Star-studded Rams host surging 49ers
INGLEWOOD, Calif. (AP) — Aaron Donald has been around long enough to know he might not get this chance again. The same goes for everybody in the Los Angeles Rams’ constellation of stars around him.
Late in his eighth NFL season as the best defensive lineman of his generation, Donald’s career is rich with individual honors, but lacking ultimate team success. The Rams (14-5) made several bold moves this season to build a team around Donald more capable of winning it all, and now they’re one step away from playing in a Super Bowl in their home stadium when they host the San Francisco 49ers (12-7) in the NFC championship game on Sunday.
“I feel like I’ve accomplished a lot in a short amount of time in this league,” said Donald, the seven-time All-Pro and three-time Defensive Player of the Year. “The only thing I’m lacking now is being a world champion. To get to that point, we’ve got to win this week.”
After crying on the sideline last January when the Rams’ season slipped away in Green Bay, Donald is desperate to take that penultimate step toward his last career goal. So are Matthew Stafford, Jalen Ramsey, Andrew Whitworth, Odell Beckham Jr., Cooper Kupp and several other Rams whose otherwise impressive careers don’t have that certain championship ring.
“So many teammates on my team, this is really all they need,” said linebacker Von Miller, the Super Bowl 50 MVP with Denver and midseason Rams acquisition. “Aaron Donald, this is all he needs, and he has the whole shebang, you know? Andrew Whitworth and Eric Weddle and all of these guys, I want to do it for them.”
These rivals match up superbly, with both offenses relying heavily on an All-Pro receiver (Kupp and Deebo Samuel) and both defenses built around elite, dynamic pass rushers.
But if the Rams (14-5) don’t overcome the 49ers’ maddening mastery over them, all their big moves will end in checkmate.
San Francisco has won six consecutive meetings with Los Angeles, and not much in their first two meetings this season suggested Rams coach Sean McVay is close to clearing the monumental mental block separating him from his good friend, Kyle Shanahan.
The 49ers feel a related urgency heading back to SoFi Stadium, where they roared back from an early 17-point deficit and surged to yet another impressive victory over their California archrivals just three weeks ago — clinching a playoff berth, no less.
In fact, San Francisco might owe its entire season to its domination of the Rams: The Niners were 3-5 and going nowhere when they routed Los Angeles in mid-November, kicking off their current 9-2 surge.
If the Rams fall again Sunday, the disappointment will be crushing, but Donald thinks they’re ready to shoulder the weight.
Shanahan has won seven of his 10 meetings with McVay in their concurrent half-decade careers. Preparing for this showdown was no challenge for both coaches, and they say execution will win the NFC title, not trick plays or surprises.
Stafford earned his first two career playoff victories over the past two weeks, playing nearly flawlessly and justifying his move to LA after a dozen seasons in Detroit. But he has never beaten Garoppolo, the much-maligned San Francisco passer whose occasional mistakes haven’t stopped him from going 4-1 as a starter in his playoff career and 3-0 against Stafford.