LOS ANGELES -- He snatched the ball out of the air just beyond his own 40-yard line, charging forward into the New Orleans Saints' secondary with star cornerback Marshon Lattimore closing in from his left and 10 months' worth of frustration lurking behind him. At that moment, Los Angeles Rams receiver Cooper Kupp was driven and defiant, resilient and unrestrained -- and he was determined to go the distance, perhaps more than ever before.
Nine minutes remained in Sunday's much-anticipated clash between the Saints and Rams at the L.A. Coliseum, a rematch of the dramatic and controversial 2018 NFC Championship Game, which Kupp had to sit out in the wake of reconstructive knee surgery. This time, L.A. had an 11-point lead and, with Saints quarterback Drew Brees having exited in the first quarter with an injury to his throwing thumb, looked to be cruising to victory.
And then, for the next 59 yards, Kupp -- with some help from fellow wide receivers Robert Woods and Brandin Cooks -- ran absolutely wild, putting his stamp on an afternoon that may have signaled the Rams' long-awaited offensive resurgence.
By the time Kupp was finished with his I'm Back, We're Back statement -- after stiff-arming Lattimore and pushing past a pair of Williamses (safety Marcus and cornerback P.J.) and juking cornerback Eli Apple with a sick swim move and carrying linebacker A.J. Klein with him on his lurch toward the goal line -- it was clear to 71,460 fans at the Coliseum and millions of television viewers that the Rams (2-0) were rolling in a manner they hadn't since leaving New Orleans last January.
Tragically, a subsequent replay review deprived Kupp of the touchdown he so desperately craved, leaving quarterback Jared Goff to follow up their 66-yard connection with a 1-yard sneak and polish off the Saints (1-1) by a 27-9 margin.
Well -- it was more like 1/12th of a yard, at least according to the man of the moment.
"That was a bummer," Kupp said long after the game as he dressed in a nearly cleared-out locker room. "When [the officials] said they were bringing it back, they told me it was 6 inches short, but when they actually marked it? Three inches. I mean, at that point, with the score what it was, maybe you just give it to me?"
Kupp smiled, indicating he was half-serious, at best. After all, railing against a perceived officiating injustice in the presence of an opponent still reeling from the Missed Call Heard Round the World seemed a bit severe.
This was especially true given that, on Sunday, another officiating gaffe deprived Saints defensive end Cam Jordan of an 87-yard touchdown return following a fumble recovery on a play that had been erroneously whistled dead, back when the game was tied at 3 with 6:02 left in the first half.
"Woulda been nice," Jordan said afterward as he headed for the Saints' bus outside the stadium, having stopped to congratulate Goff (19 for 28, 283 yards, one touchdown, no interceptions) on a stellar performance. "Once I scooped it up and cut (to the left sideline), my form was hot. I wasn't even that tired. I got to the end zone and then they told me, 'We blew the whistle.' I'm like, 'You blew the whistle when?' "
Then, in the fourth quarter, Goff and Kupp blew up the remaining suspense, ending the day in a first-place tie with the Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers in the NFC West.
If Kupp's catch-and-run provided Sunday's signature moment, Goff's 57-yard strike to Cooks on the Rams' third offensive play might have been even more significant. Given the young quarterback's regrettable performance in a 13-3 Super Bowl LIII setback to the New England Patriots, and his choppy outing in a season-opening victory at Carolina, Goff was getting his share of grief from fans and media analysts, continuing a common theme throughout his four-year career.
This was especially true in the wake of the four-year, $134 million contract extension Goff signed earlier this month, a deal which included a record $110 million guaranteed.
For most of Sunday, and especially on his sublime pass to Cooks, Goff was money.
Rams safety John Johnsonhad intercepted Brees on the game's first drive, a play made possible thanks to a great hit by newly acquired veteran safety Eric Weddle on Saints tight end Jared Cook. Now, facing a third-and-16 from his own 32, Goff decided to let it rip, and the result was spectacular.
After taking a shotgun snap, Goff surveyed the Saints' coverage and saw Lattimore singled up on Cooks, who was running a go route off a tight alignment on the left side of the formation. Goff felt that the cornerback was in a vulnerable position and that safety Marcus Williams would not be able to get over in time to help.
