Rams’ long and winding road led to Super Bowl LVI championship at home

 Rams fans had much to cheer about at SoFi Stadium this season.
Rams fans had much to cheer about at SoFi Stadium this season.
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

The star-studded Rams began the 2021 season with a mandate to play in Super Bowl LVI at SoFi Stadium.

Coach Sean McVay and his players fulfilled that order — and then pulled out the biggest victory in team history by rallying to defeat the Cincinnati Bengals 23-20.

But it was far from an easy road, an all-in, boom-or-bust journey that started and ended in owner Stan Kroenke’s $5-billion palace.


In the longest season in NFL history, the Rams navigated twists and turns and innumerable ups and downs en route to a 12-5 regular-season record, the NFC West title and the playoffs.

They made blockbuster trades before and during the season. They signed and released star receivers. They weathered season-ending injuries, a midseason losing streak and a coronavirus outbreak that ravaged the roster.

Sean McVay’s youthful enthusiasm allowed him to overcome setbacks on the path to leading the Rams to their first L.A. Super Bowl title. Now pay him.

Feb. 18, 2022

But they rebounded to win five games in a row. And then — in what could be termed an oddly positive break — they probably helped themselves matchup-wise for the playoffs by losing to the rival San Francisco 49ers in the regular-season finale.

These are some month-to-month impressions from along the way:


September (3-0)

The Rams' Darrell Henderson gets pushed out of bounds by the Bears' Kindle Vildor in the season opener.
The Rams’ Darrell Henderson gets pushed out of bounds by the Bears’ Kindle Vildor in the season opener.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

  • Chicago: Win 34-14
  • at Indianapolis: Win 27-24
  • Tampa Bay: Win 34-24

Talk about a grand opening.

In the first regular-season game played in front of fans in SoFi Stadium, McVay wasted no time showing why he pushed to trade quarterback Jared Goff and two first-round draft picks to the Detroit Lions for quarterback Matthew Stafford. On the Rams’ third play, Stafford heaved a 67-yard touchdown pass to Van Jefferson.


Stafford high-stepped down the field to celebrate.

“That’s a pretty good start,” he said after passing for 321 yards and three touchdowns against the Bears.

It got better.

Stafford went into the season having engineered 38 game-winning drives for the mostly hapless Lions. In Indianapolis, with all-time leader Peyton Manning in attendance, he increased that total with a late drive that produced a winning field goal.

The Rams should be competitive in capturing the hearts of L.A. just like the Lakers and Dodgers, writes columnist Dylan Hernández.

Feb. 16, 2022

“I was as calm as I could be,” Stafford said, foreshadowing his late-season and playoff heroics.

Fans at SoFi Stadium were anything but calm when the Rams hosted Tom Brady and the defending Super Bowl champion Buccaneers. And McVay was just as excitable. He went fairly berserk on the sideline when the Buccaneers missed a field-goal attempt, and harkened to Barry Sanders the way he excitedly bobbed and weaved his way off the field and into the locker room at halftime. He also was pumped up when Stafford connected on a 75-yard touchdown pass to DeSean Jackson.

The Rams looked like legitimate Super Bowl contenders and the fans rocked the stadium, inspiring Times columnist Bill Plaschke to coin a new term.


“Everybody stomping,” he wrote. “Everybody Staffording.”


October (4-1)

The Rams' Aaron Donald prepares to tackle Cardinals running back James Conner during their game in October.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

  • Arizona: Loss 37-20
  • at Seattle: Win 26-17
  • at NY Giants: Win 38-11
  • Detroit: Win 28-19
  • at Houston: Win 38-22

“Stifle that Super Bowl talk. Pump the brakes on those NFL power rankings. Mute the Matthew Stafford MVP conversation.”

That was the first paragraph of this reporter’s story about the loss to the then-surging Arizona Cardinals and the Rams’ inability to stop quarterback Kyler Murray.

The Rams regrouped, traveled to Seattle and essentially ended the Seahawks’ season when a collision with Aaron Donald dislocated the middle finger on quarterback Russell Wilson’s throwing hand.


The Rams then traveled to New York, where the Giants were celebrating the 10th anniversary of their 2011 Super Bowl championship season, giving the Rams a glimpse of what that might look like for themselves in 2031.

The game with the most compelling story line of the season awaited.

Goff returned to SoFi Stadium with the winless Lions to play against McVay and a franchise that had traded up 14 spots to select him No. 1 in 2016 ... a team that he led to Super Bowl LIII ... a team that jettisoned Goff to Detroit in favor of Stafford, a quarterback who had never won a playoff game.

With the 2021 season over, what’s next for the NFL as it moves toward the 2022 season? Here are the people, places and issues that will be talking points.

Feb. 16, 2022

In the days leading to the game, all parties toed the politically correct line. McVay acknowledged mistakes in the detached way he communicated with Goff before the quarterback was unceremoniously exiled. But the emotion was palpable from both sides: Goff would give anything to beat the Rams, and McVay and the Rams’ front office could not fathom the embarrassment of losing to Goff.

The Rams led 25-19 in the fourth quarter but tension in Kroenke’s owner’s suite no doubt ratcheted upward when Goff drove the Lions to the 12-yard line.

Donald pressured Goff, and cornerback Jalen Ramsey showed why he is the NFL’s highest-paid cornerback when he made a spectacular play to intercept a pass.


“Those two guys are the best at their position for a reason,” Goff said.

The Rams’ brain trust exhaled — and the team closed out the month with an easy victory over the hapless Texans.


