Game balls – Super Bowl LVI

That’s it: we can draw a line under the 2021 NFL season, the longest in its history. After 22 weeks of action, the last game saw the star-studded Los Angeles Rams, a team purpose-built to win now, overcome the plucky underdogs from Cincinnati to lift the Vince Lombardi Trophy for their second time in franchise history. The 23-20 win wasn’t a classic but it remained close for the whole 60 minutes, keeping the final result hanging in the balance until the end.

So, for one more time this season, let’s pick through the bones to see who wins our Super Bowl game balls.


Offensive player of the game

Cooper Kupp, WR, Los Angeles Rams

Robert Gauthier – Los Angeles Times

Cincy’s Tee Higgins and Ja’Marr Chase both gave Jalen Ramsey plenty to think about in one of the game’s high-profile battlegrounds. The standout corner shadowed Chase more than Higgins, but both wideouts made plays against him. Higgins went for exactly 100 yards on four catches with two touchdowns, including a game-long 75-yarder to open the second half, while Chase posted 89 yards on five receptions.

RB Joe Mixon also made his mark, leading all rushers with 15 carries for 72 yards, and throwing a TD pass to Higgins on a trick play. Mixon’s tally on the ground was a good 50 yards more than the next man, the Rams’ Cam Akers. Meanwhile, his QB Joe Burrow (22 of 33, 263 yards, 1 TD, 0 INT) faced constant pressure. When afforded the time, he did drop some dimes but he never really had the chance to pin back the Rams. He was sacked a record seven times and also suffered a knee injury in the fourth quarter but battled on to the end.

In contrast, Matt Stafford (26 of 40, 283 yards, 3 TD, 2 INT) was relatively comfortable in the pocket. The Cincy pass defence could’ve put him under more pressure and forced more than the two interceptions. Stafford’s 36th fourth-quarter comeback win is the most by any QB since he was drafted in 2009. His performance included some stunning connections and several misses and those two INTs, but when the chips were down on what provide to be LA’s final drive, he came up trumps. 

Many predicted Odell Beckham Jr to star on Sunday and he started well (52 yards and a TD from just two catches). But a non-contact knee injury in the second quarter ended his day and threatened to derail the LA offence, which was already missing Robert Woods and Tyler Higbee. Higbee’s replacement Kendall Blanton also left the game with a shoulder injury so it was pretty much left to COOPER KUPP – this season’s Triple Crown winner (leading the NFL in receptions, yardage and touchdowns) – to carry the load. The Offensive Player of the Year added ‘Super Bowl MVP’ to his list of accolades, finishing the game with 98 yards and two TDs from eight receptions.

In particular, he excelled in what proved to be the game-winning drive in the final quarter. He converted an important 4th-and-1 handoff, he caught a laser over the middle for 22 yards and snared another for eight to get inside the red zone. He then drew two penalties against Eli Apple and Logan Wilson, earning four more downs, before catching a back-shoulder TD pass for the final points of the day to cap a 15-play, 79-yard drive. Even with the Bengals tracking him all over the field, Kupp still found ways to get open and make the plays that shaped, and won, the game. 


Defensive player of the game

Aaron Donald, DT, Los Angeles Rams  

Rob Carr – Getty Images

The game’s top tacklers included Logan Wilson (nine total tackles), Germaine Pratt and Sam Hubbard (both with eight), as the Cincinnati run defence held Cam Akers, Darrell Henderson and Sony Michel in check. The Bengals won the turnover battle 2-0, courtesy of takeaways from Jessie Bates and Chidobe Awuzie, and they also got to Matt Stafford twice, with Trey Hendrickson and DJ Reader logging the sacks for Cincinnati.

But for all that, it almost seems inevitable that AARON DONALD takes our game ball for the defensive player of the game. The league’s top defensive player and his D-line colleagues lived up to their billing, giving Joe Burrow no time to step up or make plays, especially after the break.

The Rams sacked Joey B a Super Bowl record-equalling seven times, with Donald and Von Miller each netting two (there was also one each from Ernest Jones, Leonard Floyd and A’Shawn Robinson). The Rams’ D stifled the Bengals’ offence, allowing them to post just 11 net yards on four second-half drives. Donald himself also generated seven QB pressures, including five in the second half, and four tackles in a dominant performance.

It was written in the stars that the game’s defensive star would snuff out the Bengals’ final two plays to effectively end the contest. First, he stuck out an arm to prevent Samaje Perine from making a crucial 3rd-and-1. Then he evaded LG Quinton Spain and spun Burrow down to the turf as the Cincy QB desperately tried to extend that final drive.

So, although Kupp was named the game’s MVP, Donald certainly played his part and deservedly got his hands on a ring at last. And when your team has the best player on each side of the ball and they both play up to expectations, you tend to win.


