Super Bowl LVI: A Preview
By Andy Davies
Super Bowl 56 is almost upon us as the Los Angeles Rams take on the Cincinnati Bengals. The NFL waited over 50 years to see a team play a Super Bowl in their own stadium, and now we have seen two in as many years.
First it was Tampa Bay last season and this year it is the turn of the Rams, as their beautiful newly built SoFi Stadium hosts the game.
The Rams were expected to challenge for a place in the Super Bowl, with an upgrade at QB. Meanwhile the Bengals were seen in the offseason as far from being Super Bowl contenders as possible, exceeding all expectations. They will play in their first Super Bowl since the 1988 campaign, breaking their playoff curse in the process. This sounds like a mismatch, but it is far from that. Here is a guide to tonights game.
Refreshing QB Matchup
NFL fans, in general, grew tired of seeing the same teams or same quarterbacks play in the big game. AFC fans especially, became increasingly frustrated with seeing the now retired QB in every Super Bowl.
This year however, we are seeing two quarterbacks that have never played in a Super Bowl, let alone win one.
Matthew Stafford will be playing in his first Super Bowl since being drafted first overall in 2009. He had only played three playoff games during his 12-year spell with the Detroit Lions, but managed to get out of a perennial losing franchise in early 2021 as the trade saw the Rams give up future picks and Jared Goff in return.
It was seen that Goff was a serviceable quarterback but not quite good enough to take them to the promised land. Stafford was seen as that guy, but many felt that he was not going be worth the draft capital LA had given up.
In the 2021 regular season, only Tom Brady and Justin Herbert threw for more yards1, with Brady the only QB to throw for more passing touchdowns2. However, Stafford also threw for the joint-most interceptions, and this is where the Bengals can capitalise. Stafford has been great and his connection with Offensive Player of the Year Cooper Kupp as well as mid-season addition Odell Beckham has been excellent, but all throughout the playoffs he has had a mistake in him. Trey Hendrickson has been excellent on this Cincinnati defensive line, and he will be the most likely candidate to trouble Stafford.
Meanwhile, Bengals QB Joe Burrow has been a cool customer. Both of these quarterbacks are popular for neutrals, but Burrow is the one getting the most buzz. With nicknames such as Joe Shiesty and Joey Brrrr, he is arguably the neutrals favourite.
After suffering a horrible ACL injury, he has returned to the league and carried on right where he left off to earn him the Comeback Player of the Year award. He finished the regular season with the sixth-most passing yards (4,611)3, eighth-most passing touchdowns (34)4 and helped rookie wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase record 1,455 receiving yards5 and 13 touchdown receptions6 on his way to Offensive Rookie of the Year. Only Randy Moss has had more touchdowns for a rookie7 and only Bill Groman in the 1960’s has had more receiving yards in a season for a rookie8. He did, however, record 266 receiving yards in their week 17 win over the Kansas City Chiefs. This beat former Buffalo Bills receiver Jerry Butler (255) for most receiving yards by a rookie in a single game9.
Whoever wins, fans will be happy to see a new quarterback get a ring.
This game sees two former colleagues go head-to-head. Bengals head coach Zac Taylor is in his third season in the job, after spending two seasons under the guidance of Rams head coach Sean McVay.
The last game they worked with each other for was Super Bowl 53 as the Rams lost 13-3 to the New England Patriots. McVay will be wanting to amend for a disappointing result and Taylor will want to bring the Vince Lombardi Trophy to Cincinnati for the first time after two Super Bowl losses in the 1980’s.
Taylor was arguably on the hot seat in the 2021 offseason after going 6-25-1 in his first two campaigns10. Whatever happens on Sunday, he will be very distant from discussions such as those for at least the next year or two.
Meanwhile, the Rams have gone all out to win a Super Bowl. They have sacrificed their future in the hope of winning a championship. The team they have assembled have arguably another one or two attempts to win it but getting back is no guarantee, just ask Dan Marino and Aaron Rodgers. With the home advantage and pressure they are under, it feels like now or never. The chances of McVay losing his job if they don’t win a ring is likely to be very low but a loss to the Bengals on Sunday will crank up some level of pressure going into the 2022 season.
Time For WR2 or WR3 To Shine?
Kupp and Chase are the two headline acts when it comes to the receivers on display. Both teams are likely to game plan to stop the respective wideout.
They will most probably look to double team these players in an attempt to take them out of the game and neutralise their threat. With the Bengals and Rams in the top six for stopping the run during the regular season11, the likes of Joe Mixon and the returning Cam Akers are likely to have very little production, despite the Bengals persistent use of the run on first down against the Chiefs in the AFC Championship. This is where the second and third choice receivers can shine.
Odell Beckham Jr has been excellent since joining the Rams midseason after taking a few weeks to adjust. He will look to have a big role in this game if Kupp is kept quiet. On the other side, the Bengals will look to utilise second and third choice receivers Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd.
These three receivers are great outside shouts for Super Bowl MVP.
The Only Mismatch
When it comes to quarterback, wide receiver and the secondary, the Rams and Bengals are equally matched. However, there is one area that will fill the Rams fanbase with confidence and the Cincinnati faithful with dread. This is the battle between the trenches.
Infamously, the Bengals offensive line allowed Burrow to be sacked nine times in the Divisional Round against the number one seed Tennessee Titans. It is a credit to the Bengals defense and their QB1 that they managed to come out of this game victorious.
They will be encouraged by the fact they only allowed one sack against the Chiefs, but there is no defensive player in the NFL quite like the Rams’ Aaron Donald. A three-time Defensive Player of the Year and seven-time All Pro, Donald is fast becoming one of the best defensive linemen to ever play the game. He will be determined to put an end to any chat of him being one of the best players to never win a Super Bowl when his career ends and there are not many players in the NFL more deserving of a ring.
With 98 total career sacks from the interior and 12.5 this season12, the defensive tackle is potentially the number one threat to the Bengals’ hopes. He is arguably the most likely MVP candidate from the Rams’ point of view.
The Bengals have to stop him, and their best way to do this is double team him just as New England did in Atlanta three Super Bowls ago. If this is the case, we can expect the likes of Greg Gaines and Leonard Floyd to look to step up. Another midseason signing in linebacker Von Miller will also look to come in off the edge in his attempt to win a second Super Bowl. He won Super Bowl 50 MVP when the Denver Broncos beat the Carolina Panthers and could be an outside contender for the title once again in this game.
There has been plenty of talk of this battle between the trenches all week, but the Bengals have showed a lot of fight this season and especially in the postseason. It should now be acknowledged that the Bengals are a contender rather than an underdog and they will fight for it all. With no fear, they will not be put off by this Rams defense. Joe Burrow’s mobility, a seemingly modern-day requirement for most quarterbacks, can be a way for the Bengals to counteract the Rams along with short screen passes in a 12 or 21 personnel formation to whichever side the pressure doesn’t come from.
Overall, fans should be looking forward to this game and just be happy its someone different winning it. With a halftime show line-up for the ages, we should be treated to an excellent spectacle.
A current Sports Journalism masters student, Andy has been writing NFL articles since January 2020. Originally from Wales, Andy also writes for pro football mania and dolphins talk, as well as appearing on podcasts and videos for euro tripz. find him on twitter @andydaviessport.