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Rams-49ers NFC Championship: The Good, the Bad, and the Difference

Aaron Donald has willed an entirely new roster to the Super Bowl just four years after the last one

NFC Championship - San Francisco 49ers v Los Angeles Rams Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Not a single person in the front office of the Los Angeles Rams was interviewed for a general manager job this year. Huh?

The number of Rams who will play for Sean McVay in both the 2019 Super Bowl and the 2022 Super Bowl is a short list: Andrew Whitworth, Rob Havenstein, Tyler Higbee (if he’s healthy enough to play), Aaron Donald, and Johnny Hekker. Joseph Noteboom and Brian Allen each had two snaps on special teams that day.

That means that Les Snead and McVay have practically built two different Super Bowl rosters in less than five years, both centered around Aaron Donald but essentially different in every meaningful way.

Even the Detroit Lions had the sense to hire Brad Holmes as general manager last year. Nobody realized that the Rams had something good going on in Los Angeles? All those moves to acquire star players, all those “radical ideas” to trade first round picks for proven talent, all the “nerve” it took to give Jared Goff a huge contract extension—only to trade him for someone many people said was no better than Jared Goff?

The Rams had plenty of people rooting against them all season long, and quite a few more picking the San Francisco 49ers to win the NFC Championship game on Sunday afternoon. But L.A. isn’t worried about who is picking them—certainly it won’t be Jaquiski Tartt—they’re only worried about who is going back to the Super Bowl out of the NFC West...

It’s the L.A. Rams.

Here is the Good, the Bad, and the Difference from Rams 20, 49ers 17.

The Good

Cooper Kupp, Odell Beckham Jr

For as long as I’ve been writing about the NFL, I’ve expected players to regress. My early writing days were about baseball and analytics and one of the first things you learn is that hot streaks are followed by regression, just as slumps are wont to do too. Yet here we are in “Week 21” and Cooper Kupp is still dominant week in and week out.

Players aren’t supposed to be this consistently great. It just doesn’t happen.

Kupp had 11 catches for 142 yards and two touchdowns. It is his 18th game of the season with at least 90 yards. It is his ninth game with at least 120 yards. His sixth game with at least two touchdowns. The Arizona Cardinals were the only team in all of 2021-22 to hold Kupp under 90 yards. Nobody else can do it. This time, Odell Beckham got in on it too.

OBJ had nine catches for 113 yards, his best all-around game in three years. Beckham is going to the Super Bowl for the first time, as is Kupp in one really important way, since he was injured the last time the Rams went to the Super Bowl.

If the MVP award doesn’t go to a Rams player, that’s fine, but I still think they voted wrong.

Kendall Blanton

The only tight end left on the active roster after Higbee was injured, Blanton came through for five catches and 57 yards. He looked great too. Between Blanton, Jacob Harris, Ben Skowronek, the Rams have some scary looking big men receivers coming through the pipeline.

Blanton had four catches for 37 yards in his career prior to the playoffs. He had more career fumbles than touchdowns. He’s now going to the Super Bowl and the L.A. Rams are going to need him.

Offensive Line

I don’t expect perfection against Nick Bosa and Arik Armstead and Fred Warner. It’s a great defense that nearly went to the Super Bowl. Nearly. The important thing is that the Rams won and the offense was able to do what it needed to do in the fourth quarter. They even held up well in the first half and the Rams were wearing down Bosa and company by getting first down after first down. Given the uncertainty at left tackle before the game and the question marks surrounding the offensive line all offseason, this is now a Super Bowl bound offensive line.

Eric Weddle

This guy could have really RETIRED when he retired but he stayed in shape and he stepped onto the field for a brand new defensive coordinator from his past stint with L.A. and on Sunday he led the team in tackles. Good, bad? He’s PLAYING. That’s insane.

A’Shawn Robinson

Six tackles and eating up the middle. The 49ers had 20 carries for 50 yards.

Matthew Stafford of course

I never doubted the Rams decision to trade for Matthew Stafford. I have always stood by it as the best move of 2021 and now Stafford, Les Snead, Sean McVay are going to the Super Bowl. But it would be hard to deny feeling a little skeptical when the Rams lost three games in the middle of the season and Stafford was surely to blame for some horrible throws and decisions along the way.

However, that’s what EVERY quarterback does on the way to the Super Bowl. We get to paint a narrative that quarterbacks like Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers are “perfect” but they aren’t and they’ve had their chances to win people over throughout the years. Not very many people got that chance when Stafford was with the Lions — Detroit played in only a handful of primetime games over his 12 years and the three playoff games were all in the wild card round — but that changed as soon as he went to L.A.

