Can The Magic Continue?
By: David Hartman
Posted February 8, 2022
The longest season in NFL history will come to an end this Sunday night. I’ve never been a fan of the extra week between the Conference Championships and the Super Bowl, and after the incredible finishes we saw in all 6 games over the last 2 playoff rounds, I feel even stronger about it this year. Hopefully, the momentum doesn’t get derailed by two weeks of hype, and the season will conclude with one more thriller.
I’ll break down the Super Bowl matchup in a minute, but first, a quick word about how the Rams and Bengals got here. They emerged from the most competitive NFL Playoff gauntlet in recent memory. Every single game in the Divisional and Conference Championship rounds essentially came down to the last possession, if not the final play. I can’t recall a more exciting run of football games.
The Bengals and Rams are both coming off back-to-back playoff rounds where they survived by hitting a game-winning field goal, either in walk off fashion or with very little time left. Moreover, they each got here by engineering an impressive comeback in the Conference Championship round. The Bengals trailed the Chiefs on the road 21-10 in the final seconds of the first half, with KC inside the 5-yard line, and set to get the ball again to start the second half. The Chiefs appeared to be in control. But they inexplicably botched that scoring opportunity, didn’t do anything with the second half kickoff, and only managed 3 points the rest of the way as Cincinnati’s defense clamped down. The Bengals stormed back to tie the game in regulation, picked off Patrick Mahomes for the second time on the first possession of OT, and quickly drove for the game-winning Evan McPherson FG in front of a stunned Arrowhead crowd.
A few hours later, the Rams trailed the 49ers 17-7 at the start of the 4th quarter, and it looked like San Francisco was going to pull off the day’s second upset on the road and beat L.A. for a 7th straight time. But the Rams had other ideas. The final 6 possessions went like this: Rams TD, 49ers Punt, Rams FG (to tie the score), 49ers Punt, Rams FG (to take a lead, just after the 2-minute warning), 49ers desperation INT, Rams kneel downs. The Bengals and Rams are lucky to be here, but they’ve also 100% earned it - they’ve proven their grit and an ability to prevail in close games.
So, what’s going to happen on Sunday? Can Zac Taylor’s upstart Bengals keep the magical run going, or will Sean McVay’s Rams finish the job they started 3 years ago when they got to Super Bowl LIII, but lost? We’ll find out soon enough, so let’s jump into the matchup.
SUPER BOWL LVI: Bengals vs. Rams @ SoFi Stadium in Los Angeles (Sunday, 6:30 p.m., NBC, Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth announcing). Rams -4.5, O/U: 48.5, Moneyline: Rams -200, Bengals +165
It’s a Super Bowl, so we’ve got the hype train moving at full speed. Fine, I’ll add to it. Here are the Super Bowl storylines I think are most compelling:
The Bengals came into existence as an expansion team in 1968, so they’re just 2 years younger than the Super Bowl. This is their third appearance, but they’re still looking for their first championship after losing 2 Super Bowls to Joe Montana and the 49ers in the 1980s. Coming into this postseason, the Bengals hadn’t won a playoff game since 1991. This is a long-suffering fan base, and one that hasn’t gotten to experience a lot of big games. Who Dey Nation will be loud and proud all week, and their fans should travel well on Sunday.
There’s a huge contrast in how these 2 teams were built. The Bengals were 2-14 in 2019 and 4-12 last season, and now they’re one game away from being Super Bowl champions. It’s a stunning turnaround and the biggest factor is Joe Burrow, selected with the first pick of the 2020 draft. Even after tearing his ACL halfway through his rookie season, he’s been everything they could have hoped for, and then some. He’s not only a great player, but he’s a leader who’s brought a winning attitude to a franchise that needed it. This Bengals team was built mostly through the draft (they’re notoriously thrifty) and has arrived ahead of schedule. By contrast, the Rams have been a contender for several years now. They made the Super Bowl 3 years ago but fell to the Patriots, 13-3. Over the last few years, no franchise has more aggressively traded draft picks to bring in veterans than the Rams - with the most consequential being the trade this past offseason that sent QB Jared Goff and multiple picks to the Lions for 12-year veteran QB Matt Stafford. The Rams boast an experienced and star-studded roster, and they’re built to win now.
