INGLEWOOD, Calif. -- Inside the bowels of SoFi Stadium, Los Angeles Rams coach Sean McVay strutted down the tunnel as a camera paced to capture every move, and a meticulous eye, examined each step.
"Nicely done," Academy Award-winning cinematographer Wally Pfister said as he climbed out of a director's chair. "And cut."
On the eve of training camp, Pfister -- whose filmography includes "The Dark Knight," "Moneyball" and "Inception" -- directed McVay, defensive lineman Aaron Donald, quarterback Matthew Stafford and several other players through a no-expense-spared shoot to produce a 90-second hype film that would be played on the Infinity Screen before players run onto the field.
"It is very Hollywood," said McVay, as he stood on a field overtaken by a wardrobe truck, trailers, camera dollies, video monitors, crew members and extras. "Everything is first class and now we've got to make our football look like that."
In the shadow of Hollywood, the 35-year-old McVay hoped to soon direct his own blockbuster, one that would span 18 weeks and then beyond, culminating in a Feb. 13 date at SoFi Stadium for Super Bowl LVI.
"It's a motivation," McVay said that late-July evening about the chance to play in the final game of the season. "Without a doubt."
When the No. 4 seed Rams (12-5) open the playoffs by hosting the No. 5 seed Arizona Cardinals (11-6) in a wild-card game on Monday Night Football (8:15 p.m. ET, ESPN), it will mark their fourth playoff appearance in six seasons as a Los Angeles franchise after a 21-year stay in St. Louis.
But it will be the first time that L.A. will experience the postseason from inside owner Stan Kroenke's $5 billion stadium, which broke ground in 2016 and was opened to the public this past August after the 2020 season was played without fans because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Kroenke's masterpiece, coupled with the Rams' opportunity to become the second team in NFL history -- following the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last season -- to win a Super Bowl at home, meant that this season opened with bursting intrigue and opportunity that's only grown as the Rams have stockpiled more star power.
"I just want to play in big games, you know?" Stafford, a 13th-year quarterback, told ESPN before the season. "I want to have opportunities to make big-time plays in the fourth quarter against really good teams in big moments, rather than a 1 o'clock game on a Sunday somewhere."
"It feels like a movie," Miller said when he arrived in L.A. "The Super Bowl is going to be there this year and hopefully that'll be us playing there."
"This is a tremendous team," Beckham said. "Have a great opportunity to do some great things and I just wanted to be a part of it."
Stafford, Miller and Beckham joined a loaded ensemble cast that already included Donald, whose 12.5 sacks show why he is an annual candidate for the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year, cornerback Jalen Ramsey, who's been named to a fifth Pro Bowl in six NFL seasons, and receiver Cooper Kupp, who became the league's breakout star this season, putting himself in the running for Offensive Player of the Year while becoming the fourth player in league history to win the NFL's triple crown as the leader in receptions (145), receiving yards (1,947) and touchdown catches (16). All three players were named first-team All-Pro.
"We definitely got a special group with a lot of big-time talent," Donald said. "It is surreal when you look at it, but you just expect big things. ... Me, personally, knowing the players we got, with the coaches we got, it's like sky is the limit."
Los Angeles hasn't seen an NFL championship since the Raiders prevailed in Super Bowl XVIII after the 1983 season, and the Rams' lone Los Angeles championship came in 1951.
"It would be cool to play at your own home stadium for the Super Bowl," Ramsey said at the outset of the season, admitting that he felt "a little extra" motivation.
In five seasons, McVay has delivered four playoff appearances, three division titles, an NFC championship and a Super Bowl LIII appearance that resulted in a 13-3 loss to the New England Patriots.
The question as they open the postseason is whether the Rams can put their stamp on a city that's accustomed to cheering on champions, including the seven-time World Series champion Dodgers and the 17-time NBA champion Lakers, both of whom won titles in the past two seasons.
The wrong type of red carpet
McVay didn't mince words.
A demoralizing sixth straight loss to the division rival San Francisco 49ers in overtime of the regular-season finale that cost the Rams the No. 2 seed in the NFC, and nearly the division title, "doesn't mean s---" as they prepare for the playoffs.
