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Breaking down the Big Game: Previewing Super Bowl LVI

February 7, 2022
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Back in September, 32 teams hit the field with the opportunity to win a Super Bowl (though perhaps a few weren’t embracing that opportunity as fully as others). After a first-ever 17 game regular season and three rounds of playoff games, we’re down to just two.

The Los Angeles Rams are set to take on the Cincinnati Bengals for the chance to hoist aloft the Lombardi trophy as NFL champions. The game is set to take place at SoFi Stadium – the home of the Rams, marking just the second time in Super Bowl history that a team will play the game on their own home field. Granted, the first time was last year when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers played (and won) Super Bowl LV at Raymond James Stadium.

Kickoff is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. Eastern time on Feb. 13.

Neither team was expected to make it this far – both squads had to win three games to get here. Each came into the playoffs as the fourth seed in their respective conference; this is the first time in history that not one of the top-three seeds from either conference is in the Super Bowl.

But while these aren’t the teams we expected to see, there are plenty of compelling storylines at play here. You’ve got an all-in Rams team against a Bengals team that has arrived earlier than anticipated. Exciting young talent and record-breaking players on both sides of the ball. The Rams haven’t won the title in over 20 years … and the Bengals have never won it.

There’s a lot happening here, is what I’m saying.

Let’s take a stroll through the teams and break down some of the positional matchups to get a sense of which squad stands superior. Of course, the most talented team doesn’t always win. The most prepared team doesn’t always win. The team we think will win doesn’t always win.

You get the picture. Anyone who tells you they KNOW what will happen is a charlatan who is almost certainly trying to sell you something. No one knows how this will all play out, but here’s my best guess – the best guess of a guy who, in the interest of full disclosure, got absolutely housed by his dog in picking winners this season (though my postseason run was solid).

Let’s break it down.

Quarterback

As with most contests in today’s NFL, this is the matchup that is expected to have the biggest impact on the game. It’s a quarterback league now. While the tippity-top-tier guys aren’t here, this one features a pair of intriguing players under center.

It’s got to be good being Matt Stafford right now, yes? This is a guy who spent a dozen years toiling for the moribund Detroit Lions, never sniffing a playoff win. Now he’s looking at winning the very last game of the season – what a difference a year makes.

He’s looked pretty good in the playoffs so far, averaging just over 300 yards passing per game while putting up a 6/1 TD/INT ratio. His completion percentage is right at 72% - he’s 72 for 100. Now, he hasn’t been perfect; he’s had a handful of throws where he was very lucky to not get picked. But luck is a real part of the game and so far, it has been on the side of Stafford and the Rams. He’s got a big arm and he’s not afraid to use it.

But if we’re going to talk about being unafraid, we’ve got to include Joe Burrow in that conversation as well. The young Bengals QB has really turned it on here in his second season, displaying a level of confidence that belies his relative inexperience. Joey Brr’s got swag, is what I’m saying.

He’s had his issues in the playoffs, though those aren’t entirely his fault. He’s stayed strong in the pocket despite a porous offensive line that has struggled to keep him clean. Even with the constant pressure, he’s performed. He’s averaged just a touch over 280 yards per game with a 4/2 TD/INT ratio. He’s 75 for 109 in the playoffs, good for a completion percentage of 68.2%. And here’s the thing – he’s absolutely fearless, a quality that should serve him well in this game.

It's the first trip to the Super Bowl for both of these guys – a departure from recent years – so there’s no telling just how they’ll react to this stage. It’s a close call (they usually are), but I’m going to give the nod to Stafford – he’s been waiting too long for this shot to fall short now.

Advantage: Los Angeles

Running Back

Frankly, there’s not a lot of intrigue in this matchup. While there’s talent on both sidelines, the reality is that one team looks far better running the ball than the other.

Cincinnati has taken advantage of their talented running back Joe Mixon throughout the playoffs. Mixon has carried the ball 52 times over the course of the playoffs, leading the entire postseason with 190 yards rushing. Now, his average of 3.7 yards a carry isn’t incredible, but hey – three of those runs equals a first down, so no complaints. He’s got just the one rushing score, but he’s gotten close a couple of times. He’s caught 13 balls as well. Oh, and he’s held onto the ball.