Both Stafford (2009) and Burrow (2020) were picked first overall in the NFL draft. This is only the second time that the starting Super Bowl QBs are both former #1 picks (P. Manning and C. Newton, SB 50). Oh, and they both wear #9.
More on the QBs: Stafford toiled away on mostly bad Detroit teams for a dozen years, putting up big passing stats but rarely qualifying for the playoffs and never winning a playoff game. Now he’s won 3 straight playoff games with the NFC Champion Rams and has a chance to reshape his legacy at the age of 34. Burrow is only 25 and is just beginning to etch the legend of Joe Brrr. It was barely more than 2 years ago that Burrow and the LSU Tigers finished an undefeated season by beating Trevor Lawrence and Clemson 42-25 in the CFB National Championship Game. Now he has a chance to add an NFL title to his resume. Burrow is just the 7th QB to get to a Super Bowl inside of his first 2 NFL seasons (in order: D. Marino, K. Warner, T. Brady, B. Roethlisberger, R. Wilson, and C. Kaepernick). You’re going to hear a lot about the 2 starting QBs, all week.
Cooper Kupp is having one of the best seasons by a WR in history (especially when you combine the regular season and playoffs), and Ja’Marr Chase is having one of the best seasons ever by a rookie WR (ditto). I could bury you with stats, but just trust me - it’s a whole lot of catches, yards and TDs for each of them, with some records being set. Both have been unstoppable at times, and highly reliable when their team needs a big play. Neither was expected to be an elite receiver this season. A third receiver you’ll hear a lot about this week is Odell Beckham, Jr., who quickly became a star as a rookie but whose career went sideways over the past few seasons. The Rams signed him after he was released by the Browns in early November, and he’s been a key piece of the L.A. offense down the stretch and through the playoffs. Any of these 3 wideouts could be a huge factor on Sunday.
For the first 54 Super Bowls, no team played the game in its home stadium. Then Tampa Bay did so last year (and won) and now it’s happened twice in a row, as the Rams play their home games at SoFi Stadium. The Bengals are technically the “home” team, but the Rams should have an advantage by playing in their own stadium.
The Rams and Bengals both came into the postseason as the #4 seed in their Conference. It’s the first time that both Super Bowl contestants are #4 seeds. It’s also the first time since 1975 (when the NFL switched to a seeding format that’s similar to the current one) that neither a #1 seed nor a #2 seed is in the Super Bowl.
The Rams have never won a Super Bowl as the L.A. Rams - the one Super Bowl win by the franchise in 4 previous tries came when they were playing in St. Louis. They did win 2 NFL Championships as the L.A. Rams (1945, 1951).
We’ve got some very young coaches in this one. Like, “can I see your ID before I serve you” young. Sean McVay became the youngest Head Coach to make it to a Super Bowl 3 years ago. McVay (who turned 36 two weeks ago) is still the youngest HC in the league, and if the Rams win the Super Bowl this year, he’ll replace Mike Tomlin as the youngest to win it. Zac Taylor is only 38, and he comes from the McVay Tree - he was the Rams’ QBs Coach when they went to SB LIII.
What to Look for:
Both teams come into this game pretty healthy. Oddly, both starting tight ends went down with knee injuries in the Conference Championships. As of this writing it’s unclear whether Tyler Higbee or C.J. Uzomah will make it back for the Super Bowl, but it sounds like Uzomah has the better chance. Rams’ safety Taylor Rapp, who has yet to play in the playoffs due to a concussion, has cleared the protocol and should return. That’s a big plus for the Rams, who have also been without their other starting safety, Jordan Fuller (on IR with an ankle injury). The Rams are optimistic that RB Darrell Henderson will return this week (he’s been out since late December).
This Super Bowl presents an intriguing matchup. I think these are 3 big keys to the game: (1) How will the Bengals’ overmatched OL deal with Aaron Donald and the rest of the L.A. pass rush, and can Cincinnati avoid the kind of disaster (9 sacks, multiple QB hits and hurries) that befell it against Tennessee? (2) How will Jalen Ramsey be deployed, and if he is locked up on Ja’Marr Chase for a large portion of the game, who will win that battle? and (3) Can the Bengals’ opportunistic defense produce some takeaways against a turnover-prone Rams team, which could pave the way for an upset?
