We are almost there. (Breathing deeply.) In just a few more days, the Cincinnati Bengals will play the Los Angeles Rams in Super Bowl LVI. By then, ticket prices for any seat not located on the moon may well come down into the quadruple-digits, but I’m not getting my hopes up. I will be in the City of Angels for the game, but most likely I’ll be watching on TV like everyone else (or not watching and pacing around, as the case may be). I will be available, however, for bellowing “Who Dey!!!!!” long into the night with all other Bengals fans who have journeyed west.
That the Bengals are 60 minutes from an NFL title still hasn’t truly sunk in, really. I’ve been alternating between walking on air and trying not to think too much about the game ever since the Bengals walked away with the overtime win in Kansas City to capture the AFC title. It’s a two-week period of altered states, one I want to hold on to forever so we can push away the idea that there is another game to win as far onto the horizon as possible.
Like it or not, the Bengals have to take the field Sunday at 6:30 EST. That’s mid-afternoon in California, which is good for me, as I won’t be able to eat anything until the contest is long over.
Before we get to the game itself, let’s take a moment to run it back to the preseason, long before all of this craziness began. Last summer I spent some time with Dave Lapham, Bengals radio analyst and lifelong man-in-stripes. At that point, thanks to COVID, he hadn’t even met Joe Burrow face to face. We discussed many topics; the Bengals being a Super Bowl contender was not one of them. Now that he’ll be calling the big game for the first time, I figured I’d ask him for his take on the season as a whole and the quarterback who led the team to the Promised Land.
“When the Bengals dismantled the Ravens in Baltimore, I thought this team had a chance to be special,” Lapham told me via email. “It handed John Harbaugh the worst loss he had ever suffered in Baltimore in his coaching career. Prior to that in the opener against the Minnesota Vikings, the team displayed its resiliency, the mentally tough game-is-never-over, come-from-behind attitude. That showed itself in so many games, put themselves in a hole down two or more scores and rally to make it a game and win more times than not, including the AFC Championship game on the road.”
Lap says Burrow is the straw that stirs the Bengals’ drink. “His mental and physical toughness is totally respected by his teammates. To rehab so quickly from knee reconstruction, to never flinch when hit or sacked, to create a better play when the play called is taken away—these traits are some of the reasons that Joe Burrow is such a special playmaker. He has a Mensa football IQ. These characteristics make for a very rare player. The Bengals are fortunate that he’s in the early stages of a brilliant career.”
I second those opinions.
If you read my story on Lapham, you’ll pick up an ambivalence about his future in the broadcast booth. He didn’t want to get into that on the cusp of the biggest game of his announcing career, in our phone conversation, but I do wonder should the Bengals win on Sunday if it will be Lap’s final game. I doubt it, given the energy around the team that he’s a large part of, but it’s possible. Regardless, he and play-by-play man Dan Hoard have certainly earned this broadcaster’s dream.
On to the game! The Rams are the clear favorite when comparing the two teams over the whole season. At Football Outsiders we give the Rams a roughly 65-35% chance at victory. Including the postseason, the Rams have a 27.1% DVOA vs. Cincinnati’s 4.2%. As a gap, the regular season DVOA is among the largest in modern Super Bowl history—indeed, the game it’s most similar to also involved the Rams, the 2001 version that was upset by a young quarterback often compared to Burrow, Tom Brady. It was the win that really began the Patriots’ dynasty. Needless to say, this comparison warms the heart.
The two teams have a lot of similarities, which makes sense given that Bengals head coach Zac Taylor apprenticed under Rams head coach Sean McVay. The offenses were 1-2 in the league in both empty formations and 11 personnel (one back, one tight end, three wide receivers) usage. Both teams have struggled to run the ball, in particular on third down, and both are deadly against blitzes.
Much has been made of the potential of a Ja’Marr Chase vs. Jalen Ramsey matchup, with the All-Pro corner taking on the Offensive Rookie of the Year. It isn’t likely to occur as much as people think. The Rams were just 16th in DVOA again enemy No. 1 wideouts, and only three teams gave up more yards per game to the opposition’s best wideout. That’s not necessarily a reflection on Ramsey—he doesn’t usually follow wideouts around, and L.A.’s second corner, Darious Williams, while solid, isn’t at that level. Throw in the likelihood that the Bengals will employ Chase out of the slot, where Ramsey seldom goes, and the simplistic narrative goes out the window. And should the Rams break tendency to deploy Ramsey mostly on Chase or on Tee Higgins while double-covering Chase, Tyler Boyd is waiting to feast.