The same can’t be said for Cam Akers, who returned from a nearly-season-long injury to take over primary running back duties for the Rams. He’s only managed 151 yards on 54 carries – a mere 2.8 yards per carry. Not what you want. He also managed to cough up the ball not once but twice in the NFC Championship against the 49ers, losing both. You wonder if he’s lost the trust of the coaching staff, but with Sony Michel the best backup option, it’s probably Akers, even if he is a bit achy.

Like I said, this is a no-brainer. No matter how you want to combine Akers and Michel, you’re not going to come up with anything even close to what Joe Mixon brings to the table. Bengals all the way here.

Advantage: Cincinnati

Wide Receiver

One could argue that this position group is where you’ll find the most combined elite talent of any in this game. There are some exceptional receivers at work in this matchup, with each team featuring a strong top-three group.

Los Angeles is led by Cooper Kupp, who only led the league in receptions, receiving yards and receiving TDs this season. He went ahead and extended that dominance into the postseason leading everyone in catches (25) and yards (386) and sitting second in TDs with four. He is an absolute force who no one seems able to stop. Odell Beckham Jr. has shown out this postseason as well, catching 19 balls for 236 yards and a score. Now, those two make up more than half of Rams completions, but third option Van Jefferson is no slouch, even if he hasn’t seen the ball a ton. Expect double digit targets for Kupp ... and he might catch ‘em all.

You’d think it’d be a runaway, but Bengals rookie wideout Ja’Marr Chase has other ideas. He hasn’t been quite as explosive in the postseason, but he still caught 20 balls for 279 yards and a score. He’s got a connection with Burrow and is a threat to take it to the house at literally any time. Tee Higgins had a low-key excellent year that has continued into the playoffs – 14 catches for over 200 yards, a number of them clutch chain-movers (10 of his 14 grabs were for first downs). And most teams would be thrilled to have Tyler Boyd third on the depth chart – he’s got 10 catches, albeit not for a ton of yards. Expect Chase to have at least a couple of deep shots.

This is closer than it has any real right to be, considering that one side features a receiver in the midst of a legit all-timer of a season. Still, there’s a pretty clear winner here.

Advantage: Los Angeles

Tight End

There were a number of capital-E Elite tight ends in the playoffs this year. However, none of those guys wound up here in the Super Bowl. We’re looking at a couple of workmanlike groups here, with an outlook rendered muddier by injury issues.

Tyler Higbee and C.J. Uzomah are the ostensible starting tight ends for the Rams and Bengals, respectively. Both men have put forward solid if unspectacular performances in the playoffs, but both men also suffered significant injuries in their respective conference championships.

If both guys are healthy, it’s a pretty close call – Higbee is the more reliable target, Uzomah is the more explosive. However, it’s starting to look like Higbee might well miss the game due to his knee injury, while Uzomah seems to be recovering a bit more quickly. Either guy far outstrips the other team’s primary backup, so this is a tricky one to predict.

For what it’s worth, Rams backup Kendall Blanton caught five balls after Higbee left the Niners game, so he will likely be part of the game plan if Higbee doesn’t play. Meanwhile, Uzomah’s backup – likely Drew Sample or Mitchell Wilcox – probably winds up an afterthought.

Going with the information I have now, still several days out from the game, my hunch is that Uzomah plays and Higbee does not. Hence, advantage Bengals.

Advantage: Cincinnati

Offensive Line

I’ll admit that I’m not the most astute observer of what goes on in the trenches during a football game. Line play is difficult to quantify beyond some obvious indicators, so a lot of this is drawn from more anecdotal evidence.

The Rams O-line has looked pretty good this postseason and done a solid job of keeping their quarterback on his feet. Left tackle Andrew Whitworth leads the way; the veteran is generally considered to be one of the better players at his position in the entire NFL. He’s also a former Bengal, so, you know, vengeance and all that. Whitworth’s counterpart on the right side is Rob Havenstein, a better run blocker than pass protector, though he’s improved. Center Brian Allen is a smart player, though he too has his pass protection struggles at times.

