6:30 PM EST, NBC – Line: Rams -4.5, Over/Under: 48.5
Finally, the longest season in National Football League history comes to its conclusion tonight in the City of Angels, as the upstart Cincinnati Bengals look to claim their first Lombardi trophy in franchise history, while the Los Angeles Rams attempt to become the second consecutive NFL Champion to earn that distinction on their home field, in this, Super Bowl LVI from SoFi Stadium in Los Angeles, California. More so than anything else, these two sides represent polar opposites in terms of building a champion, with one cultivating themselves the old-fashioned way and the other proactively acquiring top-tier talent with a singular focus on winning NOW. In case you were wondering, the Rams (12-5, 1st in NFC West) characterize the latter, filling their ranks with stars in a city that craves them perhaps more so than any in the country. With that said, this approach to building is nothing new for Los Angeles, who under the stewardship of (Head Coach) Sean McVay and (General Manger) Les Snead have wheeled and dealed more than any tandem in the NFL, with this season serving as the crescendo of their run together. Frist and foremost, they shipped (former Quarterback) Jared Goff out of town (along with a pair of first round picks) to Detroit in exchange for (Veteran Quarterback) Matthew Stafford (67.2%, 4,886 YDS, 7.36 NY/A, 41 TD, 17 INT, 63.5 QBR), with the hopes that the talented 33-year-old could in fact get them over the hump. Following their previous postseason run in which McVay opted to bench a healthy Goff in favor of a journeyman from the CFL, the writing was on the wall for the former no. one overall pick, who clearly fell out of favor with the coaching staff. Despite being six years older and having never won a playoff game (in three starts), Stafford was viewed as a considerable upgrade, and for all intents and purposes has delivered in his first season in Los Angeles; the veteran ranked second in the NFL in passing touchdowns (41) and third in passing yards (4,886), matching a franchise record with the former and breaking another with the latter. He’s also bested five opponents that have won ten or more games, which is as many as he managed in his entire tenure in Detroit (12 years). Furthermore, he developed an instant rapport with his supporting cast, particularly (All-Pro Receiver) Cooper Kupp (145 REC, 1,947 YDS, 13.4 Y/R, 16 TD), who finished the campaign with a rare Receiving Triple Crown in leading the league in catches (145), receiving yards (1,947), and touchdown receptions (16), while shattering the record for most combined yards from scrimmage in the regular season and playoffs, set back in 1995 by (Hall of Famer) Jerry Rice (2,273 YDS). Joining Stafford in Southern California midway through the season were a pair of former All-Pros, (Edge-Rusher) Von Miller (31 TKL, 12 TFL, 9 QBH, 5.0 SK, 1 FF, 1 PD) and (Wideout) Odell Beckham Jr. (27 REC, 305 YDS, 11.3 Y/R, 5 TD), with both players eventually developing into key contributors. Miller cost McVay and Snead second and third round picks in this Spring’s NFL Draft, with the 8-time Pro-Bowler heating up with eight Quarterback hits, five sacks, and a forced fumble over the final four games of the regular season. As for Beckham, he arrived as a free agent following his release from the Browns, and after a slow start has really begun to settle into his role within the Rams’ system, reeling in all five of his touchdowns on the season after his move westward.
