Super Bowl LVI Preview
The Los Angeles Rams and the Cincinnati Bengals will face off in Super Bowl LVI on Sunday Night in Los Angeles. The Rams are the second consecutive team to make it to a Super Bowl being played its home stadium. They will be seeking their first title since 2000 and making their second appearance under current head coach Sean McVay. The Bengals are in the game for the first time since 1988, when they lost to San Franciso at the Pontiac Silverdome, and are looking for their first-ever title.
So, how did these teams make it here? And how do they match up with each other?
After being eliminated in the Divisional round last season, the Rams quickly flipped a switch and signaled to the league that they were going for it all by quickly trading for veteran quarterback Matthew Stafford from Detroit. The team was already good enough to compete in the NFC and Stafford was an immediate upgrade over the quarterbacks that had been on the roster.
The Rams won seven of their first nine games to start the 2021 season, including a win over the defending-Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers. While the defense did not seem as elite as its 2020 version, the offense was clicking on all cylinders and Stafford was in the early MVP conversations.
Los Angeles lost two consecutive games in November but responded by going on a five-game winning streak and won the NFC West at 12-5 despite a loss against San Francisco to close the regular season.
The Rams were the No. 4 seed in the NFC playoffs and hosted division rival Arizona in the Super Wild Card round. The teams had split their two regular-season meetings, but LA turned things up a notch and dominated the playoff game.
They would get off to a fast start against Tampa the next week before nearly blowing the game late. Turnovers became an issue and allowed Tampa back in the game, but a completion from Stafford to Cooper Kupp set up an easy game-winning field goal for Matt Gay.
The NFC Championship brought another divisional rival to LA in the form of the San Francisco 49ers. Despite playing at home, the Rams had the odds stacked against them. They had lost six straight games to the Niners including both regular-season games in 2021 plus Los Angeles is notorious for a lack of support of the local football teams and allowing visiting fans to turn SoFi Stadium into their own home environments. To make the Super Bowl, they needed a great all-around performance.
After falling behind late in the third quarter. the Rams staged a fourth-quarter comeback with 13 unanswered points to win the game. The defense was a huge part of the comeback as it harassed Jimmy Garoppolo and forced a crucial interception to seal the game.
The Rams are strongest with offensive playmakers and along the defensive line. The Stafford-Kupp connection has worked all year long. Kupp caught 145 passes this year and came just shy of breaking Calvin Johnson's single-season receiving yards record. Add in Odell Beckham Jr and Van Jefferson and that's a solid receiving corps. The Rams will, unfortunately, be without TE Tyler Higbee in this game but will get RB Darrell Henderson back from injury.
Aaron Donald is the best defensive lineman in the NFL and a future Hall-of-Famer. The Rams use him at various positions along the front, which makes him even more dangerous. Leonard Floyd also racks up sacks as a pass-rusher from outside, and A'Shawn Robinson has played well during the playoffs.
The weakest part of this Rams team is the interior offensive line. Yes, it has been better this year and made progress throughout the season, but it will be challenged by defensive tackles DJ Reader and BJ Hill in this game.
The Cincinnati Bengals are the worst-to-first Cinderella story in the NFL this year. Last season, they finished with the sixth-worst record, and questions circulated about the future of the coaching staff. Now, they've won their first playoff game in over 30 years and are heading to the Super Bowl.
The Bengals were kind of mediocre throughout the regular season. Yes, they have wins over teams like Kansas City, Baltimore, and Pittsburgh, but they also have questionable losses to Cleveland, the New York Jets, and Chicago. Nevertheless, they earned a playoff berth by winning the AFC North with a 10-7 record and have proven they belong.
The No. 4 seed Bengals started the postseason with a win over the Las Vegas Raiders in the Super Wild Card round. Cincinnati built an early 20-6 lead but Vegas cut the deficit to just seven points at the half. The second half was much closer, but linebacker Germaine Pratt made a big interception to deny the Raiders' late attempt to tie the game.
The Bengals were big underdogs in the divisional round as they traveled to Tennessee to face the No. 1 seed Titans. In a low-scoring affair, Joe Burrow outplayed Ryan Tannehill, who threw three interceptions--including a late one to LB Logan Wilson that set up the game-winning field goal. The Cincinnati defense also held star RB Derrick Henry to just 62 rushing yards.
The AFC Championship brought a familiar foe in the Kansas City Chiefs, which the Bengals had defeated during Week 17 in Cincinnati. However, this game was in Kansas City, where few teams win in the postseason. The game was eerily similar to the previous meeting.
Kansas City seemed poised to turn the game into a blowout as halftime approached. Yet, as it had in Week 17, the Cincinnati defense made a stop as the quarter expired. Cincinnati made the adjustments during the break and came back to force overtime. The defense seemed to get in Patrick Mahomes's head and forced him to hold the ball for long durations and make mistakes.
The most crucial mistake came in overtime. The Chiefs won the coin toss and got the ball first. I'm sure many thought then that the game was over as we had just seen the same scenario the previous week against Buffalo. However, the Bengals forced Mahomes to throw an interception and went down the field to set up another Evan McPherson field goal to clinch a trip to the Super Bowl.
The Bengals' strongest positions are the offensive skill players and the front seven of their defense.
The offense is made up of several young skill players all under 30 years of age. Receivers Jamarr Chase and Tee Higgins both eclipsed 1,000 receiving yards this season, and Tyler Boyd added another 828 himself. RB Joe Mixon has over 4,500 rushing yards in his five-year career, and TE CJ Uzomah is a valuable weapon that can cause issues for opposing defenses. Then, of course, everyone knows about QB Joe Burrow- the straw that stirs the drink.
On the defensive front, the Bengals have made great investments in free agency with guys like Trey Hendrickson (14 sacks in 2021), Larry Ogunjobi, and DJ Reader. They've also gotten great play from homegrown draft picks like DE Sam Hubbard and the aforementioned Wilson and Pratt at linebacker. While Ogunjobi is out, the rest of those guys will need big games. Safety Jessie Bates is also a strong point on this defense.
The Bengals' biggest weaknesses are the offensive line and cornerbacks.
Going back to the offseason, experts were clamoring for Cincinnati to add offensive linemen to help protect Joe Burrow as he returned from a torn ACL. Instead, they made improvements in other areas that have worked. However, this game is particularly important for the offensive line. It gave up nine sacks in the win over Las Vegas, and the Rams defensive front is one of the best in the NFL.
One of those improved places is at cornerback. The Bengals signed veterans Eli Apple and Chidobe Awuzie to help in coverage. While the improvement has been there, I still feel that those two can be exploited, especially against the Rams.
Apple has reportedly asked to cover Odell Beckham Jr, which means Awuzie would draw the Cooper Kupp assignment.
These teams have similar strengths and weaknesses, which creates a great matchup on paper. The Rams are more experienced in terms of both players and coaches and have a deeper roster, yet the Bengals are a promising, upstart team that has skill and plenty of confidence. Super Bowl LVI will show which matters most.