Never mind that a season's worth of establishing a brand based on game-saving playmakers and high-flying football -- and a season's worth of building a fan base that would show up for the biggest moments -- seemed to vanish into a chilly January night.
Momentum halted. A still-fledgling fan base uninspired by a team that didn't seize the opportunity to win the NFC West, but claimed it via a Cardinals loss to the Seattle Seahawks.
Forced into a silent count at home because of deafening noise from the red-clad Niners faithful, Stafford committed multiple turnovers for a third straight game, including throwing an interception in overtime that gave San Francisco the win and a playoff berth.
"It was a tough environment for us to communicate in really the whole second half," Stafford conceded after the game.
"It did catch us off guard," McVay said about the volume of Niners fans a day later. "I think just because of the way that it's been this year. It's been a great atmosphere, great environment."
A crowd of more than 70,000 rose to their feet in Week 1, when on the third play of the season Stafford found Van Jefferson for a 67-yard touchdown on a pass that traveled 46 air yards, a sight unseen from the Rams since 2018 that brought even more reason to cheer after a 2020 season of checkdowns from Goff.
But the loudest ovation in Week 1? That arguably came when Dodgers stars Corey Seager (now with the Texas Rangers) and Justin Turner were shown on the Infinity Screen after making their way to SoFi following a shutout of the rival San Diego Padres.
By Week 3, SoFi Stadium turned into a celebrity magnet, as the cast of Apple's hit series "Ted Lasso," NBA superstar LeBron James and music mogul Dr. Dre appeared on the Infinity Screen and saw the Rams appear every part of a Super Bowl-bound team with a decisive win over Tom Brady and the defending champion Buccaneers.
And an anticipated reunion between Goff and McVay in Week 7 when the Lions played in L.A. resulted in overwhelming support for Stafford, whose individual star power was on display by way of countless No. 9 Honolulu blue and silver Detroit jerseys in the stands.
But momentum and energy in L.A. began to shift away from the Rams in Week 9, when the Tennessee Titans roughed them up on Sunday Night Football and Stafford's once-seeming invincibility in royal blue and sol took a hit, starting a three-game, turnover-riddled streak.
In a city that demands showmen, entertainment and success, whose residents can easily flip the channel to watch the beloved Lakers, the Rams' relevance wasn't helped by a three-game losing streak in November on national television stages, which started with the Titans and included being pushed around by the rival Niners on Monday Night Football and a loss to Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers on America's Game of the Week.
At times, Stafford put on an electrifying show while passing for 4,886 yards and 41 touchdowns. But he's also proved to be an occasional liability by throwing a league-high 17 interceptions (which tied Jacksonville Jaguars rookie Trevor Lawrence), including four pick-sixes -- equaling the number the man he replaced, Goff, threw in five seasons in L.A..
Unlike past seasons playing in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, when a silent count was often planned for, the Rams hadn't been forced to endure any visiting-team takeovers this season -- until Week 18.
They've pulled out all the stops to appeal to L.A, by placing an exciting product on the field composed of a top-heavy roster with several of the NFL's biggest names, while the game-day atmosphere is often supplemented by big-name musical acts, such as Grammy-nominated One Republic, performing at halftime. But the Rams were 5-3 at SoFi this season, compared with 7-2 on the road
And after the regular-season finale -- with a division title and the No. 2 seed in the NFC on the line -- it became apparent the stakes weren't high enough to hold L.A.'s attention.
One solution remains
Back at SoFi Stadium, during that preseason Hollywood shoot, daylight gave way to dark as McVay continued through the storyboard that Pfister's crew imagined and worked to bring to life.
McVay walked the tunnel. He paced the locker room. And then broke into a light sweat, albeit with the aid of a crew member spraying him with a mist, as he threw passes to safety Jordan Fuller, enacting warm-ups.
"We're trying to do it first class and not sparing anything on even just the entry video with our players," McVay said before he departed into the night. "It feels very L.A."
But for it to be a hit, it will need a championship ending.