. But the one problem with winning a Super Bowl is nothing else will measure up.

(Yahoo Sports graphics by Amber Matsumoto)
(Yahoo Sports graphics by Amber Matsumoto)

The Rams should pick up where they left off. They didn't lose to a single non-playoff team last season (their losses: Arizona, Green Bay, Tennessee and San Francisco twice). The Rams have thrived with their top-heavy roster-building approach, and there are plenty of blue-chip players still on the roster. The Rams will probably win the NFC West again, though they'll be tested. They also could get right back to a Super Bowl. I don't think I'll be picking the Rams to repeat as NFC champs because it's hard to make that run two years in a row, but it's not like the Rams aren't capable.

(Yahoo Sports graphics by Amber Matsumoto)
(Yahoo Sports graphics by Amber Matsumoto)

32. Houston Texans
31. Atlanta Falcons
30. New York Giants
29. Jacksonville Jaguars
28. Chicago Bears
27. New York Jets
26. Seattle Seahawks
25. Detroit Lions
24. Carolina Panthers
23. Washington Commanders
22. Pittsburgh Steelers
21. Minnesota Vikings
20. Miami Dolphins
19. New Orleans Saints
18. Las Vegas Raiders
17. Arizona Cardinals
16. Tennessee Titans
15. Cleveland Browns
14. Indianapolis Colts
13. Philadelphia Eagles
12. San Francisco 49ers
11. Denver Broncos
10. Cincinnati Bengals
9. New England Patriots
8. Los Angeles Chargers
7. Baltimore Ravens
6. Green Bay Packers
5. Dallas Cowboys
4. Kansas City Chiefs
3. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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