Meanwhile, the Cincinnati offensive line has been kind of a mess. They allowed Burrow to be sacked a league-leading 51 times during the regular season and have given up 14 sacks so far in the postseason. They’re a better unit at run blocking, but still – you have to protect the QB. None of the guys on this line are elite; the closest is probably tackle Jonah Williams, but the truth is that this group has been vulnerable against pass rushes that don’t feature nearly the talent that they’ll see across the line from them in L.A.

Another no-brainer here. I’m going with the team that didn’t allow their QB to get tackled more than any other.

Advantage: Los Angeles

Defensive Line

Honestly, this is another spot where the overall collection of talent is overwhelmingly impressive. It also features the guy who is probably the best player on the field at any position.

That would be Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald, who is essentially a cheat code on the defensive line. He is an absolute monster, an annual Defensive Player of the Year contender who is equally adept at disrupting the run and the pass. His presence makes the rest of his D-line cohort – fellow tackle Greg Gaines and end A’Shawn Robinson in particular – all the more effective. With Donald taking on double- and triple-teams, there’s room for Gaines and Robinson (and others) to get into the backfield. Donald has to be salivating at the idea of going against this inconsistent Cincinnati offensive line – he’s going to do damage all day.

The Bengals have some players of their own on the D-line, albeit no one at the level of Donald. However, guys like end Trey Hendrickson and tackle D.J. Reader are better than any non-Donald defensive lineman on the Rams. Reader in particular is a mismatch; the Rams guards are middling and will have a tough time handling him. And if Hendrickson can beat Whitworth a couple of times, Stafford and the Rams might be in real trouble. Still, while there’s talent here, the Rams line should be able to more or less keep them at bay.

This might be where the game is won or lost. Considering the top of the talent pool here, it’s surprising that this is as close as it is, but anytime you’re picking a defensive line, you have to pick the one with Aaron Donald on it.

Advantage: Los Angeles

Linebackers

This group features an interesting collection of players. There will be a variety of skill sets at play; figuring out how best to utilize those skill sets will be key.

The Rams linebacking crew is at its best when it can rush the passer. Midseason acquisition Von Miller is the best of the group; he’s not quite at the DPOY level that he was a few years ago with Denver, but he can still get to the quarterback. And with a guy like Leonard Floyd – another one with top-tier pass rush skills – on the other side, this is a linebacking corps that can get after it when it comes to sacking the QB. They aren’t nearly as strong on the interior – Ernest Jones and Troy Reeder are fine, but they struggle a bit against the pass – so we’ll have to see if Cincy can take advantage, whether it is with passes over the middle or Mixon runs.

The Bengals don’t really measure up against the star power the Rams trot out there. Their best linebacker is Logan Wilson, who started the season hot before struggling; he’s been very good over the course of the playoffs, however. After that, we’re looking at dudes like Germaine Pratt, who is a solid run defender, but is a bit too big to be fully effective against the pass – particularly a quick strike scheme like that of the Rams. All that being said, this unit isn’t necessarily going to be all that prominent – the Bengals go nickel a lot, meaning that linebackers give way to defensive backs much of the time.

In what is starting to feel a bit like a broken record, I’m going with Miller, Floyd and the Rams.

Advantage: Los Angeles

Secondary

This one looks like a contrast in philosophies – we’ve got a stars and scrubs vibe on one side and a collection of good-not-great across the board on the other.

The best defensive back on either team is Rams cornerback Jalen Ramsey, who will be tasked with handling Cincy’s Chase one on one. He’s among the best coverage corners in the game, though he has perhaps lost a half-step from his peak. Still, he’s great. The dropoff after Ramsey is significant, though. The other corner is Darious Williams, who has looked good late, but struggled much of the year, while the safeties are a guy who started the year on special teams (Nick Scott) and a guy who came out of retirement right before the postseason (Eric Weddle). Ramsey can make up for a lot, but the rest of these guys might struggle in coverage.

