Jarrett Bell and Mike Jones from New Orleans and Kansas City on how the Rams and Patriots pulled off their impressive wins to head to the Super Bowl.
USA TODAY Sports
NEW ORLEANS – Ndamukong Suh cried.
That might be the last thing you’d expect from the hulking Los Angeles Rams defensive tackle, who oozes whatever you’d think machismo is supposed to represent from a man who measures 6-4 and 313 pound. I mean, Suh looks like he’d survive eating nails for breakfast.
Yet there’s a sensitive side to this big fella that tends to surface amid the make-or-break moments of the playoffs. It came out again at the Superdome on Sunday, as Greg Zuerlein lined up for a 57-yard kick in overtime that sent the Rams to Super Bowl LIII – and Suh to the first Super Bowl in his nine-year NFL career – on the longest field goal in postseason history.
The Fox candid cameras caught Suh on the bench, his head buried. It appeared that he was seeking divine intervention.
“I was crying,” Suh told USA TODAY Sports. “Praying and crying. Just praying for him to knock that thing down like he’s taught to. It’s moments like that, that you never forget.”
Suh, 32, entered the NFL with the Lions in 2010 as the second pick in the NFL draft after becoming one of the most decorated players in college football history at Nebraska. Like every player headed to Atlanta for Super Bowl LIII, it has been a personalized journey. For Suh, that has included individual recognition that led to a record contract and controversy – he was once considered by some to be one the NFL’s dirtiest players because of a series of flagrant on-the-field dustups. But for much of his career, including his first five seasons in Detroit, playing in the Super Bowl seemed like a pipe dream.
“This is a great situation,” he reflected. Then Suh pondered his postseason experiences and realized that he’d be ecstatic to reach .500 with a victory in the next game, on Feb. 3 against the Patriots.
“Being in Detroit, losing seasons, winning seasons, going to the playoffs and always losing,” he said, “it’ll be solidified if I can go 3-3. It would be a dream come true.”
Suh went to the playoffs twice with the Lions and once with the Dolphins. He was winless in January until the Rams’ divisional playoff victory against the Dallas Cowboys, when he delivered a huge play in the clutch – the initial hit on Ezekiel Elliott that stuffed the NFL’s rushing champ on fourth-and-1.
After having few notable big plays for the bulk of the regular season (when his linemate, Aaron Donald, dazzled by leading the NFL with 20 ½ sacks), Suh has emerged as a high-profile terror in these playoffs. He followed up his big game against Dallas by registering 1 ½ sacks of Drew Brees in the NFC title game. His stat line, only a sliver of the impact for a player in the trenches, also included four tackles, a tackle for a loss and two quarterback hits.
For all that the Rams invested in Suh and the other notable additions to Wade Phillips’ defense – including cornerbacks Aqib Talib and Marcus Peters and edge rusher Dante Fowler – the strategy is paying off at the optimal time. The defense has hit a stride down the stretch. Fowler, for instance, had the hit on Brees in overtime that resulted in the John Johnson interception that set up Zuerlein’s winning kick.
“I think the front office and the coaching staff pushed all the chips to the center of the table,” said Suh, who signed a one-year, $14.5 million contract with the Rams in the offseason. “They found all the pieces that they felt could put a great team together that could win a championship. Now it’s our job as players, as young men and veterans, to come together – obviously, people have individual goals, but to put all that aside and go win a championship.”
I reminded him of another of his playoff game experiences. The Lions suffered a 24-20 setback at Dallas in a wild-card matchup following the 2014 season that ironically, given what happened on Sunday, included controversy after officials picked up the flag and wiped out an apparent (and obvious) pass interference penalty on then-Cowboys linebacker Anthony Hitchens against tight end Brandon Pettigrew.
When he met the media after that defeat, Suh was, sure enough, in tears. He remembers.
“I felt like I put my heart on the line, as I did in this particular game, not knowing if I would be back in Detroit or not,” Suhsaid. “That was a good situation. Coach (Jim) Caldwell did an amazing job; I still talk to him all the time. But I’m in a great situation right now. I want to go finish this.”
It figures that win or lose, Suh has a few tears left to leave on the field.
Follow Jarrett Bell on Twitter @JarrettBell.