As Aaron Donald started walking toward the showers Sunday, a crowd of reporters gathered in front of his locker in anticipation of his eventual return.
Michael Brockers tried in vain to ease the congestion by playfully reminding the group that coach Sean McVay was about to start his postgame news conference in another room.
Cory Littleton called out to a bare-chested Donald: “Hurry up and talk to these people so we can go!”
The Rams have the best running back in the NFL in Todd Gurley, a 24-year-old franchise quarterback in Jared Goff and a rock star coach in McVay, but their defensive tackle has become impossible to ignore by virtue of his performances.
Donald was the primary reason the Rams emerged Sunday with a 30-16 victory over the Detroit Lions that secured them a second consecutive NFC West championship and not a soul pretended otherwise.
“He’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen,” Goff said.
Only two defensive players have won the league’s MVP award: Minnesota Vikings defensive tackle Alan Page in 1971 and New York Giants linebacker Lawrence Taylor in 1986.
Donald should be the third.
Watching him this season has been like watching Mike Tyson at the height of his powers. Or Nolan Ryan when he was throwing his hardest. Or LeBron James rumble down the lane.
He is simply overpowering.
That was the case again at Ford Field, where he rescued the Rams when their high-scoring offense suddenly stalled after their off week.
With the Rams ahead by only three points early in the fourth quarter, the Lions started marching up field. The Lions had the ball near midfield when Donald blew past left guard Frank Ragnow and dropped quarterback Matthew Stafford for a six-yard loss. Two plays later, the Lions punted.
Goff and the Rams went three-and-out on their ensuing possession, but Donald responded once more. The Lions didn’t have a chance.
Donald pushed aside right guard Kenny Wiggins, rushed past center Graham Glasgow, then launched himself in Stafford’s direction. Donald’s left hand batted loose the football from Stafford’s clutches.
This was more than a sensational display of athleticism by the 6-foot-1, 280-pound bowling ball of a defensive tackle. This play changed the game.
The Rams recovered the fumble, positioning them to extend their lead to 23-13 on a 13-yard touchdown run by Gurley.
“He’s forcing turnovers, he’s getting there at the most important times,” McVay said. “And that’s what we talk about all the time, that competitive greatness, being your best when your best is required. He’s kind of the epitome of that right now for our defense and, really, a guy that represents that for a football team.”
Or, as Donald himself said, “The big-time player makes big-time plays in big-time games and that’s what we need to keep doing.”
He emphasized he wasn’t talking only about himself.
“A lot of guys are doing it,” he said.
Donald’s two sacks Sunday increased his season total to 16½. The single-season NFL record for a defensive tackle is 18, set by Keith Millard of the Vikings in 1989.
With four games remaining, Donald also will have a chance at Michael Strahan’s overall single-season record of 22½.
As for whether he thought a defensive tackle could win the MVP award in the NFL, Donald said, “That’s for whoever’s voting. I’m just playing my game and trying to help my team win. Whatever happens happens.”
McVay was similarly evasive, likely mindful that a vote for Donald was a vote against Goff and Gurley.
“I just think that we have a lot of really valuable players on our team,” McVay said.
Goff acknowledged Donald merited consideration. Linebacker Dante Fowler went a step further, saying he “definitely” did.
“It’s a special talent,” Fowler said. “He’ll go down in history as a great.”
The uncertainty that existed over Donald’s future during training camp is in the distant past. At the time, it was even suggested in this space the Rams should trade Donald if he extended his holdout into the regular season. “Dump him,” read the column in question.
That never had to be seriously considered and everyone involved has benefited. Donald accepted a six-year extension that included an $87-million guarantee and has rewarded the team with the most productive season of his career. By the time it’s over, it can be more than that.