By: Ryan Croke
The conclusion of one of the most memorable NFL seasons in recent memory is less than two weeks away, as the biggest television event of the year, the Super Bowl, takes place next Sunday, February 13. The fifty-sixth edition of the largest sporting event in America will be watchable on NBC starting at 6:30 pm. This year’s contest features two fresh faces, one being the star-studded Los Angeles Rams and the other being the young but hungry Cincinnati Bengals. What can we expect from a contest between two newcomers to the Super Bowl? In this article, I will be examining the makeup of each team, what their strengths and weaknesses are, and ultimately select the team that I believe will win the coveted Lombardi Trophy.
Let’s begin with the NFC Champions, the Los Angeles Rams. This team experienced heartbreak three years ago when their potent offense was ineffective against Bill Belichick’s Patriots, who won their sixth super bowl by a score of 13-3 in a defensive showdown, the lowest-scoring Super Bowl in history. However, this team is completely different from how it was 3 years ago. They traded boatloads of draft capital and spent millions of dollars signing free agents to establish one of the strongest teams in the NFL in terms of talent, adding names like Matthew Stafford, Jalen Ramsey, Odell Beckham, Sony Michel, and Von Miller to their already talented defensive and offensive units.
This team’s offense relies heavily on the pass, with wideout Cooper Kupp posting the most scrimmage yards in a single season in NFL history for a wide receiver, including the playoffs. He has been QB Matthew Stafford’s go-to guy in the 2021 season, and who can blame him? Kupp has great hands, is an exceptional route runner, and is afraid of absolutely nobody, putting his head down and going at any defender who tries to stop him as he gains several yards after the catch. Odell Beckham has also been outstanding, catching 5 touchdowns in 8 games with his new team. Unfortunately, they are without Robert Woods, their former WR2, who went down with a season-ending ACL tear shortly after Beckham joined the roster. Despite this, the Rams offense has continued to be potent, despite having a few hiccups along the way during the season. They also boast a quietly effective rushing attack, spearheaded by the recently returned Cam Akers, who shockingly came back to play after suffering an Achilles tear back in July. Their offensive line is also incredible, and does an outstanding job blocking for the run and also protecting their quarterback. This is all-in-all one of the most complete offenses in the league, and their impressive play has not been because of a stretch of good luck. Matthew Stafford is finally in the Super Bowl after twelve long seasons in Detroit, during which he went 0-3 in the playoffs. In his first year in LA, the team is 3-0 in the postseason with a chance to make that 4-0 with a win of the Lombardi trophy. The Rams certainly have the offensive firepower to make that dream a reality.
As for the Rams’ defense, they are just as star-studded, boasting the best corner in football in Jalen Ramsey alongside the best defensive lineman and frankly, the best football player on the planet in Aaron Donald. Pairing these with a resurging Von Miller coming off the edge, names like Darious Williams and Nick Scott in the secondary, and Leonard Floyd in the linebacker core make for a surprisingly deep unit that has the star power to stifle most offensive attacks in the NFL. They haven’t been as effective as they maybe should be when it comes to talent on paper, but they have done enough to allow the offense to go to work and put games out of reach for their opponents. The defense has done an outstanding job in recent weeks, particularly the defensive line, as they have made life a living hell for quarterbacks like Tom Brady, Kyler Murray, and Jimmy Garoppolo. If they can get to Joe Burrow as they have their other playoff opponents, which is incredibly likely considering how atrocious the Bengals’ offensive line has been, Burrow will be fighting an uphill battle while the Cincinnati defense is left to deal with the Rams’ high-flying offense, a situation which strongly favors the Rams.
Now onto the Rams’ weaknesses. On paper, there aren’t many. This team has talent at every position, but they are a little weak in the secondary, despite having Jalen Ramsey locking down one side of the field. However, this team falls short most often in one crucial category, and that is that they fail to perform to what their talent level suggests them to be capable of. They are in the midst of an impressive stretch of games dating back to the end of the regular season, but that isn’t to say the road here has been easy. They found a way to blow a 27-3 lead against Tom Brady’s Buccaneers in just over a quarter before being bailed out by a blunder from the Bucs’ secondary allowing a deep ball to Cooper Kupp to set up a game-winning field goal as time expired. In the NFC championship, they were failed to come back down by 10 against San Francisco, whose defense severely stifled the Rams’ attack for 3 quarters and would have won the 49ers the game if it weren’t for Jaquiski Tartt dropping a wide-open interception in the 4th quarter. The defense did what they could, but their secondary was torn up by a unit commandeered by Jimmy Garoppolo, who proved to be the bane of San Francisco’s championship hopes late in the game. If they fail to play to what we know they are capable of yet again or choke away a massive lead, a team with the grit that the Bengals possess will certainly take advantage of this and punish them. If the Rams can play to their abilities, they will likely walk away with the Lombardi Trophy, however, this season has shown that that is a big “if.”
