By Lance Tominaga, ESPN Honolulu Web Editor.
Super players. Super matchups. Super storylines. Yes, tomorrow’s Super Bowl LVI promises to be one Super Game.
The Los Angeles Rams are currently four-point favorites to beat the Cincinnati Bengals, but that doesn’t really mean anything. Embracing the role of underdogs, the Bengals have already upset the top two seeds in the AFC – the Tennessee Titans and Kansas City Chiefs – to reach football’s biggest stage. Truthfully, with second-year QB Joe Burrow and rookie WR sensation Ja’Marr Chase leading the way, the Bengals may be too young to realize that, well, they just aren’t supposed to be here.
This Rams roster, however, was constructed with this game in mind. The process started in 2019 when the team traded for All-Pro cornerback Jalen Ramsey for three draft picks, including two first-round selections. Before the start of this season, the team traded for veteran QB Matthew Stafford for three more draft picks, including two firsts. Then, on November 1, the Rams acquired star linebacker Von Miller from the Denver Broncos for two more draft selections. Ten days later, they picked up receiver Odell Beckham, Jr. Can you say, “Super Bowl or bust?”
The Bengals’ lineup, meanwhile, was primarily built via the draft. In fact, the team’s core offensive weapons – Burrow, Chase, RB Joe Mixon, receivers Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd, and TE CJ Uzomah – are all Cincinnati draft picks.
And that’s just one of several contrasts between the two teams. Here’s another: Stafford is a 34-year-old veteran in his 13th season in the league, while Burrow, 25, will be playing in only his 30th NFL game tomorrow (he missed the six games of his rookie season due to a knee injury). Stafford, of course, spent his first 12 seasons quarterbacking one of the league’s worst teams, the Detroit Lions. Only four of those seasons ended with winning records.
For similarities, look no further than the head coaches. L.A.’s Sean McVay and the Bengals’ Zac Taylor are not only friends, but Taylor was an assistant coach under McVay in 2017 and 2018. In fact, Taylor was the team’s QBs coach in 2018, when the Rams went to Super Bowl LIII. L.A. lost to New England in that game, 13-3.
So which team will win tomorrow?
While everyone is talking about Burrow and Cincinnati’s explosive offense, don’t forget that the Rams have capable weapons as well. The have the reigning Offensive Player of the Year in Cooper Kupp, who this season became only the fourth player to achieve the league’s receiving “triple crown,” leading the NFL in receptions, receiving yards and TD catches. Then there’s Beckham, Jr. who may not be the player he once was, but is still plenty dangerous.
The guess here is that the game will come down to defense. Both the Rams and Bengals have defended well this postseason – the Rams have allowed only 18.3 ppg, while the Bengals have surrendered just 19.7 ppg – but I question the Cincinnati offensive line’s ability to protect their QB. The Titans sacked Burrow nine times on Jan. 22, and the Chiefs were able to generate pressure on him the next week. And remember, the Rams’ defense features the likes of Miller, Leonard Floyd and…oh, yeah, 7x First-Team All-Pro DT Aaron Donald.
I expect the Rams to get to Burrow early and often, never allowing the young gunslinger a chance to develop a rhythm. Donald is hungry for a Super Bowl ring, and I don’t think he’ll be denied this time. The Bengals young, talented and have a bright future, but the Rams are feeling the urgency to win now. L.A. wins, 34-24. Donald gets MVP.