Again, the Bengals don’t have anyone of Ramsey’s caliber, but they have a lot of good football players in their defensive backfield. Chidobe Awuzie is good enough to cover just about anyone – he’s handled elite receivers in the past – while fellow corner Mike Hilton has proven a versatile weapon. The Bengals have a pair of quality safeties in Jessie Bates and Vonn Bell, as well – Bates has come on strong in recent weeks after an iffy regular season, while Bell showed an ability to disrupt a game plan throughout these playoffs. As I said, they don’t have anyone here as good as Ramsey, but you could argue that they have the next four best defensive backs.

Feels weird to pick against the group with the best player, but in this case, quantity wins out.

Advantage: Cincinnati

Special Teams

As someone fascinated by the kicking game, I’m excited that we’ve got some interesting players to discuss here.

We’ll start with the kickers. Bengals rookie Evan McPherson has shown himself to be an absolute assassin in these playoffs, having one of the great postseason runs of any kicker. In his three games, he’s a perfect 12 for 12, including a couple of game-winners and three kicks from 50-plus. He’s also got some serious swagger, which is always fun from a kicker. On the Rams side, Matt Gay is a perfectly fine kicker. He’s made seven of his nine attempts in the postseason, including his only attempt from outside of 50 yards. He’s OK, but he’s not nearly the weapon that McPherson is.

On the punting side, we’ve seen pretty similar production from both teams. Rams punter Johnny Hekker hasn’t been booming the ball, but he’s placed six of his 10 punts inside the 20 and had just one touchback. On the Bengals side, Kevin Huber also has 10 punts, with four inside the 20 (though he has also forced three fair catches). Both men are within a yard in net average and neither has given up a long return. Pretty even, all told.

Ditto the return and return coverage games. Neither squad has an elite returner, though L.A.’s Brandon Powell is close, handling kicks and punts.

This is an easy call. I’m going with the team that has the guy who has already shown himself capable of winning a game for you.

Advantage: Cincinnati

Coaching

I’m not going to go into too much detail here. The answer to this one feels pretty obvious.

Sean McVay was a coaching wunderkind when he was hired by the Rams five years ago. And even now, years later, he remains at 36 the youngest head coach in the league. He’s an offensive innovator who is looking to show the world that his system can be even more successful with a quality quarterback under center – trading for Matt Stafford was the primary move there.

Meanwhile, Bengals coach Zac Taylor is actually a former McVay assistant, serving as wide receivers and then quarterback coach under McVay before landing the Cincinnati gig. After an abysmal first two seasons, Taylor got his team to put it all together and get to the big game.

On the assistant side, well … Kevin O’Connell and Raheem Morris > Brian Callahan and Lou Anarumo. Los Angeles over Cincinnati.

Yeah – this one seems like an easy call. Probably too easy, if history is any indicator.

Advantage: Los Angeles.

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And there we have it. I’ve got Los Angeles with six and Cincinnati with four. Not a huge gap, really. The truth is that the game’s action will dictate just how big a difference each of these advantages will ultimately be. Basically, it looks like the Rams will win a high-scoring game pretty handily, while the Bengals will have a real shot in more of a grind-it-out contest – particularly if it comes down to one final possession.

I don’t know that the Bengals can really slow down this offense, though their secondary might have a chance. If they can handcuff the passing game, the Rams have shown some difficulty in establishing the run. However, the Rams pass rush will likely have little trouble against this Cincinnati offensive line; I expect they’ll knock Burrow down at least half-a-dozen times. And if Stafford can get going with Kupp and company, it could be along day for the Bengals.

I’m going with Los Angeles to win this one, even though there’s a “team of destiny” whiff about this Cincinnati squad. I feel slightly more confident than usual in this pick because – surprise! – Stella agrees with me; she is also going with the Rams, albeit with a closer score.

Allen’s prediction: Los Angeles 30 – Cincinnati 20

Stella’s prediction: Los Angeles 21 – Cincinnati 16

Last modified on Tuesday, 08 February 2022 15:17

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