Every important play in Super Bowl LVI

The 2021 NFL season was the longest ever, and perhaps improbably, it also gave us perhaps the greatest postseason we’ve ever season. Game after game was decided in nail-biting fashion, and Super Bowl LVI was no exception.

The Los Angeles Rams beat the Cincinnati Bengals, 23-20, but it was never a sure thing until the end. The Rams shot out to a 13-3 lead, watched Joe Burrow and the Bengals mount comeback after comeback, got their defense together at the best possible time, and in the end, Cincinnati’s Achilles heel — an offensive line that could probably get blasted by a good SEC defensive front — turned things in L.A.’s favor.

It’s always good to look back at close games like this to see when and how things turned, especially when there were so many twists and turns. With that in mind, here are, in chronological order, all the truly important plays in Super Bowl LVI.

The Bengals’ failed fourth-down conversion.

(AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)

The Bengals had to know that if they wanted to run the ball in Super Bowl LIV, they needed to stay away from Rams defensive lineman A’Shawn Robinson, who’s been his team’s best run-stopper all season long. But on third-and-1 from the Rams’ 49-yard line with 10:39 left in the first quarter, Bengals head coach Zac Taylor called for running back Samaje Perine to run right into the teeth of Los Angeles’ impressive defensive front, and Robinson was the guy right on the spot with the stop, limiting Perine to no yardage, and crossing several gaps to do so.

Yeah, we’ve talked about the Bengals’ offensive line all week long, and it already bit them here.

Then, Taylor made the call to go for it on fourth-and-1. Joe Burrow tried to get the ball to Ja’Marr Chase quickly, but rookie linebacker Ernest Jones was right where he needed to be, as he was following Perine out of the backfield in man coverage, and broke up the pass.

Six plays later, the second important play in the Super Bowl happened.

Matthew Stafford‘s touchdown pass to Odell Beckham Jr.

(Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports)

Beckham was lost for the rest of the game with 3:54 left in the second half with a knee injury (more on that in a second), but he certainly had the Bengals on their heels when he was out there, and this 17-yard touchdown from Matthew Stafford was proof of concept.

Stafford was just getting started hitting his favorite targets for touchdowns early in the game.

The uncalled defensive pass interference penalty on Jalen Ramsey.

(Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports)

When officials get to the Super Bowl, the last thing they want (with a few notable historical exceptions) is to be the primary story angle when the game is done. So, there has been a “let them play” philosophy for the most part, and as that certainly started for the Bengals and Chiefs in the AFC Championship game, you could expect to see it from referee Ron Torbert’s crew in Super Bowl LVI… until the end of the game.

That manifested itself pretty quickly, as Rams cornerback Jalen Ramsey got away with a blatantly obvious pass interference penalty when covering Bengals receiver Tee Higgins in the red zone.

The play happened with 31 seconds left in the first quarter. Joe Burrow had completed a 46-yard fade to Ja’Marr Chase three plays before, but Burrow then threw two incompletions, which set up third-and-10 from the Rams’ 11-yard line.

NBC analyst and former Bengals receiver Cris Collinsworth, calling the game with Al Michaels, first said that the replay looked pretty clean… and then, the angle clearly showing Ramsey holding Higgins’ undershirt for about five yards, clearly holding him up.

Kicker Evan McPherson booted a 29-yard field goal on the next play to put the score at 7-3 Rams, but the Bengals should have had first-and-goal with a new set of tries to get a touchdown. Torbert, who called 18 defensive pass interference penalties in the regular season, and his all-star crew simply missed it.

Matthew Stafford’s touchdown pass to Cooper Kupp.

(Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports)

With 12:51 left in the first half, it was Cooper Kupp’s turn, with this 11-yard touchdown pass from Stafford. The Bengals’ unfortunate defensive strategy of letting Kupp run unencumbered through the end zone was not ideal.

At this point in the game, the Rams had a 13-0 lead and a 91% Win probability, per Next Gen Stats. Which just goes to show you how quickly things can change… because this was no easy win by any means.

Joe Mixon’s touchdown pass to Tee Higgins.

(Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports)

The Bengals’ response was to go to the “Philly Special” section of their playbook, with running back Joe Mixon hitting Higgins for a six-yard touchdown pass with 5:47 left in the first half.

This cut the Rams’ lead to 13-10, and things were about to get a lot worse for the NFC champs.

Matthew Stafford’s incomplete pass to Odell Beckham Jr.

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So, the Rams were rolling with Beckham and Kupp, and then, they weren’t. With 3:54 left in the first half, Beckham missed a connection with Stafford, and came up with a non-contact knee injury; the same knee he’s had issues with before.