As it turned out, the Rams would need EVERY SINGLE ONE of these guys to get to this point, finally besting the 49ers in the NFC Championship Game in what was a thrilling 20-17 affair, snapping a 6-game losing streak to their bitter rivals. After a scoreless first quarter in which Stafford was picked off on his second drive of the evening, the hosts got themselves together with a marathon-like 18-play, 97-yard drive concluding with a 16-yard strike from Stafford to Kupp along the right side of the end zone. San Francisco would respond with a touchdown drive of their own, before nailing a field goal on their next possession to take the lead before halftime. Los Angeles on the other hand, began to self-destruct, missing a field goal of their own (54 YDS) and turning it over on downs on their first possession of the second half as Stafford attempted to sneak the ball up the middle for no gain. Seven minutes later, the Niners added to their lead, making it 17-7 with just over a quarter left to play. And this is when things really got interesting for the home side; following a touchback, Stafford authored a 75-yard drive culminating in an 11-yard score to Kupp to cut the deficit to three, and after the defense forced a quick punt, got right back to work with a 9-play, 63-yard drive ending with a Matt Gay Field Goal (40 YDS) to tie the contest at 17-17 with just under seven minutes left to play. However, the Rams were VERY fortunate when (49ers’ Safety) Jaquiski Tart inexplicably dropped what was essentially a pop-fly from Stafford, giving the hosts life when they could have snuffed out the rally altogether. After a 3 & Out, Los Angeles continued to bleed the game clock with a 10-play, 49-yard drive capped by another field goal courtesy of Gay (30 YDS) to take the lead, setting up the final possession for the visitors; starting from his own 25-yard line, (49ers’ Quarterback) Jimmy Garoppolo could move the Niners no further, flippantly tossing the football away as (three-time Defensive Player of the Year) Aaron Donald (84 TKL, 19 TFL, 25 QBH, 12.5 SK, 4 FF, 4 PD) barreled downfield for the pressure, leading to the walk-off interception by (Sophomore Linebacker) Travin Howard (21 TKL, 1 INT, 3 PD). In the end, McVay finally gave his former colleague, Kyle Shanahan, a dose of his own medicine, outgaining the Niners 396-282, converting 11-of-18 third downs in comparison to 3-of-9 for the visiting side, and owning time of possession for a commanding 35:39. Furthermore, that triumph marked only the second time under McVay’s watch that his troops managed to rally back from a second half deficit of double-digits, with the other ironically being the 2018 NFC Championship Game in New Orleans which booked their previous trip to the Super Bowl three years ago. Doubling down on that nugget, Los Angeles was 0-4 this season when entering the fourth quarter trailing by ten or more points, and 0-14 under McVay in such situations, while Stafford had previously lost TWENTY-SIX starts under those circumstances. Speaking of Stafford, he really earned this one, folks, completing 31-of-45 passes for 337 yards, two touchdowns and that early interception, fighting through persistent pressure from San Francisco; he was pressured eleven times, knocked down on six occasions, and sacked twice. The tandem of Kupp and Beckham was sublime, combining for twenty receptions on twenty-five targets for 255 yards and both scores, becoming the first pair of teammates to total 100+ receiving yards in a conference championship. Defensively, (Defensive Coordinator) Raheem Morris’ charges really took it to San Francisco, relegating them to just sixteen first downs and fifty rushing yards on twenty carries, containing the explosive Deebo Samuel and making life miserable for the aforementioned Garoppolo, whom they pressured seven times and knocked down on three occasions, with Donald and Miller accounting for each of the latter.
