Super Bowl LVI Preview

For the first time in the Super Bowl era, two #4 seeds are squaring off for the title of NFL champion.

The Rams used an aggressive, all-in approach the past few seasons to build their Super Bowl caliber team. With one of the league’s best coaches and a few elite playmakers already in house, Los Angeles added their missing piece this offseason when they acquired Matthew Stafford from the Detroit Lions. Stafford’s presence has raised the ceiling for a Rams team that’s been knocking on the door these past few seasons, and now we get to see whether or not he can get them over the hump.

While the Rams had a championship-caliber roster that was a quarterback away, the Bengals are here because they’ve spent the last two seasons building around their young quarterback. After just a 4-win 2020 season, the Bengals have a young nucleus that’s evolved into AFC Champions largely on the back of exceptional quarterbacking by Joe Burrow.

Let’s preview the matchup between these two teams by doing a unit by unit breakdown, and then ultimately predict a winner.

Quarterback: Bengals

While Matthew Stafford has the veteran presence, it’s hard to say anyone in the NFL has played better ball right now than Joe Burrow.

It’s not just the numbers Burrow’s posted that make his play impressive, but it’s how he’d done it. He was sacked nine (!) times in the Titans game yet still managed to escape with a victory, and then coming back from an 18 point deficit against the Chiefs in the AFC Championship is the stuff legends are made of.

Burrow’s been extremely accurate — completing 68.8% of his passes — and it’s clear that he has the intangibles necessary to lead this team to victory when the lights are shining brightest.

Stafford’s certainly no slouch either, but some of the questionable throws he’s made this postseason leave room for doubt. The near-interception he threw in the waning seconds of the 49ers game stands out in everyone’s mind, but throws like these have been far too common for Stafford all season long.

On the game’s biggest stage, both of these quarterbacks have the capability to make game-winning throws, but it feels like Burrow’s more likely to avoid an unforced error that could cost his team the game.

Offensive Skill Positions: Bengals

It’s hard to say the team without Cooper Kupp — the league leader in catches, receiving yards, and receiving touchdowns — gets the edge in the skill position category, yet here we are. Both of these teams have a strong argument for best skill players in the entire NFL, not just in this game.

Even after losing Robert Woods to a season ending injury, the Rams still boast one of the game’s most impressive receiver trios in Kupp, Odell Beckham Jr., and Van Jefferson. Yet the Bengals post an equally impressive trio headlined by rookie phenom Ja’Marr Chase and rounded out with Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd.

The Rams probably get a razor-thin edge in the receiver category, and both teams get solid yet unspectacular play from their tight ends. However the running back position is where the Bengals take the cake.

Bengals’ running back Joe Mixon finished the league ranking 3rd in rush yards, while the Rams have been rotating a replacement level talent in Sony Michel with Cam Akers — who hasn’t looked the same since returning from his achilles injury this offseason. Neither of these two teams want to lean on their running game, but Mixon is by far the most likely of the bunch to make a play that swings the tide in favor of his team.

With the difference between wide receiver and tight end positions being close to a pick em, the edge in skill position players goes to the team with the clear-cut better running back.

Offensive Line: Rams

Joe Burrow was sacked a league-high 51 times this season. He’s tough as nails and has been able to win despite poor protection all season long, but there’s no sugar coating the fact that the Bengals’ guys up front aren’t very good.

The Rams have done a better job of protecting Stafford all year as he’s been sacked a much more acceptable 30 times. The Rams also receive the benefit of Sean McVay (more on him later) and his innovative coaching scheme making life a little easier for their guys up front. He finds creative ways to provide help to his line by getting Cooper Kupp and other receivers involved as blockers in the run game, and all the misdirections and disguises he dials up force defenders to pause for a microsecond right at the snap of the ball.

L.A. doesn’t have five world beaters up front, but having a league average group is more than enough to give them the nod here.

Defensive Line: Rams

Aaron Donald.

Does more need to be said?

Ok fine.

Headlined by Trey Hendrickson and his 14 sack campaign, the Bengals defensive line has exceeded everyone’s preseason expectations this year. They’re an above average group when it comes to generating sacks and pressures, but they’re no match for the front four the Rams will be trotting out on Sunday.

Aaron Donald has been the best defensive player in the NFL for the last half-decade, and the in-season addition of Von Miller has only boosted what was already a very impressive group. According to PFF, Von Miller has been the highest rated defender throughout the entire postseason. Throw in Greg Gaines — a mammoth nose tackle who’s a key cog in the Rams impressive run defense — and the Rams win the defensive line category by a wide margin.

Linebackers: Tie

Since Von Miller was lumped in with the Rams’ defensive line, he’s not going to be double counted here even though he technically plays outside linebacker.

Neither of these teams boast a particularly impressive group of off-ball linebackers, so this one is going down as a wash. Both defenses have been susceptible to throws in the short middle area of the field, which tells you neither linebacker corps is impressive in coverage. That weakness in coverage isn’t made up for with an impressive group of run stoppers either, as neither group possesses a tackling machine manning the middle of their defense.

Off-ball linebacker has become one of the lower valued positions in this generation of NFL football, and it’s clear that neither of these teams emphasize investing heavily in that position. They’re both in the Super Bowl though, so that sacrifice hasn’t been costly.

Secondary: Rams

Secondary is a tough group to pin down because the decision comes down to personal preference. The Bengals have the more well-rounded group headlined by their safety duo of Jessie Bates and Von Bell, but the Rams have the best overall player in Jalen Ramsey.

How Ramsey fares against Ja’Marr Chase in 1-on-1 coverage will be a huge factor that has massive implications on the outcome of this game. Ramsey’s shut down some of the game’s best receivers over the course of his career, and if he can keep Chase in check in this one, that’s a massive advantage for Los Angeles.

The rest of the Rams secondary doesn’t inspire a ton of confidence, but Ramsey’s ability to play 1–on-1 coverage against the Bengals’ scariest offensive weapon makes everyone else’s job a little easier. Ramsey’s an elite talent, and the skillset he brings to a defense allows Rams’ defensive coordinator to open up his entire playbook which ultimately gives L.A. the nod here.

Coaching: Rams

The head coaching battle in this one is a fun pairing since Zac Taylor coached on Sean McVay’s staff for a few years before landing the Bengals head coaching gig.

McVay hired Taylor in 2017 when he first took the Rams’ head coaching gig, where Taylor coached under McVay for two years before moving to Cincinnati. While the apprentice/master relationship doesn’t always go to the master, in this case, the numbers heavily favor McVay.

Taylor’s career record is an uninspiring 16–32–1 (.337), where as McVay boasts a much more impressive 55–26 record (.679). Numbers don’t always tell the full story, but in this particular case it feels like they tell us everything we need to know. McVay and the Rams get the nod here.

While the Rams won four of the above categories and the Bengals only claimed two, I still like the Bengals to come out ahead in this one. The NFL is a quarterback-driven league, and I believe the Bengals having Joe Burrow will ultimately be enough for victory.

Aaron Donald and the Rams defense could single-handedly ruin this prediction, but Burrow’s been under pressure all season long and the Bengals are still representing the AFC in the Super Bowl. The intangible factors they’ve leaned on all season long have only gotten stronger throughout their Cinderella run, and I fully expect Joe Burrow to look like the best player on the field when the lights are shining brightest.

Score prediction: Rams 20 Bengals 23

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