After Beckham’s injury, the Bengals were able to double Cooper Kupp with relative impunity, and that was reflected in Stafford’s performance. Before the Beckham injury, Stafford had completed 10 of 12 passes 140 yards and two touchdowns. for After in the first half, he completed two of six passes for 25 yards, and a deep interception to safety Jessie Bates.

Which is our next crucial play…

Matthew Stafford’s deep interception to Jessie Bates.

(Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports)

The Rams wouldn’t have won this Super Bowl without Matthew Stafford and this three touchdown passes, but it’s also not surprising that the guy who led the league in interceptions coming into this game with 18 threw two more. The first came with 2:10 left in the first half, the Bengals slipping back into their preferred eight-man coverage, and Stafford pressing to the end zone.

The Bengals were unable to capitalize on this interception, in part because cornerback Vernon Hargreaves, who was out of the game and out of uniform due to injury, decided to jump on the field and celebrate with his teammates. That set Cincinnati back to their own 10-yard line.

Just an inexcusable gaffe.

However, the Bengals came out of the tunnel for the second half with a plan to get more explosive in the passing game.

Bengals come out hot in the second half — a 75-yard TD pass to Tee Higgins.

(Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports)

The Bengals wasted no time getting out to a lead in the second half. With 14:48 left in the third quarter, Burrow hit Higgins for a 75-yard touchdown, and if you want to get into the fact that Higgins committed a REALLY obvious face mask on Jalen Ramsey, you certainly could. Apparently, Rob Torbert and his crew were still napping, They would wake up (and makeup) soon enough.

Chidobe Awuzie’s deflection interception.

This is where the Bengals seemed to have it in the bag. They kicked off after Higgins’ touchdown, and Stafford threw the ball over the middle to receiver Ben Skowronek, who basically dumped it into the hands of Cincinnati cornerback Chidobe Awuzie.

The Rams had a 77% Win Probability at the start of the second half — after this play, it had dropped to 44%… and it would go lower before it popped back up.

Joe Burrow’s fourth-and-1 run.

)Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports)

On the Bengals’ next drive, they had fourth-and-1 from the Rams’ 22-yard line, and Burrow ran four yards for the first down.

Four plays later, Evan McPherson kicked a 38-yard field goal to put the Bengals up, 20-10. That seemed to set the Bengals up to blow the game open (the Rams’ Win Probability had now dropped to 42%), but a familiar face had already come calling for Los Angeles….

Aaron Donald’s two sacks in six plays.

(Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports)

The Bengals could have scored a touchdown on that drive, but there was one individual who took that challenge personally. With 14:18 left in the third quarter, Aaron Donald pushed Burrow out of bounds with a little extra English for a sack, and Cincinnati’s offensive linemen were not amused.

Cincinnati’s offensive linemen were about to get a lot less amused. Six plays later, Donald did it again,

That led to the McPherson field goal — the last points Cincinnati scored in this game.

Cooper Kupp’s incomplete pass to Matthew Stafford.

Remember in Super Bowl LII, when Nick Foles caught a touchdown pass, and Philly Special became a thing? There was also an incomplete pass in that game from Patriots receiver Danny Amendola to Tom Brady, and the Rams’ attempt from Cooper Kupp to Matthew Stafford with 6:08 left in the third quarter had a very similar construct.

That was on third-and-5 from the Cincinnati 23-yard line, and though Matt Gay kicked a 41-yard field goal on the very next play, one wonders exactly what the Rams were thinking there — just as most of us wondered what the Patriots were thinking with their own Philly special attempt.

The Rams’ two straight third-quarter sacks.

(AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

As the game wore on, the Rams started to use their obvious talent advantages along the defensive line against Cincinnati’s offensive line by using more bear and five-man under fronts to force one-on-ones the Bengals couldn’t possibly handle. Things started to pop loose on Aaron Donald’s aforementioned third-quarter sacks in three clock minutes, and then, with 2:47 left in the third quarter, the Rams started a two-sack sequence that took the total up to six for Burrow in the game.

First, A’Shawn Robinson took Burrow down… and then, it was Von Miller.

Burrow, as is his wont, got 17 yards back on third-and-22 on a pass to receiver Mike Thomas, but that obviously wasn’t enough, and the Bengals punted it away.

D.J. Reader’s sack of Matthew Stafford.

(Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports)

The sack of more consequence came with 3:35 left in the third quarter — Bengals defensive tackle D.J. Reader blasted through to get to Stafford, and the quarterback’s left leg went through some uncomfortable contortions.

Reader’s sack came on a third-and-7 from the 50-yard line, so Johnny Hekker punted the ball away on the next play.

The Rams’ Win Probability was now down to 37%.

Von Miller’s sack of Joe Burrow.

