The big day is upon us. Where did the season go? Was Thursday September 9, when the Super Bowl LV Champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers hosted the Dallas Cowboys really that long ago? Feels like it was only a month ago at most.
The Los Angeles Rams were expected to be here, even before Week 1 action began. The Cincinnati Bengals were determined to be here once they grabbed the AFC North title.
Let’s dig deep and see what we should look for when all the festivities are over and the game kicks off.
Los Angeles Rams -4 vs Cincinnati Bengals (Super Bowl LVI, SoFi Stadium, Inglewood, CA)
The Path to Super Bowl LVI for Los Angeles and Cincinnati
Los Angeles opened the season 7-1 before running into a buzzsaw of eventual playoff teams. In Week 9 they lost to the Tennessee Titans, Week 10 they got hammered by the San Francisco 49ers and Week 11 they lost in Lambeau to the Packers.
The Rams put things back together in Week 12 against the Jacksonville Jaguars and rolled the rest of the way into the big game.
Cincinnati’s season was more of a roller coaster. The Bengals couldn’t put more than a two-game winning streak together until late in the season. In Week 15 they smothered the Denver Broncos, then Joe Burrow put on an air show in wins over the Baltimore Ravens and Kansas City Chiefs.
Those wins over Baltimore and Kansas City seemed to have lit a spark under the Bengals. From that point on they played like a team that was confident in their ability to get to this game.
How These Teams Have Been Built
The Rams went all-in this season for the chance to play a Super Bowl in their own stadium.
On November 1, they traded a 2022 second-round and third-round pick to the Denver Broncos for Von Miller. Why didn’t the Broncos insist on a first rounder? Because Los Angeles had already sold their first-round picks in 2022 and 2023 plus their 2021 third round pick and Jared Goff to make their biggest bet of the offseason. They brought in Matthew Stafford to be the man to take them to the promised land.
Actually, the Rams haven’t made a first-round selection in the draft since Jared Goff in 2016. The impressive part of how Los Angeles has built this roster is that they have seven players who were first round picks from other teams. Of their own picks they have 12 second-day picks and 18 third-day picks on their roster along with 20 undrafted free agents.
Cincinnati has made the most of their last two, first-round picks by grabbing quarterback Joe Burrow and offensive rookie of the year, wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase. They’ve rounded out their roster with 10 second-day picks and 19 third-day picks.
Both of these teams may have acquired their difference makers in different ways but they’ve used their second and third day picks to build solid roster depth that has been important to their postseason runs.
They may have found their way to the big game in different ways but Matthew Stafford and Joe Burrow are franchise quarterbacks that have made the Super Bowl a reality for their teams this season. The Rams and Bengals are watching this game at home on television without them.
Stafford threw for 5,038 yards in his third season with the Detroit Lions and came close to matching that air yardage in 2021. Why so similar in seasons 10 years apart? Because in 2011 Stafford had Calvin “Megatron” Johnson and Nate Burleson at wide receiver with Brandon Pettigrew at tight end.
In 2021, Stafford has Cooper Kupp, 2021 offensive player of the year along with Van Jefferson and Odell Beckham Jr., who was acquired as a free agent in November.
Joe Burrow suffered a torn ACL in Week 11 of his rookie season but you’d never know it from watching him this year, especially late in the season. Burrow threw for 4,611 yards with 34 touchdowns.
Of course, he has a group of receivers that is every bit as imposing as Stafford’s. Offensive rookie of the year Ja’Marr Chase caught 81 passes for 1,455 yards and 13 touchdowns. The amazing part of that yardage total is that 651 came after the catch, third in the league, behind Kupp in that stat. Commit too heavily to stopping Chase though and Los Angeles runs the risk of having Tee Higgins burn them.
Burrow also likes to target running back Joe Mixon in the passing game. Mixon gained 1,205 yards on the ground this season and added 314 through the air.
Watch for Mixon to get a lot of work early in this game with short routes and checkdowns as Cincinnati attempts to keep the Rams defense from blowing the doors off their offensive line.
The problem for both of these quarterbacks is with their tight ends. Both C.J. Uzomah for Cincinnati and Tyler Higbee for the Rams play large roles in their team’s offenses. Unfortunately for Stafford, Higbee has been declared out. For the Bengals, it’s looking like Uzomah will be able to come back from injury to play.
Don’t be surprised if Cincinnati defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo has a wrinkle of two up his sleeve to keep the Rams offense grounded. After a first half against Kansas City in the AFC Championship Game that almost buried the Bengals in a hole too big to climb out of, they held the Chiefs to three points in the second half.
Anarumo began to peel left defensive end Sam Hubbard off the line of scrimmage into short zone coverage and only rushed three against Mahomes. From that point on Mahomes had trouble finding open receivers and got increasingly frustrated as the second half wore on.
We’ll have to see what Anarumo comes up with to contain Stafford and his receivers. One thing we know, in this game he can’t wait until halftime to make a key adjustment. Stafford and company could have Cincinnati buried by then if Anarumo isn’t on the spot.
For the Rams, Cincinnati’s offensive line has not shown a consistent ability to keep Burrow upright. The Tennessee Titans dropped him nine times in their Divisional Round game.
Los Angeles is going to have to wake up on defense to take advantage of that though. Aaron Donald and company may have been third in the league with 50 sacks during the regular season but they’ve only managed five in their three postseason games this year.
Rams cornerback Jalen Ramsey is going to have his hands full shadowing Ja’Marr Chase all over the field. The key to the Los Angeles defense is how coordinator Raheem Morris schemes to keep the rest of the Bengals receiver corps under control.
Cincinnati Wins If…
Matthew Stafford flashes back to his days in Detroit and throws a damaging interception. He led the league in interceptions and threw one in the NFC Championship Game against the 49ers that came close to biting his team in the backside.
Cincinnati has an opportunistic defense and will make him pay if he gets careless.
The Bengals also can win if they keep the game close enough for rookie placekicker Evan McPherson to have an impact. He’s four for four so far in this postseason and has been money for Cincinnati down the stretch in 2021.
Los Angeles Wins if…
Matthew Stafford keeps his gunslinger belt hanging in his locker and allows his supporting cast to do their thing.
The Rams defense has been strong on third down conversions. In three playoff games they’ve only allowed six conversions in 32 attempts for an 18.7 percent success rate.
Cincinnati has only attempted 20 fourth down conversions this season, tied for 25th in the league. The Bengals are more likely to punt if stopped on third down than take a chance on a fourth down. Los Angeles will take control of this game if they continue their postseason third down success.
The Rams also need to generate enough pressure to keep Burrow from finding his downfield targets and contain him to a short passing attack. They will have an easier time of that if they can punch in the first touchdown of the game.
And the Winner Is:
The envelope please.
Joe Burrow has been a cool customer this season and he has the complete confidence of his team but the Los Angeles Rams are a more experienced and stronger team overall. I’m picking Los Angeles to win and cover in Super Bowl LVI.
Los Angeles Rams 30 Cincinnati Bengals 24