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C.J. Anderson is the one of the most unlikely Super Bowl participants ever

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ATLANTA — No, C.J. Anderson didn’t win a contest earning him a trip to the Super Bowl. His story is more unlikely than that.

Cut by three different NFL teams in 2018 — the Broncos, Panthers and Raiders — the veteran running back resurfaced with the Rams in December, finding not just a home but a starring role in the Los Angeles backfield. Just in time to play on the big stage in the postseason, and help lead the Rams to their first Super Bowl berth in 17 years. It’s fair to say the NFL world didn’t see that one coming.

Some how, despite being repeatedly kicked to the curb, Anderson, 27, never lost faith in himself, or that he was still the same Pro Bowl-level running back who played in a pair of Super Bowls for Denver, after the 2013 and 2015 seasons.

“I don’t reflect on that at all, because I’m not finished,’’ said Anderson, asked if he still wonders what happened in being released by Denver, Carolina and Oakland in the span of about seven-plus months. “I believe in myself. I think every time you (reporters) sit in front of a computer you say ‘I’m going to write the best damn story ever!’ That’s kind of how I feel about my football career. I’m just having fun. Just enjoying the moment and having fun.’’

The game is still fun when you can run like Anderson. Five days after signing with the Rams in Week 16, giving them insurance due to Todd Gurley’s knee issues, Anderson ripped off a ridiculous 167-yard rushing game against at Arizona, with a whopping 8.3-yard average carry.

Proving his debut was no fluke, Anderson tacked on 132 more rushing yards at home against San Francisco in Week 17, then rolled for a team-high 123 yards and two touchdowns in an NFC Divisional-round playoff win against Dallas, even though Gurley returned to the lineup and also contributed a 115 yards rushing and a touchdown to the Rams’ 30-22 home win.

Add it up and Anderson produced 422 yards rushing and four touchdowns on 66 carries in the first three games of his Rams tenure. Has there ever been an NFL late-season pick-up that carried an entire offense? Over the course of the past two years, Gurley has totaled more yards rushing and scored more touchdowns than anyone in the league, and Anderson actually rendered him something of an after-thought in the Los Angeles attack.

Against the Saints in the NFC Championship game, the Rams running game was largely contained, with Anderson picking up just 44 yards on 16 carries and Gurley all but disappearing, with 10 yards rushing and a pair of key drops in the passing game. But Anderson still found a way to make his presence felt, sharing his observations and thoughts on how to attack the Saints defense with Rams quarterback Jared Goff, based on past film study with both Carolina and Denver.

When the Rams won in overtime, Anderson’s improbable return to prominence continued, and many expect him to again play a key role in Sunday night’s Super Bowl LIII against New England. While Rams second-year coach Sean McVay said Gurley is primed for a bounce-back performance in the Super Bowl, the Rams’ running game has started with Anderson for the past month, and they’re not about to mess with success in the biggest game of the year.

Big players come up big in big games, they say, and Anderson’s bigger size has played a large role in what he has been able to surprisingly accomplish with Los Angeles. He says he’s around 235 pounds these days, which is about 15 pounds heavier than his former playing weight with Denver. But his north-south power-running style with the Rams has made him resemble a slightly smaller Jerome “The Bus’’ Bettis. Social media has had a field day with Anderson’s expanded girth, but he’s got a retort ready for those folks.

“Fat, thick, I don’t care,” Anderson said. “Professionals have a tough time tackling me. Everybody who has a comment, just meet me in the hole. We’ll see how that works out for you.

“If I can move well and I can play at a high level, as long as I’m between the lines picking up as many first downs as I can possibly pick up, helping my team win any way possible, I can handle any way that looks like.’’

In every case, there were at least plausible reasons on the surface why three teams would release Anderson in short order. The Broncos in April wanted to get younger and cheaper at running back, freeing up some salary cap room in the process. The Panthers signed Anderson in May, declaring he’d split duties with star second-year running back Christian McCaffrey. But McCaffrey hung up a monster season and ended any thought of a two-back approach in Charlotte, and Anderson was released in mid-November. He had a one-week layover in Oakland in early December, when running back Doug Martin was dealing with a knee injury, but Anderson never saw the field and was out on the market again before he ever got to suit up for his hometown team.

What did everyone miss about him that the Rams capitalized on?

“That’s something you’ve got to ask (Broncos football czar John) Elway or (Panthers general manager) Marty Hurney or (Raiders coach) Jon Gruden or (GM) Reggie McKenzie,’’ Anderson said. “It wasn’t cause of talent. I don’t want to over-(talk) it, but it wasn’t a talent issue. It’s timing and circumstances.”

Even though getting released by last-place Oakland opened the door for him joining the first-place Rams, Anderson said the feeling of being unwanted is never welcomed. “I don’t think you’ll ever be happy to get cut,” Anderson said. “Are you glad to get fired?”

But he did notice right away that the Rams were headed for something special, and had their eyes on the only prize that matters in the NFL: the Super Bowl, a game he’ll play in now for the third time in six seasons.

“As soon as I walked on the field, you could feel the vibe and what their goal was,’’ Anderson said. “It was all about working toward that reality.’’

Having been blown out in the Super Bowl by Seattle as a Denver rookie in 2013, then winning a ring with the 2015 Broncos when they beat Carolina, Anderson has seen the Super Bowl experience from both sides. Winning brings the ultimate joy, and the losing brings anguish, regret and recriminations. He has tried to explain the gap between those highs and lows to his new Rams teammates, but there’s only so much one can impart to someone who doesn’t have that personal experience.

“When we won, I don’t remember anything but celebrating with my family and teammates,’’ Anderson said. “When we lost, I can remember 3rd and 9, Peyton (Manning) missed D.T. (receiver Demaryius Thomas). I can remember Wes (Welker) not setting a pick for D.T. on the third down. Of course you remember the first snap that went over (Manning’s) head for a safety. You just remember things like that. Those are the mistakes of why you lost the football game.

“When we beat Carolina, I can’t tell you what happened. I can’t tell you the details on like third down, but we won it. It’s tough, because everybody’s a little different. All you can do is give them your experience and hope your teammates take it as much as they can. I’ll be playing in my third Super Bowl, so that’s how I try to help my team.’’

Come what may on Super Bowl Sunday, given his circuitous path to the game, Anderson has already done far more for the Rams than anyone could have ever imagined.

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