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The seventh sack of Burrow on the day came from Von Miller with 11:55 left in the game, and this was Miller getting to Burrow on a inside stunt, taking the quarterback down, and right tackle Isaiah Prince getting busted for a 15-yard unnecessary roughness penalty for good measure. Burrow limped off the field, and at this point, you had to wonder if Cincinnati had used up all its good fortune regarding Burrow’s health in the 2021 season despite ceaseless pressure against that unacceptable front five.

Burrow toughed it out, and that toughness was going to be challenged more down the stretch.

Tyler Boyd’s drop.

(Albert Cesare-USA TODAY Sports)

Boyd, the Bengals’ primary slot receiver, came into Super Bowl LVI having not dropped a slot target since Game 2… of the 2020 season. So, Burrow’s third-and-9 throw to Boyd with 6:23 left in the game seemed like a fait accompli.

Tyler Boyd doesn’t drop passes, right?


This unfortunate mistake by a fine player forced the Bengals to punt the ball to the Los Angeles 21-yard line, setting the Rams up for what could be their game-winning drive.

Matthew Stafford remembers Cooper Kupp!

(Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports)

The Rams had a frustrating bout of time in the second half in which Matthew Stafford somehow forgot his most prolific receiver, and then, everything changed. This fourth-and-1 conversion to Kupp from the Los Angeles 30-yard line with five minutes left in the game was huge…

…and this 22-yard killer, which got the ball to the Cincinnati 24-yard line with 3:06 left in the game, was rather crucial.

Now, it was up to Stafford to do the do and drive his team into the end zone. He would get help from the officials, who suddenly remembered their ability to swing a game for good or ill on the basis of their efforts.

A HIGHLY questionable holding call on Logan Wilson.

(Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports)

After 58 minutes of mostly keeping their flags in their pockets, Ron Torbert’s crew either got something in their ears from Command Central in New York City, or they remembered that they were about to run out of face time. Because all of a sudden, the flags were flying all over the place.

This holding call on linebacker Logan Wilson with 1:47 left in the game will stick in the collective craw of Bengals fans all offseason, and you can’t blame them. The Rams were down 20-16, they had third-and-goal from the Cincinnati eight-yard line, Stafford threw an incomplete pass to Kupp, and THIS was called holding.

If you see holding here, you have better eyes than we do. On the next play, offsetting penalties negated a four-yard pass from Stafford to Kupp, and that set up a penalty even Bengals fans really can’t argue with… unless they want to go back to that Jalen Ramsey no-call.

The DPI call on Eli Apple.

(Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports)

Yeah, Apple was outmanned by Kupp, and this is what you do when you’re outmanned — hold for dear life, and at least prevent a touchdown. This defensive pass interference penalty put the ball at the Cincinnati one-yard line, and after an unsuccessful quarterback sneak, Stafford put the ball in the hands of the eventual Super Bowl MVP with the game-winning offensive play.

Matthew Stafford’s second touchdown pass to Cooper Kupp.

(Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports)

And in the end, the triple crown winner came up big in the biggest possible moment. With 1:29 left in the game, and after Flagapalooza was over, Stafford hit Kupp for the one-yard touchdown that decided Super Bowl LVI in the Rams’ favor. Apple, the one Bengals defensive back who had proven vulnerable in the postseason, gave up the score.

This concluded a 15-play, 79-yard drive that took 4:48 off the clock. And it was not the first time Apple had a rough go against Mr. Kupp.

It could be said that this drive was why the Rams gave up two first-round picks, a third-round pick, and Jared Goff to the Lions for Stafford — he was the guy the Rams didn’t have who could engineer such an offensive performance.

Aaron Donald’s last stand.

(Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports)

The game wasn’t over yet, though. The Bengals got the ball back at their own 25-yard line with 1:25 left in the game, and we’ve seen Joe Burrow do this before. Burrow had his team at the Cincinnati 49-yard line with 43 seconds left in the game, and fourth-and-1. Burrow was a good play or two from a game-tying Evan McPherson field goal, and that’s when Aaron Donald kicked into Aaron Donald mode.

Literally, game over. This wasn’t written in the game book as a sack, but it might as well have been, and it capped a second half in which Donald was beyond superhuman. Kupp was the MVP, but Donald deserved a co-MVP award here. Perhaps if Burrow had been called in the grasp, and Donald had his third official sack, that would have been the case.

“I’m just so happy,” Donald said after the game. “I wanted this so bad. I dreamed this, man! I dreamed this, and it’s surreal — look at this! I feel amazing. I feel amazing. I feel great.”

Donald said that he would live in the moment regarding rumors that a Super Bowl win would have him retiring. Hopefully, the greatest defensive player of his era has a few more years left in his thoughts.