Of course, that assumes that Burrow is upright enough to throw the ball. The clear mismatch is the Rams defensive front, led by the outstanding Aaron Donald in the middle and backed by Von Miller and Leonard Floyd on the edges, against Cincinnati’s inexperienced offensive line. As with most games the Bengals have played this year, mitigating the enemy pass rush will be key. Of course, while Burrow has been sacked more than anyone else this year, the team has overcome this issue all season. Unlike most offenses and players whose drives are demolished by a sack, Burrow approaches it as the cost of doing business. As in the Tennessee game, he can overcome bad down and distance situations. Burrow’s escapability and maneuverability in the pocket will be critical, as usual, to ensuring Donald, Miller, and Co. don’t wreck the game.
Cincinnati finding ways to run the ball should also be a key. They have tried to do it all postseason, lining up heavy, running on early downs, bringing wideouts in to help block, etc. Nothing has particularly worked; the team has averaged just 3.77 yards per carry in its three playoff games. The Rams are vulnerable to the ground game, and of course a consistent rushing attack is one way to overcome a ferocious pass rush. Running to the perimeter, perhaps with run-pass options (RPOs) that Burrow used successfully in college, may well be the key to establishing the ground game.
When L.A. has the football, Cincinnati’s opportunistic defense will be on alert. The key to the unit holding opponents to 19, 16, and 24 points in this playoff run has been turnovers, of course. The takeaways that didn’t happen for much of the season have come in waves since the calendar flipped to 2022. Matthew Stafford is an excellent quarterback having a strong season, but he is turnover prone. Had San Francisco not dropped a gimme pick in the NFC title game, the Niners might well have been Cincinnati’s opponent in the Super Bowl. It will be incumbent upon the Bengals D to continue to seize the opportunities Stafford and the Rams present to them.
Rams star wideout Cooper Kupp will get his catches and yards; Mike Hilton in the slot has had success (while with the Steelers) defending him, but Kupp will make some plays. The key is to tackle him straight away. Kupp led the NFL in yards after catch (Chase was third, by the way) with 846. His excellence—and the trust Stafford has in him—on third down resulted in Kupp leading the league in DYAR (efficiency) as well. Odell Beckham may not be the threat he once was, but he’s played well since joining the Rams and prevents Cincinnati from ganging up too much on Kupp.
While all the talk has been about the Bengals having to block L.A.’s fearsome front, once again the inverse may be the key to the game, as it was in Kansas City. Our old pal Andrew Whitworth is still performing wonders at left tackle, but he’ll have his hands full with Trey Hendrickson. On the interior, D.J. Reader gets a fraction of the notice Donald gets, but in the run game he is as dominant. If Reader is left one-on-one the way the Titans tried to block him, the Rams will have difficulty on the ground. The ability of Cincinnati to stop the run, especially when behind and trying to mount a comeback, has been an wildly unsung aspect of the team all year and could well be an issue on Sunday.
The Rams kicker, Matt Gay, had a strong regular season but has botched a couple of key kicks in the playoffs. By contrast, we have Evan “Future 10x All-Pro” McPherson. Will he really be called upon again to attempt (and make) four field goals, as he has in each of the first three playoff games? The odds are against it, but one thing is for sure: If McPherson is lining up to make a game-winning kick once more, that will be the least nerve-wracking aspect of the evening.
Then there are the intangibles. The narrative around the game suggests that while the Rams are all-in, championship or bust, Cincinnati seems to playing with house money; even a loss won’t take away from the special run they’ve had. I call BS on that. Any Super Bowl appearance has to be approached as once in a lifetime. Even Tom Brady did that.
More to the point, the fact that this ride to the cusp of the Lombardi Trophy has been so unlikely and unexpected makes the idea of losing at the final hurdle that much more nauseating. Sure, the surprise run is better appreciated in the moment, and the fact it hasn’t happened for us as a fanbase in several decades has led to an incredible outpouring of emotional support. But should the team come up short, there will always be a bittersweet taste to this season, no matter what the future holds.
The Rams are a formidable opponent, playing (sorta) on their home field. But they are hardly the undefeated 2007 Patriots, who, it will be remembered, lost to a team that got hot at the right time and made a stunning run to the championship (New York Giants and Eli Manning). More to the point, they don’t have Joe Burrow, who makes dreams come true. The Bengals do.
With that, I say prayers up and fingers crossed for Sunday. We will gather together in this virtual magazine space next week one more time, hopefully as World Champions.