When Cincinnati has the Ball:
Lost in the hype around the Bengals’ thrilling wins at Tennessee and Kansas City is that their offense has struggled against playoff-caliber defenses. In 3 playoff games, the Bengals’ offense has only scored 6 TDs, and the team hasn’t topped 27 points. Of course, they’ve converted 12 FGs on 12 attempts in those 3 games and that’s been a big chunk of their scoring. From the start of the Tennessee game through halftime of the KC game (6 full quarters), the Bengals only managed to score 2 offensive TDs, and they failed to score points on more than half of their possessions. The offense has sputtered at times and especially when the OL hasn’t given Burrow enough time.
Against Tennessee, the line couldn’t slow the pass rush and Burrow was under constant and often immediate duress. At times during the KC game, Burrow looked rushed even when he had time - likely a by-product of being under constant pressure the week before. The Rams, like the Titans, have talented pass rushers who can get home. That presents a big problem for the Bengals, who haven’t been able to protect Burrow since he came into the league. I’m curious to see how Zac Taylor game-plans to try to minimize the disruption from the L.A. front. Regardless, I expect the Rams to continue to move Aaron Donald around (occasionally putting him on the same side as Von Miller) and that Donald will do what he always does so well, which is to collapse the pocket and occupy double teams while others take advantage of weakened protection. If Burrow has time to throw, his excellent trio of receivers is going to cause problems for L.A., even with Jalen Ramsey on the Rams’ back end. If his line can’t protect him, it’s going to be a long night for Cincinnati.
How much Ramsey locks up on Chase one-on-one remains to be seen. If he’s on him a lot without help, it’ll be fun to watch, and I wouldn’t count out Chase in that matchup. He’s that good, and Ramsey does get beat on occasion. My guess is that the Rams will mix coverages, and that he will sometimes be one-on-one with Chase, but at other times will be on Tee Higgins, or used to try to take away a portion of the field. Rams’ Defensive Coordinator Raheem Morris has his defense playing well and is likely to keep the Bengals’ coaches and Burrow guessing.
To ease the pressure on Burrow, I expect the Bengals to try to establish the run with Joe Mixon, to stick with a mixed attack for as long as they can, and to use their backs in the passing game with designed screens and other plays that can neutralize the Rams’ advantage up front. One surprise from the NFC Conference Championship game is how well the Rams defended the run. The 49ers ranked 7th in the NFL in rushing yards per game this season, but the Rams completely stymied Elijah Mitchell and Deebo Samuel and held the 49ers to just 50 yards on 20 carries. The Bengals will need to do better than that, and Mixon is capable of having the kind of big game Cincinnati needs.
When L.A. Has the Ball:
The Rams have struggled to run the ball in the playoffs, and Cam Akers is averaging less than 3 YPC since his return. I think the Rams will have more success on the ground this week, against a run defense that’s not as stout as the last 2 they faced. If Darrell Henderson returns, he gives them more burst than either Akers or Sony Michel and that could give this offense a nice boost. I also expect the Bengals to be more concerned with the pass, as Stafford has weapons in the passing game that Cincinnati may struggle to contain, so there should be an opportunity for some success running the ball. Cooper Kupp should get his once again, and OBJ will have opportunities to take advantage of some one-on-one matchups while the defense is more focused on Kupp.
The Rams have a potent offense, but the Bengals’ defense can’t be discounted. The 2 halves of the AFC Championship game looked like 2 completely different games. The Chiefs drove the field on 4 of their 5 first half possessions, scoring 3 TDs and then getting inside the 5-yard line in the final seconds on their last possession. In the second half plus overtime, the Bengals shut down the vaunted KC offense, allowing only a FG and forcing 2 very costly interceptions. Give credit to the Bengals’ coaching staff (especially Defensive Coordinator Lou Anarumo). The Cincinnati defense confused and confounded Patrick Mahomes by regularly dropping 7 and sometimes 8 into coverage and taking away the easy throws that were there in the first half. The Chiefs’ offensive line, which was its undoing in the Super Bowl last year, couldn't hold up for a full game against the Bengals' talented front. Cincinnati rarely blitzed extra rushers, and Trey Hendrickson, Sam Hubbard and friends started to get consistent pressure as the game wore on. They dumped Mahomes 4 times in the second half, including 2 critical sacks near the goal line on the Chiefs’ final drive in regulation that forced KC to settle for a game-tying FG.