With that win, the Rams find themselves in the Super Bowl for the fifth time in franchise history, looking to earn their second Lombardi trophy, with their only triumph coming back at the turn of the century when they were still located in St. Louis. What do they need to do to finish the deal, you ask? Well, apart from the abject learning experience that was Super Bowl LIII, we would expect McVay & Co to come into this matchup looser and more comfortable than they did three years ago. Of course, all eyes will be on Stafford, who was acquired for precisely THIS moment; Goff (19-of-38, 229 YDS, 1 INT, 4 SK) was utterly disappointing in that previous Super Bowl in which Los Angeles could amass just three points and 198 total yards, while his successor has done nothing but vindicate himself with 905 yards and eight total touchdowns opposed to only one turnover during these playoffs. Offensively, they should try to maintain a bit of balance, which has been an issue at times given the presence of Stafford, Kupp, and Beckham in the passing game. LA ranked just twenty-third in rushing attempts (24.7) and yards (99.0) this season, though did receive a boost with the healthy return of (Sophomore Tailback) Cam Akers (5 CAR, 3 YDS, 0.6 Y/A, 0 TD), who missed virtually the entire campaign rehabbing from a ruptured Achilles tendon. Granted, this is a team that has proven that they don’t necessarily NEED to run the ball in order to win, for after churning out 140 yards against the Cardinals in the Wild Card, they’ve posted a combined 173 in the two games that followed. With that said, there are likely to be plenty of yards to be had if they stick with the run, for the Bengals have afforded their opponents a generous 5.9 yards per carry in the playoffs thus far. Defensively, all of the talk has been about their vicious pass-rush against Cincinnati’s inferior Offensive Line (more on this group shortly), and this is likely where the contest is to be decided; the Rams amassed FIFTY sacks this season (3rd Overall), with the likes of Donald and Miller providing pressure from various locations. With all that said, the pressure will be squarely on the shoulders of the hosts today, for every transaction, trade, and signing that McVay and Snead have made over the last few years has been leading to THIS moment. After all of these deals, Los Angeles doesn’t have a first-round pick until 2024, and with so many stars on the roster it will become increasingly difficult for them to supplement the supporting cast with quality depth. However, winning a championship means that you’ll never have to apologize, because in sports the ENDS absolutely justify the MEANS, and if this group can deliver the City of Angels its first Lombardi trophy since 1983, then nobody will care how many draft picks were dealt away to get it.
Meanwhile, the Bengals (10-7, 1st in AFC North) represent the polar opposite in this affair, for while their opponent has approached building a champion as if it were a fantasy roster, they have in turn chosen to go about their business the old-fashioned way. Under the ownership of the Brown family, Cincinnati has long sported one of the smallest scouting departments in the NFL, and have largely relied upon keeping their talent in-house, drafting and developing along the way. (Lead Scout) Duke Tobin and his cohorts have done a tremendous job of making the most of their draft capital over the past few years, hitting a number of home runs in the process positioning them on the precipice of winning the franchise’s first Lombardi trophy. It’s really a remarkable story, folks, for it was just two years ago when Cincy had finished with the worst record in the league (2-14) and were thus on the clock with the no. one overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft. And this is where their fortunes turned for the better, as they selected 2019 Heisman and National Champion, Joe Burrow (70.4%, 4,611 YDS, 7.43 NY/A, 34 TD, 14 INT, 54.4 QBR) to spearhead this renaissance in Southern Ohio. While the team managed to finish with another last-place finish (4-11-1), there were plenty of signs of improvement, as Burrow showed plenty of promise despite tearing multiple ligaments in his knee in the tenth game of the campaign. In hindsight, this was the best thing that could have happened for the Bengals, who in turn used the fifth overall pick in last Spring’s Draft to reunite their Quarterback with one of his favorite collegiate targets, selecting Ja’Marr Chase (81 REC, 1,455 YDS, 18.0 Y/R, 