THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. – Cooper Kupp led the league in every major receiving category this season, a triple crown feat accomplished only three times previously in NFL history.
Deebo Samuel also racked up huge numbers, but he wasn't content to just catch the ball. He also ran it and occasionally threw it while cementing his status as perhaps the most versatile, electrifying playmaker in football.
In a sport usually defined and dominated by quarterback play, two All-Pro receivers have propelled their teams to the NFC championship game. Sunday's meeting of NFC West rivals is the third opportunity this season to watch Kupp and Samuel on the same field near the end of spectacular seasons that could be remembered long after this showdown between the Los Angeles Rams (14-5) and the San Francisco 49ers (12-7).
“I can't believe we're not talking about Deebo Samuel and Cooper Kupp (being) more highly regarded for MVP candidates,” Rams defensive coordinator Raheem Morris said. “I know this is a quarterback-driven league, but these two players have absolutely defied some of the things that are out there. ... As a competitor, I can’t wait to see it. As a fan, you can’t wait to watch it, and that makes for a great matchup."
Kupp (1,993) and Samuel (1,845) ranked 1-2 in the NFC in all-purpose yards. Kupp's 2,209 yards from scrimmage this season, including the playoffs, are the most by a receiver in NFL history, while Samuel needs only 44 yards this weekend to pass Jerry Rice (1995) for second place on that list.
Kupp and Samuel carry an inordinate amount of weight for their teams' success for a receiver. The Rams and the 49ers probably wouldn’t be in the NFC championship game without two of the game’s top playmakers driving their offenses forward.
In fact, they probably wouldn’t even have won last week.
Kupp made an early 70-yard TD catch followed by two stunning final-minute receptions to set up the winning field goal in Los Angeles' 30-27 win at Tampa Bay, finishing with 183 yards receiving.
Samuel salvaged his offense's shaky performance in freezing Green Bay. After his long kickoff return set up San Francisco's first field goal, he had a tough first-down catch and converted another third-and-long with a gritty run on the final drive to set up Robbie Gould's winning kick in the Niners' 13-10 stunner.
“They’re great football players that are complete receivers,” Rams coach Sean McVay said. “When the ball is in (Samuel’s) hands, good things happen. Cooper is very similar. We’re just not giving him carries ... but he does so many different things. You’re talking about two guys that have been instrumental in getting their teams to where they’re at.”
Kupp and Samuel have some similarities that might point to reasons for their success: Both played all four years of college ball to emerge as more fully formed talents, yet neither was a first-round pick. Both landed with head coaches considered offensive gurus who specialize in getting the most out of their players' complete talents.
Samuel has become a position-less flex player under Kyle Shanahan, whose offense handed off to its best receiver 59 times this season. Samuel becomes something even more dangerous when he gets free to hit top speed, scoring an NFL-high nine TDs on runs outside the tackles.
“It’s something that you really dream of as a coach, in terms of being able to utilize people in different ways to try to find advantageous looks,” 49ers offensive coordinator Mike McDaniel said.
"It’s a lot easier to figure stuff out on Monday and Tuesday when the problem that you’re trying to solve is, ‘How do I get this guy the ball?’ And on gameday, ‘Hey, Deebo, here’s the ball.’ That’s the best thing for a coach that you could possibly imagine.”
And more importantly for Sunday, Samuel has crushed the Rams this season. He had 192 yards receiving and 81 yards rushing against Los Angeles while also throwing his first career touchdown pass during San Francisco's comeback for a playoff-clinching win at SoFi Stadium just three weeks ago.
“Deebo right now is playing like one of the best players in the NFL,” Shanahan said. “He’s obviously talented, but the will that he has, it’s unbelievable.”
Morris struggled to find comparison points for both wideouts, ultimately settling on Samuel being a version of “Anquan Boldin with speed.”
“You can put him in any category you want, but he’s forming his own category,” Morris said.
Kupp uses precise route-running and breakaway speed to propel the Rams' offense forward. He doesn’t carry the ball much, but Kupp excels as a blocker for the Rams’ running backs.
This playoff run is particularly meaningful for Kupp, who was out for the season with a knee injury when the Rams made the Super Bowl three years ago. He got hurt in Los Angeles' playoff opener last year and missed the second postseason game at Green Bay.
Samuel played in the Super Bowl two years ago as a rookie, and Kupp was watching from home. He has watched Samuel countless times since then through his obsessive film study of other top receivers' techniques.
“The biggest thing you gain is the appreciation for what he’s able to do as a player, what’s been put on his plate and the way he’s been competing through a football game," Kupp said. "You have a lot of respect for someone that’s willing to go out there and do whatever they ask him to do. He’s doing it, and with everything he’s got.”
AP Pro Football Writer Josh Dubow contributed.
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