It’s finally game day again in the NFL, and in the city where the lights shine the brightest, the league’s best will be crowned. At the beginning of the season you would have been hard pressed to find anyone, even the most delusional Bengals’ fan, who would have thought Joe Burrow would have this team in the Super Bowl, but here we are. As for his opponent, the LA Rams that took the field in Week 1 may not have been anyone’s pick to be dancing in the big one, but the stars they added along the way made it hard to deny that they deserve a spot in the final two.
It’s the age old tale of David versus Goliath, the Greatest Show on Turf 2.0 versus The Kitty Cats That Could, it’s the Rams versus the Bengals, but what do they each have to do to win? Let’s break it down, starting with the Bengals.
1. Win the Trenches
If Cincy is not careful, this game could quickly turn into a reenactment of the first few minutes of Saving Private Ryan. The Super Bowl could very well be won or lost for the Bengals at the line of scrimmage where they will have to find a way to stop Aaron Donald and Von Miller, without committing their entire offensive line to blocking just those two guys.
Cincinnati’s line has been a topic of conversation ever since Burrow went down with a gruesome knee injury in his rookie season. Many were calling for the team to draft Penei Sewell in the 2021 draft as a way to remedy this, and when the squad elected to pick Ja’Marr Chase, questions poured in as to how big of a mistake it would wind up being (spoiler alert: the pick worked out pretty well). For as good of a Cinderella story as this team has become, the glaring issues in protecting Burrow are still very much there, and that was before they had to fend off three-time defensive player of the year. Through three playoff games so far, Burrow has been put on the ground 12 times.
Despite all the criticism they take, Cincy has been able to take their group of seven offensive linemen and continuously field a set of five that get the job done. All they really need to do is do that for four more quarters, and it isn’t like they haven’t faced tough competition before. While the left side of the line with Jonah Williams and Quinton Spain has been the stronger side, allowing only three sacks in the playoffs, the entire unit must come together and at the very least slow down what has been a petrifying LA pass rush.
2. Eliminate the Twelfth Man
For the second consecutive year, there is a team playing a home Super Bowl (don’t worry, Miami is hosting next year so we won’t have three in a row) which means that for the second straight year it could turn into 11 versus 12 when the visiting team is on offense. While this one is listed as LA at Cincinnati, that is only true on the heading of the game day program.
This element will come down to Burrow’s ability to execute a silent offense, something he has a little bit of experience with after his headset apparently went out against the Titans in the divisional round. In all honesty, Burrow has had to win in some pretty hostile territory in order to get here (hello Arrowhead) so Bengals’ fans shouldn’t worry too much about their sophomore QB’s ability to go into another team’s building and win.
If worst comes to worst and a play collapses harder than the Falcons in the second half of a Super Bowl, Burrow can always rely on his Houdini-esque escape tactics. The second-year quarterback has shown an incredible ability to slip and slide out of the pocket and away from blitzing defenders, which when paired with his receivers’ elusive breakaway speed and Burrow’s consistent accuracy leads to some magic tricks of turning nothing into something.
3. Run Through the Gauntlet
As porous as Cincinnati’s offensive line has been, they do show a few more signs of life when it comes to the run game. When the Bengals consistently feed Joe Mixon, the line has been able to slip into a more assertive rhythm (read: not sit back on their heels). This has been the way they have chosen to attack most games, which with a power back who happens to have explosive potential with every touch in Mixon and a consistent two-punch in Samaje Perine, who can blame them?
Speaking of Mixon, he has an uncanny ability to get stronger as the game goes on. Over the course of the season he was averaging 3.8 yards per carry in the first half (on 132 carries) compared to 4.8 yards per carry in the second half of games (on 145 carries). In a game between two familiar head coaches who will likely use the first half as a feeling-out session, Mixon’s tendency to get better after halftime could prove invaluable to the Bengals.
If Cincinnati can lull the Rams into expecting the run, it opens the defense up to be vulnerable to the screen passing game, as well as the deep threat, something Burrow and Chase have loved to make teams look silly on this season.
So what about the home team? What does LA need to become the second team to win a Super Bowl on home turf
1. Be Adaptable
One of the biggest reasons the Rams only managed a field goal on their last trip to the Super Bowl was their coaching staff’s inability to come up with anything different when their original offensive plan drew blanks against the Patriots. Sean McVay should know better this time but when the lights are brightest and the pressure is on, who knows if the lessons will be remembered.
There are multiple elements from how both teams play that would suggest the Rams’ staff might need to make some changes, namely the way LA likes to line up their defense matches up against Cincy’s wide and deep threats. The Rams are one of the few teams that send out five defensive linemen, at least on early downs, and while any of the five DLs in blue and white could beat any Bengals’ OL one handed, all five of them being on the field at the same time means there is a significant amount of extra space for Burrow and Co to attack quickly (which he’s gotten good at having had very little time to get rid of the ball this season).
If things like this start to get away from the Rams, an upset would be more likely than not, but if McVay has learned from his last trip to the big dance he should be able to stop the bleeding before his own schemes beat his team.
2. Dig Into Star Power
This one is a little different because it’s not something that can necessarily be coached, but the Rams need their stars to show up and show up big. From their splashy free agency signings like Miller and Odell Beckham Jr to their core pieces like Matthew Stafford, Cooper Kupp, and Donald on the line, there’s a reason this team has been assembled this way, and it’s to lift the Lombardi.
Kupp and Donald were with the team for their loss to New England back in 2019, and Miller has Super Bowl experience (and an MVP trophy) from his time in Denver, but Stafford and Beckham Jr are stepping onto the sport’s biggest stage for the first time. For Stafford, it’s been a long time coming, and a win would shake a few monkeys off of his back. As for OBJ, his road to the Super Bowl has probably taken a few too many derailments for anyone’s liking, but the embattled receiver seems to have found a straighter path.
3. Channel Your Inner Sticky Stuff
Holding onto the ball seems like a given need for winning the Super Bowl but this one does need to be restated for the Rams who were tied for seventh in the league when it came to giveaways this season. LA coughed the ball up 23 times in 2021, with 19 of those coming from Stafford.
The veteran threw 17 interceptions and fumbled it twice, which wasn’t the most alarming part of his turnover tendencies; it was the fact that they came in bunches. During a three-game stretch where the Rams played the Titans, the 49ers, and the Packers, Stafford threw five picks and fumbled once. Yikes.
While the turnover troubles haven’t cropped up for Stafford yet on this playoff run, the team hasn’t exactly been in a ton of high pressure situations where the Dangerous Stafford would have usually made an appearance. If the Rams can keep this one manageable at all times, there should be minimal fear over their veteran QB’s recklessness, but that remains an “if”.
There are three ways each side can lift the Lombardi come Sunday night. Sure, some might be easier said than done, but anything can happen on any given Sunday, right?
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