13 TD). While it seems like a no-brainer now, it was deemed questionable at the time considering Burrow’s health and lack of protection after being sacked thirty-two times in 2020. However, these two would become one of the NFL’s most LETHAL combinations this season, connecting eighty-one times for a whopping 1,455 yards and thirteen touchdowns, with Burrow earning Comeback Player of the Year honors while Chase parlayed that single-season rookie receiving record to Offensive Rookie of the Year honors. For all intents and purposes, the latter has been a big-play machine for Cincinnati, with EIGHT of his thirteen touchdowns consisting of thirty or more yards. Burrow on the other hand, is turning into a superstar right before our eyes, returning from that knee injury to lead the league in completion percentage (70.4%) and yards per attempt (8.9), while setting franchise records in passing yards (4,611) and touchdowns (34). But it doesn’t stop just there, for everywhere you look on this roster there is good homegrown talent to be found, including (Receivers) Tee Higgins (74 REC, 1,091 YDS, 14.7 Y/R, 6 TD) and Tyler Boyd (67 REC, 828 YDS, 12.4 Y/R, 5 TD), (Tight End) C.J. Ozomah (49 REC, 493 YDS, 10.1 Y/R, 5 TD) and (Tailback) Joe Mixon (292 CAR, 1,205 YDS, 4.1 Y/A, 13 TD), (Linebacker) Logan Wilson (100 TKL, 5 TFL, 1 QBH, 1.0 SK, 1 FF, 4 INT, 4 PD) and (Safety) Jessie Bates (88 TKL, 3 TFL, 1 QBH, 1 FR, 1 INT, 4 PD), and even (Rookie Kicker) Evan McPherson. It’s not often that we give Kickers much pub, but this kid has been essential to Cincy’s success this season, leading the NFL with 11 field goals of 50+ yards, while going 12-of-12 in these playoffs. With that said, Tobin & Co have also done a good job of outsourcing too, selectively adding free agents from winning cultures, which has played a crucial role in the maturation of this young team. (Cornerbacks) Chidobe Awuzie (64 TKL, 4 TFL, 2 INT, 14 PD) and Eli Apple (49 TKL, 2 TFL, 1 FR, 2 INT, 10 PD), along with (Nickelback) Mike Hilton (66 TKL, 8 TFL, 2 QBH, 1 FF, 2 INT, 5 PD, 1 TD), and (Defensive Linemen) Larry Ogunjobi (49 TKL, 12 TFL, 16 QBH, 7.0 SK) and Trey Hendrickson (34 TKL, 12 TFL, 27 QBH, 14.0 SK, 3 FF) have transformed this defense in their first season with the franchise, affording (Defensive Coordinator) Lou Anarumo the luxury of instituting a plethora of subtle adjustments, which have been absolutely crucial to their success in the postseason, particularly in their shocking upset of the Chiefs in the AFC Championship Game.
Meeting for the second time in the span of five weeks, the Bengals overcame a 21-3 halftime deficit to escape Arrowhead Stadium with a triumphant 27-24 victory over the two-time reigning AFC Champions. Ironically, this one played out almost identically as their previous encounter did, with Cincinnati authoring a furious second half comeback to stun Kansas City. Trailing 21-3 inside of two minutes to play in the first half, Burrow found (Backup Tailback) Samaje Perine (55 CAR, 246 YDS, 4.5 Y/A, 1 TD) for a short screen pass that turned into a 41-yard touchdown to cut the lead to eleven, though the hosts would respond right away with an 80-yard drive of their own to the visitors’ one-yard line. And this is where everything changed, folks, for rather than settle for a chip shot field goal, KC opted to go for the kill with zero timeouts and five seconds to play, as (Chiefs’ Quarterback) Patrick Mahomes threw a short pass behind the line of scrimmage to (Wideout) Tyreek Hill, only to be tackled by the aforementioned Apple for no gain as the time expired. Post intermission, it was ALL Bengals, as (Head Coach) Zac Taylor’s troops would outscore the home side 14-3 over the course of the second half, with Burrow nailing Chase for a short touchdown, while McPherson once again drilled a pair of clutch kicks. However, the biggest story was the play of Anarumo’s defense, which completely negated Mahomes in the second half; after opening the game with three consecutive touchdown drives and amassing 311 total yards in the first thirty minutes, the Chiefs could muster only EIGHTY-THREE in the second half, with the 2018 MVP completing just 8-of-14 passes for SIXTEEN yards, suffering three sacks, a fumble, and an interception deep in his own territory. With that said, he would still manage to drive Kansas City deep into the red zone with time winding down in regulation but was sacked on a 3rd & 9 at the 9-yard line by (Edge-Risher) Sam Hubbard (62 TKL, 12 TFL, 17 QBH, 7.5 SK, 1 FF, 2 FR, 3 PD), leading