Coach of the game

Raheem Morris, DC, Los Angeles Rams

Kevork Djansezian – Associated Press

On Sunday night, Sean McVay became the youngest Head Coach to win the Super Bowl. At 36 years and 20 days, he is 303 days younger that Mike Tomlin was when his Steelers won Super Bowl XLIII. But I’m not sure he should get the game ball. He persisted with a running game that really wasn’t working (just 30 yards rushing from the three RBs, with a long of 8) and their failed Californian version of the Philly special, with Kupp overthrowing Stafford, illustrated some of their offensive struggles.

By the same token, his opposite number doesn’t get the award either. Zac Taylor’s offence also underperformed for long periods and, with the game on the line, selecting Samaje Perine (total net yards: zero) to attempt to buy his team the required one yard while Mixon stood on the sideline was perplexing.

I was tempted to give the plaudits to Bengals DC Lou Anarumo, as his run defence did well to shut down McVay’s game plan in the second half. As mentioned above, the Rams insisted on running the ball to no avail, especially on first downs. It was a decent effort that stopped McVay executing his game plan but in the end, Plan B – chuck the ball to #10 – proved successful. 

Therefore, I think the game ball should go to the Rams’ DC, RAHEEM MORRIS, whose own defence came up with the goods when it mattered. I’ve already waxed lyrical about the sacks by Donald, Miller and co. The defence also made two critical fourth-down stands near midfield, one that led to the Rams’ first touchdown and one late in the fourth that sealed the franchise’s first title since the 1999 season.

Let’s also consider the pass block win rate, which calculates how often blockers sustain their blocks for more than 2.5 seconds. On Sunday, the Bengals were able to hold their opponents at bay only 14% of the time, the lowest figure of any team in any game this season. The Bengals also ran five plays on 3rd- or 4th-and-1 and got stopped on four of them.

Their covering of Ja’Marr Chase and their run-stuffing prowess contributed to an overall defensive game plan by Morris that prevented the Bengals from scoring from any of their final five possessions. With four punts and a turnover on downs, it was first five-drive stretch that Cincy have failed to score in all season, so kudos to Mr Morris.


Play of the game

Ja’Marr Chase, WR, Cincinnati Bengals

Bengals Wire – USA TODAY

Pre-dating the Rams’ (failed) trick play by about 15 minutes, Joe Mixon threw his first-ever NFL pass for Cincinnati’s first TD of the game, connecting with Tee Higgins for 6 yards. Then there was the opening play of the second half, when Higgins caught a long pass from Burrow, beating Jalen Ramsey for a 75-yard TD.  

But in setting up Cincy’s first points of the day – a 29-yard FG from Evan McPherson – Ja’Marr Chase certainly showed he could also overcome the attentions of Jalen Ramsey. He burned the cornerback down the right sideline, showing great ball-tracking and ball-handling prowess as he outran and outstretched his opponent for a one-handed, 46-yard gain at the LA 11-yard line.

That was the play of the game for me.


Gaffe of the game

Vernon Hargreaves, CB, Cincinnati Bengals

Touchdown Wire – USA TODAY

In a season that seemed full of officiating discrepancies, there were a few erroneous and missed calls by the officials that got some fans hot under the collar. Tee Higgins seemed to get away with OPI when caught Jalen Ramsey’s face mask while scoring his 75-yard TD while the defensive pass interference call against Logan Wilson just before Kupp’s game-winning TD was dubious to say the least. But hey, these things tend to even out in the grand scheme of things and the game certainly wasn’t decided by any of the decisions.  

With the Rams’ down by four points for much of the second half, there was a time when it seemed they may live to regret a botched extra point earlier in the game. Following their second TD – the first of Kupp’s double – the holder (punter Johnny Hekker) fumbled the ball as Matt Gay ran in. Hekker picked it up and threw it towards Gay as he continued running towards the end zone but it was safely corralled by the Cincinnati defence. It was only a single point that got away but it meant a FG wouldn’t have been enough to tie the game and force overtime. (It also cost one punter a $1 million bet on the Rams’ first-half points total.)

But for one of the dumbest penalties I can recall this season, we have to give VERNON HARGREAVES the game ball for gaffe of the game – and that’s quite an achievement considering the corner wasn’t even on the active roster. Just before half time, Matt Stafford beckoned Van Jefferson to go long and threw a 50-yard bomb into the end zone. Alas for him, it fell just shy of his intended target and into the clutches of Cincy safety Jessie Bates instead. Bates and his defensive colleagues naturally celebrated the pick but the posse included a hoodie-clad Hargreaves, who had rushed off the sideline to join in the fun. Alas, such behaviour drew a 10-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty and put his teammates under the cosh when it was enforced on the next play, which started at the Bengals’ own 10-yard line.

It was an idiotic move that rightly drew short shrift from Zac Taylor – although the fashion police might say his sliders-and-socks combination was as much of a gaffe as his on-field encroachment…


Feature image credit: Brian van der Brug – Los Angeles Times

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