Now over 100,000,000 people are going to watch Matthew Stafford in the Super Bowl.

He finished 31-of-45 for 337 yards with two touchdowns and one interception. Stafford was sacked twice. He has scored eight touchdowns in three playoff games, helping the Rams score 34, 30, and 20 in those contests. Consider now the dominant 1999 St. Louis Rams: Kurt Warner had eight touchdowns and four interceptions in those three playoff games, with the Rams scoring 49, 11, and 23 en route to the Super Bowl victory.

Stafford is only one win away from his own Super Bowl victory. He will be turning 34 next Sunday.

The Bad

Tyler Higbee knee injury

Higbee was helped off the field in the first quarter and did not return. Blanton took his place and played well, but without Higbee, the Rams may need to actually activate Brycen Hopkins. Cam Akers and Van Jefferson left but did return. It isn’t clear yet how serious Higbee’s injury is.

Coincidentally, the Bengals lost tight end C.J. Uzomah to a knee injury and by being carted off the field, his status for the Super Bowl is certainly in doubt.

Matthew Stafford near-interception

The drop by Jaquiski Tartt will never be forgotten, certainly not by Stafford and McVay.

Stafford has had a great playoffs, including in the NFC Championship, but moments and decisions like this one continue to pop up—even when he’s 3-0 in the playoffs. Hopefully it’s a much cleaner performance against Cincinnati.

Sean McVay timeouts, challenges

They did not work out.

Rams running game

The good for the first half is that the Rams were able to control possession and the clock for most of it. That included a 97-yard touchdown drive. The bad news though is that those long possessions were in part due to an inability to get any big chunks of yards, including on the round.

Cam Akers finished with 13 carries for 48 yards and Sony Michel had 10 for 16, as the team combined for 70 yards on 29 carries. That’s an average of only 2.4 yards per carry. The 49ers played great run defense against the Rams in the regular season, will L.A. improve against the Bengals in two weeks? Cincinnati has been roughly “decent” against the run this season.

Drops

Ben Skowronek dropped a touchdown and we didn’t hear from him again. Cooper Kupp dropped a pass when he might have been able to take off for a touchdown... and we did hear from him again. A lot of agains. And many more to come.

Skowronek has such an enticing frame and speed for a wide receiver and the drops have been an issue all year long.

The gap between Aaron Donald and everyone else on defense?

It wasn’t a perfect day for Jalen Ramsey. Von Miller was quiet for most of the contest. Not to take anything away from the Rams for pulling out a huge win against the team they most wanted to beat, but it’s just interesting to watch an NFC Championship and Eric Weddle, Troy Reeder, and Nick Scott are starting. And playing well enough for L.A. to win the game and to hold the 49ers to 17 points.

It’s even more of a credit to Donald, Ramsey, Von Miller — and Raheem Morris — that the Rams are going to the Super Bowl with a defense that has a surprising number of starters who few had pegged to start going into the season. In the case of Weddle, going into the playoffs!

Plus Deebo Samuel is a very talented player and we can’t take anything away from him either. With an unexpected cast of defensive characters, the L.A. Rams move on to the Super Bowl.

The Difference

Aaron Donald is always the difference. He’s built difference.

Other than Tom Brady winning four more Super Bowls, Aaron Donald would be the best NFL player of the last 10 years. Nobody would have ever guessed that a defensive tackle would carry this much responsibility for helping his team reach two Super Bowls in four years, but with a practically an entire new roster around him, that’s what Aaron Donald has done with the Rams.

NFC Championship - San Francisco 49ers v Los Angeles Rams Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Donald’s personal accolades, the first-team All-Pro guarantees at the start of every season, the four Defensive Player of the Year awards (five, if the NFL counted the postseason this year, no doubt), the annual “MVP if only...” chatter, are one thing worthy of a Hall of Fame resume that few in history can relate to. But going to the Rams in 2014, after 10 years without a winning season, and then being the driving force behind four postseason trips and two Super Bowl appearances in the last five years, is what makes Donald one of the most special defensive players in NFL history.

His numbers on the stat sheet will be modest (three tackles, two QB hits) but the game fittingly ended on Donald pressuring Jimmy Garoppolo into a 49ers season-ending interception. On a team full of amazing talents, Aaron Donald remains in a tier by himself.