to the game-tying field goal to force overtime for the second time in as many weeks. Unfortunately, this extra period would not play out as it did a week earlier, as Mahomes was picked off again, this time deep down the left sideline targeting Hill, as Bates deflected the ball into fellow Safety, Vonn Bell’s (97 TKL, 5 TFL, 1 QBH, 0.5 SK, 3 FF, 1 FR, 1 INT, 8 PD) hands. Taking over at midfield, Burrow would drive Cincinnati downfield to the 11-yard line, with McPherson drilling the 31-yard game-winner. In the end, Burrow completed 23-of-38 passes for 250 yards, two touchdowns and an interception, suffering just one sack a week after being dropped an NFL postseason record NINE times, evading the hosts’ rush throughout the afternoon, finding the aforementioned Higgins for six catches and 103 yards, while Chase had six of his own for fifty-four yards and one of those scores. Mixon, who ranked third in the NFL in rushing this season, put together another solid all-around performance with 131 yards from scrimmage on twenty-four touches, while Perine got everything started with that screen pass to the house. Defensively, Cincy weathered the early onslaught to pressure Mahomes eleven times, hurry him on six occasions, sack him four times, and come up with two huge interceptions. Hendrickson, who earned a career-high fourteen sacks en route to his first Pro-Bowl nod, led the way with four pressures, two hurries, and 1.5 sacks, while Hubbard’s delayed blitz staved off another late threat.
With that victory, the Bengals are one step away from bringing the franchise their first Lombardi trophy. While they’ve come close in the past, narrowly losing Super Bowls XVI and XXIII, it’s been a long time since this team has enjoyed this kind of spotlight. After all, it was just a month ago in which they managed to end the longest postseason losing streak in NFL history, winning their first playoff game since 1991, and haven’t stopped since. With that said, what Cincinnati is doing is RARE to say the least; they are only the third team in NFL history to go from finishing with the worst record in the league to the Super Bowl in a span of just two years, while Burrow is just the sixth Quarterback to lead his team to this stage in the second year of his career. So, what do Taylor’s charges need to do in order to author a storybook finish, you ask? Well, the biggest point of emphasis must be protecting Burrow, and keeping him upright enough to take advantage of some of the holes in the Rams’ Secondary. The Sophomore was sacked an NFL-high FIFTY-ONE times this season and has already been dropped twelve times in these playoffs. The Offensive Line has been really the only weak link on this team, which is why they’ve been middling on both third down (39.6%) and in the red zone (59.6%), particularly in the postseason in which they’ve settled for more field goals than they’d like; Cincy’s offense has accounted for just FIVE touchdowns thus far in comparison to a dozen cold-blooded field goals from the Rookie, which is something that they’ve managed to get away with thanks to a defense that has been opportunistic to say the least, forcing seven turnovers. Expect Taylor, who comes from the growing McVay Coaching Tree, to utilize Mixon a good deal to keep the pass-rush honest, while chipping defenders with an extra Tight End, and also incorporating quick drops and screen plays for Burrow to get rid of the ball before the Donald & Co can bear down on him. We’re not suggesting that they max protect, because that just hasn’t been their style, but we do expect Burrow to receive more protection than he has of late. And speaking of Taylor, it remains to be seen how the 38-year-old will fair in this matchup with his former mentor; Taylor spent two years (2017 to 2018) in Los Angeles coaching Receivers and Quarterbacks and was hired not long after their run to Super Bowl LIII. With both coaches very familiar with each other, it will be interesting to see which of them is successful in outmaneuvering the other. One of the youngest teams in the league and having already exceeded expectations by a wide margin, there is very little pressure on the Bengals to perform on this stage, and one would have to imagine that no matter the outcome they are positioned well to contend for many years to come. Success in sports in generally glacial, but every now and then there is a team that jumps the queue and wins ahead of schedule. Is Cincinnati the next to do it? At this point, we won’t best against their Quarterback…