So the Bengals can play defense, and like the Rams they can get good pressure with their front. They’ve got some very talented players at every level of their defense, most notably Hendrickson and Hubbard, linebacker Logan Wilson, and safety Jesse Bates. They’ve also been causing turnovers, with 6 interceptions and one fumble recovery in 3 playoff games. And here’s where the Bengals have an opportunity to get the upper hand in this game. Stafford co-led the NFL with 17 interceptions thrown during the regular season, and while he was clean in the first 2 playoff games, the 49ers picked him off once, and dropped an easy pick late in the game that could’ve thwarted the L.A. comeback. The Rams also fumbled the ball away 4 times the week before against the Bucs, in a celebration of utter sloppiness.
One last factor to consider is nerves. Stafford is 34 and while this certainly isn’t his last chance to win a Super Bowl, it’s by far the best one he’s had, and his team is expected to win. He’s arguably facing the most pressure of any player in this game, and it won’t shock me if he comes out a little tight. Burrow, on the other hand, is just 25 and he and the underdog Bengals are playing with house money and that could help them to come in pretty loose. The Bengals should be highly competitive for years to come, meaning Burrow should have more opportunities after this one. Of course, people said that about Dan Marino too, during the 1984-85 season when he got to his first (and only) Super Bowl in his sophomore season. So, you never know. Anyway, the point is that the Rams are built to win right now, and they're favored, so they could be feeling the pressure and especially if the game doesn’t start well for them.
Both teams have good special teams, and Rams’ punter Johnny Hekker has been one of the best in the game for a decade (and has pulled off his fair share of successful fakes). The one thing that concerns me in the kicking game is Matt Gay’s range. He hit 2 clutch FGs at the end of the NFC Championship game to tie the game and then win it, and he hit the game winner at the end of the Tampa Bay game the week before. Those 3 kicks were all from 40 yards or less. He’s very reliable, but he came up short on a 47-yard FG at Tampa Bay, and missed his one long try (54 yards) against SF. Meanwhile, Bengals’ rookie sensation Evan McPherson can and will hit from anywhere, and he’s been a real weapon in these playoffs. Advantage, Bengals.
I’ve got to hand it to the Bengals. Almost nobody expected them to be here. In the Wild Card round, they held off the Raiders 26-19 by intercepting Derek Carr on a 4th down play from inside the 10-yard line in the closing seconds. Then they went on the road and knocked off the top 2 seeds in the AFC, with improbable walk off wins in both games. All 3 of their playoff games have pretty much come down to the final play - there’s some real mojo and late-game heroics happening with this team. I’m one of many who picked them to lose to both Tennessee and KC. Can they win this game? Of course they can - they’ve proven that they can beat anyone. They’re young, gritty and fearless, and the ball has been bouncing their way which can look like luck, but usually means a team is doing something right to be in a position to get those bounces and take advantage of them. If they do prevail on Sunday night and finally bring an NFL championship to Cincinnati, this observer won’t be all that surprised, and it’ll be a great story.
While I’ve been wrong about the Bengals, I’ve been right about the Rams, and I think the Burrow magic ends on Sunday. The Rams are the more talented and experienced team, and while that doesn’t always guarantee victory, I think this is a tough matchup for Cincinnati on both sides of the ball. Playing the game in SoFi is likely to benefit the Rams as well.
The mismatch between Cincinnati’s OL and L.A.’s pass rush is a big one, and I expect Aaron Donald, Von Miller, and Leonard Floyd to be relentless and very disruptive, forcing Burrow into sacks and rushed throws that result in stalled drives, and maybe even a costly turnover or two. On the other side of the ball, I don’t think it will be all that easy, but the Rams should have enough success moving the ball to put up more points than Cincinnati can answer. I like the matchup of Stafford and his receiving weapons against this secondary, and I also expect the Rams to have more success running the ball than they’ve had the last 2 weeks. The Bengals were able to come back last week, but I think the Rams are going to get ahead in this one and stay there.
Rams 27, Bengals 20.
To see more NFL and fantasy football articles by David Hartman, visit his blog, the Pigskin Papers, at: www.thepigskinpapers.com