A funny thing happened while two franchise quarterbacks with a combined 2021 salary cap hit of $51 million were having a pillow fight to see which one could lose Sunday's game in an uglier fashion at U.S. Bank Stadium.
Along came a journeyman punt returner to steal the show.
Meet Brandon Powell. Signed to the Rams practice squad last month. On his fifth NFL team in four seasons. And, oh yeah, his salary cap number: $251,333.
And yet in just his fourth game with the Rams, he upstaged Los Angeles' prized QB Matthew Stafford and the Vikings' Kirk Cousins with a perfectly timed 61-yard punt return for a touchdown that staggered the Vikings, snuffed out any momentum they had garnered from making it a three-point game in the third quarter, and officially sent the Rams into the playoffs with a 30-23 victory over the Vikings.
"I just did the easy part," Powell said. "Just caught the ball and ran it up the sideline."
Not bad for a guy who said he was "on the beach in Miami reading a book … every day for three weeks" when the Rams (11-4) came calling on Nov. 4.
Powell's score gave the Rams their first non-offensive touchdown of the season and their first punt return for a touchdown since Tavon Austin took one back with the then-St. Louis Rams in 2015.
Meanwhile, here is how things were going for the two quarterbacks when Powell somersaulted into the end zone to make it 20-10:
- Stafford was 15-for-29 for 120 yards, no touchdowns, three interceptions and a 22.8 passer rating. "I can definitely play way better," Stafford said while no one disagreed.
- Cousins was 14-for-22 for 110 yards, no touchdowns, one interception and a 57.0 passer rating. As an offense, the Vikings had 10 points on two "drives" totaling 9 yards. They also hadn't had a possession longer than 15 yards at that point.
And yet momentum was on their side after Anthony Barr's second interception of the game set up a one-play, 2-yard touchdown drive early in the third quarter.
"A great team win," Rams coach Sean McVay said. "It certainly wasn't perfect, but it was about the three phases picking one another up. Brandon Powell's punt return for a touchdown came when we had to have it."
Powell's initial burst was set up when Vikings gunner Dan Chisena overran the play and was blocked past Powell. An 8-yard gap opened up between Powell and C.J. Ham.
Ham was walled off by linebacker Christian Rozeboom at the Rams 45. Los Angeles linebacker Travin Howard could have been called for a block in the back on Troy Dye at the Rams 46, but wasn't.
From there, Vikings long snapper Andrew DePaola was walled off at the 50; Kene Nwangwu was blocked at the Vikings 35; and, after that, it was up to punter Jordan Berry, who didn't have the angle or ability to make that tackle.
Asked what the play did to the Vikings defense, Barr said: "It's something we'd like to eliminate and something we can't control as defensive players. I think special teams has been a strength of our team all season. It's unfortunate that it happened. Can't let that happen."
The special teams weren't a strength Sunday. Besides the punt return for a touchdown, the Vikings had kickoff returns of 9 yards by Nwangwu and 7 yards by Wayne Gallman. The Vikings started those drives at their 8- and 11-yard lines, respectively.
Meanwhile, in the other locker room, a journeyman punt returner making a fraction of the $51 million doled out to the quarterbacks was heading back to the West Coast clinging to a game ball.
"Yeah," Powell said. "It's going to be with me 'til we get back to L.A. I'm probably going to sleep with that. The hotel gets kind of lonely, so I'm sticking with this one."