Time for a look at Cincinnati. Certainly the more likable team of the two, this is a franchise that has been no stranger to pain over the last few decades. In fact, up until their wild-card victory against the Las Vegas Raiders this year, it had been 31 years since their last playoff victory, allowing fans to finally send a text message alerting others to the fact that the Bengals had won a playoff game. This incredible run has been the result of outstanding offensive play from young stars, and also an unsung defensive unit that has plenty of studs in its own right. The most impressive aspect of this team is its toughness and grit. They have been in plenty of tight situations during these playoffs, but even when things weren’t going their way, they kept their heads down and went to work, and so far, they have succeeded because of it. In the divisional round, QB Joe Burrow was sacked a record-tying 9 times against a not-too-formidable Titans front seven, certainly a cause for concern. However, Burrow hung in there, throwing for almost 350 yards despite taking a beating all night long. It was this along with the outstanding play of a defensive line led by edge rusher Trey Hendrickson and nose tackle DJ Reader that neutralized the best running back in the league in Derrick Henry that allowed the Bengals to move on to the AFC Championship, where they would face their toughest opponent yet: the Kansas City Chiefs. This was a rematch of a game that happened 4 weeks prior, a game that the Bengals had won at home as Ja’Marr Chase would drop 266 receiving yards along with 3 TDs on the Chiefs as Burrow threw for 446 yards. However, this was at Arrowhead, and the Chiefs were coming off one of their most impressive offensive performances against a Bills squad that took them to their absolute limits in a classic. Despite having beaten this team just weeks before, many were betting that the Bengals to lose in a blowout fashion, which is what seemed to be the case for most of the game. The Chiefs ran out to a 21-3 lead, which evaporated on them as Burrow led his team to take the lead while the Bengals’ defense held, allowing only 3 points in the entire second half. The game went to overtime tied at 24, and the Chiefs had won the toss, getting the ball first. The same had happened the week before. A team had stood up to Kansas City’s might, only to lose the coin toss and inevitably, the game. History was sure to repeat itself, right? Wrong. Just the week before, Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs’ offense had 13 seconds left in regulation to drive into field goal range against the Bills to send it to overtime with a field goal. They achieved this seemingly impossible task and won because of it. This time, Patrick Mahomes threw an interception in 13 seconds of overtime, effectively ending the Chiefs’ chances, all thanks to an incredible play by Cincinnati safety Jessie Bates as he tapped the ball out of the hands of Tyreek Hill to a waiting Vonn Bell, who intercepted the pass, setting the Bengals up to drive into field goal range and walk off into the Super Bowl with an Evan McPherson field goal. It has been a fairytale for Cincinnati, and with the way they have been playing, one can only hope it will have a happy ending on Super Bowl Sunday.
The Bengals’ main strength is their offensive talent at the skill positions. Led by second-year QB Joe Burrow, who has dominated the league after coming off a gruesome ACL tear the year before, this is a high flying offense whose lethal passing attack features wideouts like rookie sensation Ja’Marr Chase and other young talents in Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd is paired with a strong run game thanks to RB Joe Mixon having a career year, finishing third in the league in rushing yards. Many doubted the selection of Chase back in the 2021 draft, as the Bengals sorely needed offensive line help, and didn’t sorely need another wideout. However, the allure of Chase and Burrow having played together on one of the greatest college teams of all time in the 2019 LSU tigers was too great, and the Bengals selected Chase with the 5th overall pick. Their gamble has certainly paid off, as Chase broke the rookie record for receiving yards in a season set by another LSU teammate in Justin Jefferson the year prior. The connection between him and Burrow has been impossible for teams to stop, and the Bengals’ high-powered weapons continue to march on when it matters most.
The Cincinnati defense’s performance has been quietly impressive. The unit features many outstanding talents, such as Trey Hendrickson and DJ Reader, the best nose tackle in football, at the line, along with Jessie Bates patrolling the secondary as a safety. But this defense also has many unsung heroes who have pulled their weight en route to providing the foundation for one of the most underrated defenses in the league. They could use some help at cornerback and linebacker, but these positions have done enough to slow down offensive progression without a definitive star player. The offense will inevitably get the bulk of the media attention, but this defense should not be overlooked.
Now for the Bengals’ biggest weakness: their offensive line. We knew going into the year that this o-line needed some serious help. Joe Burrow’s rookie campaign was cut short by a season-ending torn ACL, and although he was able to remain healthy, the 9 sacks this line allowed against Tennesee was all that was needed to validate the concerns surrounding this team and how they would perform late in the playoffs if their QB couldn’t go more than 5 snaps without being brought down. This offensive line is certainly a liability, but Joe Burrow’s toughness and surprising ability to escape a collapsing pocket has been on full display all year long, as he continues to evade sacks and get back up after he inevitably takes them. Against a front seven as dominant as the Rams’, however, this line will need to pull their own weight if they are to win. Otherwise, Aaron Donald will eat their quarterback alive.
This is an incredibly intriguing Super Bowl, and while the Rams are certainly better on paper, their issues with living up to the talent that they possess lead me to believe that Cincinnati’s fairytale season will end with a Lombardi trophy. I can’t see this team’s incredible resilience and toughness that has been on display during these playoffs ending in defeat on the grandest stage. LA is a formidable opponent, but if the Bengals’ offensive line can at least slow down Aaron Donald, Joe Burrow will be able to pick apart this Rams’ secondary. Joe Mixon is also a factor to watch out for, as he could easily cause serious issues for the Rams’ defense as well. If the Cincinnati defense limits the production of Cooper Kupp to under 100 yards and minimizes his ability to pick up yards after the catch, they can easily win this game. Their defensive line can shut down any rushing attack Los Angeles may attempt to muster while also giving Stafford some issues in the pocket. No matter the outcome this game will surely be entertaining, and I predict a rating spike compared to recent years as long as the game is not a complete blowout. I believe the Cincinnati Bengals will walk away with their first Super Bowl victory in franchise history after defeating the LA Rams 29-24 in what will be a Super Bowl remembered for years to come as the emergence of Joe Burrow as a legitimate superstar. This will certainly be a playoffs that will never be forgotten, and what better way to cap it off than with an incredible Super Bowl resulting in a franchise’s first-ever championship?