"It was third-and-forever, and I figure they're gonna sit (near the first-down marker)," Goff explained later. "That's when we take our shot. Lattimore's a great player. I saw him flat-footed and thought, 'Oooh, we got him.' "
It all sounds so simple -- and it is, presuming you have a quarterback who can do what Goff was about to do: Stand tall against an oncoming pass rush, plant his left foot at the ground on his own 24 and deliver a crisp, soaring spiral that would land perfectly in Cooks' hands as the former Saints receiver fell to the grass at the New Orleans 11. The ball traveled 65 yards in the air and seemed to be guided by a GPS chip. It had zip and touch and sugar and spice and everything nice.
"It was a hell of a catch," Goff said.
That he would try to deflect attention away from himself, and toward one of his receivers, was not surprising. In a league with so many divas and stat-seekers populating the receiver position, Goff believes the Rams are an anomaly, with Woods, Cooks, Kupp and Josh Reynolds (Kupp's stand-in after he tore his ACL last Nov. 11) seemingly constituting a content and mutually supportive ensemble cast.
On Sunday, even as Kupp (five catches, 120 yards) had the second-most prolific game of his career, Cooks (three receptions, 74 yards, one touchdown) and Woods (two receptions, 33 yards) were relative bit players. Woods was targeted twice, his lowest total since joining the Rams before the 2017 season, and a tally one fewer than the amount of Saints defenders he obstructed during Kupp's catch-and-run.
"The best part of all four of those guys, they're all selfless," Goff said. "They're all rooting for Cooper when he's catching the ball and blocking their asses off and trying to get him into the end zone. I've never been around anything like it. It's all 'team, team, team; win, win, win' with all four of them. Some teams will say they have that, but we really do. I'm very, very lucky to have that group."
The band is back together now, but Kupp's absence was felt during the second half of last season, and especially in the Super Bowl. He stood on the sidelines in Atlanta in February and agonized as his teammates struggled against the Patriots, at times writing route adjustments on a greaseboard to share with his fellow receivers.
Then, once the offseason began, Kupp dove into his rehabilitation with a vengeance.
"He's only gotten better and stronger since his injury," Goff said. "He was back in August. He won't say that, you could tell -- he had his feet under him. Today, he was able to show that off."
Veteran Rams cornerback Aqib Talib said Kupp had been "going nuts at practice. I could've told you (he was back)."
Added cornerback Marcus Peters: "We're glad to have that boy back. He worked his ass off to get to this position. It shows that hard work pays off."
Goff repeatedly made the Saints pay on Sunday, at a time when they were vulnerable because of Brees' absence. I'm not a big single-game passer rating guy, but I'll make an exception here: This was the 16th time since the start of the 2017 season that Goff registered a rating of 110 or more in a game, tying him atop the NFL with the Seahawks' Russell Wilson during that span. That's consistency and no, a *system quarterback *can't just do that on demand.
The Saints, meanwhile, played most of this game without Brees, who while throwing a first-quarter incompletion banged hands with onrushing superstar defensive tackle Aaron Donald, injuring his thumb. Former Minnesota Vikings starter Teddy Bridgewater took it the rest of the way, and while he was reasonably proficient (17 for 30, 165 yards, no TDs, no interceptions), the Saints registered their fourth-lowest point total of the Sean Payton-Brees era, which dates back to 2006.
If Brees is out for an extended period, which seems very possible (UPDATE: NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport reported Monday that Brees is likely to miss six weeks due to a torn ligament in his throwing thumb), New Orleans will need to find a way to rally around Bridgewater. In the meantime, Saints fans can now obsess about something other than the non-call that likely cost the team a Super Bowl berth in January -- a subject the Rams had all but tuned out in the days leading up to Sunday's rematch.
"It's a whole new team, and that s--- didn't mean anything to us," Talib said. "All it did was send us to lose the Super Bowl, so why would it mean a thing to us? That's why they looked like that (in this game); it was on their mind. It wasn't on our mind. This is a fresh, new season."
Said Goff: "It's been so belabored, but we didn't talk about it for a second inside our locker room. I'm sure they were talking about it. But us ... straight ahead."
Kupp didn't exactly run straight ahead on his highly entertaining near-touchdown. His weaving, juking and tackle-breaking effort was a sight to behold, with a little help from his friends: Woods throwing blocks on three New Orleans defenders (Marcus Williams, P.J. Williams and Klein) and Cooks knocking P.J. Williams to the ground at the Saints' 30. As Kupp prepared to leave the locker room Sunday, he said he hadn't yet seen a replay.
"I look forward to watching it," Kupp said. "I tell you what, the stars of that play were Brandin Cooks and Robert Woods. To see them blocking downfield and going as hard as they did, that's what makes a team transcendent.
"When you have guys who love to compete and do their job -- and help other people do their job, and truly take joy in it -- that's when you become special."