November (0-3)

Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill runs for a touchdown against the Rams in November.
Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill runs for a touchdown against the Rams in November. The Rams lost and went winless in November.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

  • Tennessee: Loss 28-16
  • at San Francisco: Loss 31-10
  • Off week
  • at Green Bay: Loss 36-28

It wasn’t so much the defeats. It was the way the Rams lost games during their winless November.

Stafford committed multiple turnovers in every game and fell out of the MVP conversation. Opponents pushed around or overpowered the offensive and defensive lines. Special teams continued to struggle.

How did a month that started with so much promise go so horribly wrong?

On the first day of November, the Rams traded for outside linebacker Von Miller. The future Hall of Famer could hardly believe his good fortune.


“Feels like a movie,” he said five times during his introductory news conference.

The Rams just won the Super Bowl, but the front office already has to thinking about the construction of their 2022 roster.

Feb. 15, 2022

It turned into a horror show for the Rams.

The day after trading for Miller, the Rams released Jackson, who chafed at his limited role in an offense that featured Cooper Kupp, Robert Woods and Jefferson. Then the Titans manhandled the Rams and sacked Stafford five times.

A few days later receiver Odell Beckham Jr., who had been released by the Cleveland Browns, decided to sign with the Rams. The day Beckham arrived, Woods suffered a season-ending knee injury.

The Rams got pushed around in another loss to the 49ers. And, after an open date, struggled again in a loss to the Packers. With six games left, the one-time Super Bowl contenders were in danger of missing the playoffs.

“The story isn’t written yet,” McVay said, defiantly. “We’ve got the pen.”


December (4-0)

Rams safety Nick Scott (33) dives to tackle Jaguars quarterback Trevor Lawrence in December.
Rams safety Nick Scott (33) dives to tackle Jaguars quarterback Trevor Lawrence in December.
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

  • Jacksonville: Win 37-7
  • at Arizona: Win 30-23
  • Seattle: Win 20-10
  • at Minnesota: Win 30-23

After the Rams limped into the holiday season, pass-happy McVay made a fundamental shift.

Running back Sony Michel, acquired in a preseason trade with the New England Patriots, became a focal point of the offense. McVay deployed reserve tackle Joe Noteboom as an extra tight end in heavy formations. The Rams started running over opponents.


But they could not outrun Omicron.

After nearly two years of avoiding a team-wide coronavirus outbreak, Rams players began populating the reserve/COVID-19 list. Hours before they played the Cardinals on a Monday night, Ramsey and tight end Tyler Higbee were added to the list.

But Donald took over, dominating in a victory that sent the Cardinals into a late-season spiral.

Because of the outbreak, which put nearly 30 Rams players on the list, the NFL moved the Rams’ next game against the Seahawks from Sunday to Tuesday.

Rams fans cheer for the Super Bowl champions at a parade in Los Angeles.

Feb. 16, 2022

“There were some times during the week, for sure, where it was just every day felt like half our team was getting added to the list,” Stafford said after passing for two touchdowns against the Seahawks, including a magnificent strike to Kupp in the fourth quarter.

Four days later, on Christmas Day, the Rams traveled to Minneapolis.

Brandon Powell’s 61-yard punt return and Michel’s 131 yards rushing helped the Rams overcome three interceptions and clinch a playoff spot.


“That says as much about this group as you need to know,” McVay said after his team followed a winless November with an undefeated December. “But we’ve got to keep it rolling.”


January (1-1)

San Francisco fans were plentiful at SoFi Stadium during 49ers' comeback victory over the Rams in January.
San Francisco fans were plentiful at SoFi Stadium during 49ers’ comeback victory over the Rams in January.
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

  • at Baltimore: Win 20-19
  • San Francisco: Loss 27-24 (OT)

It took a while for Beckham and Miller to hit their stride with the Rams, but both stars helped the Rams start the new year right by making huge plays against the Ravens.

Beckham caught a go-ahead touchdown pass with less than a minute left, and Miller sealed the victory with a sack.

“It feels good to do my job for my boys,” Miller said.

The Rams went into the season finale with a chance to secure the No. 2 seeding for the NFC playoffs. All McVay had to do was outwit 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan, his friend, mentor and nemesis, who had led his team to five consecutive victories over the Rams.


In front of a SoFi Stadium crowd full of 49ers fans the Rams took a 17-0 lead, McVay celebrating in the end zone after a Tyler Higbee touchdown catch, but the 49ers rallied to tie the score in the third quarter.

Rams management is lauded for trading for Matthew Stafford and developing Cooper Kupp. So why did Sean McVay call so many ineffective running plays?

Feb. 18, 2022

With less than three minutes to play in regulation, Stafford connected with Kupp for a touchdown, but the 49ers rallied to send the game into overtime. The 49ers kicked a field goal, and then intercepted a Stafford pass to clinch the victory.

The Cardinals’ defeat by the Seahawks gave the Rams the division title, but the Rams fell to the No. 4 seed, putting them in an NFC wild-card matchup against the Cardinals at home and a possible divisional-round game at second-seeded Tampa Bay. The 49ers clinched a playoff spot and a wild-card matchup on the road against the Dallas Cowboys — with a possible divisional-round game at top-seeded Green Bay.

If the Rams and 49ers earned their way into the NFC championship game, and they did, they would play again at SoFi Stadium for a chance to advance to the Super Bowl.

“You gotta finish,” McVay said, adding, “Fortunately, this isn’t the end for us.”

It proved to be only the beginning.