By Kyle Sorgi, Staff Writer
In just under two weeks, SoFi Stadium will be rocking when the hometown Los Angeles Rams take on the Cincinnati Bengals in Super Bowl 56. Quarterbacks Matthew Stafford and Joe Burrow (neither of whom had a single playoff win entering this season) lead star-studded offenses, while Aaron Donald and Trey Hendrickson headline lively defenses heading into a unique Super Bowl match up featuring two teams that many people wanted to see get here. As solid as each side has been, only one can win on Sunday, February 13, and the antagonizing question to wrestle with until then is: Who will come out on top?
Before analyzing either side of the match up, there is some history to not overlook. For instance, this is the second consecutive year in which a host stadium’s team is playing in the big game after the Tampa Bay Buccaneers defeated the Kansas Chiefs 31-9 last season in Tampa Bay. This is also only the second Super Bowl in NFL history to feature two quarterbacks selected with number-one overall picks. The Rams and Bengals have appeared in four combined Super Bowls, but have won only once when the St. Louis Rams did it in 2000. In fact, the last time the Bengals won a playoff game was 1991 against the Houston Oilers (now the Tennessee Titans); to put that into perspective, texting wasn’t even around until 1993! If the last two weeks are any indication (in which each of the last six NFL playoff games have been decided on the final play), then everyone is in for a treat when the Rams and Bengals take the field. However, only one of these fun and high-flying teams can win. Let’s see how each team got to this point.
For Los Angeles, Matthew Stafford’s first season as a Ram could not be going any better. After spending 12 seasons with the Detroit Lions, the former number-one overall pick was dealt to LA in a trade that sent former Rams quarterback Jared Goff to Detroit (Goff led the Rams to their last Super Bowl appearance in 2019). Stafford and wide receiver Cooper Kupp are the most dynamic QB-WR duo in the NFL, showing incredible chemistry in just one season. Kupp earned the receiving “Triple Crown” by racking up the most receptions, receiving yards, and receiving touchdowns in the regular season. Midseason acquisitions have also been pivotal to the Rams’ success. Wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. has done his duty to offset the midseason loss of Robert Woods (torn ACL), while linebacker Von Miller has provided an added spark to a well-oiled defensive machine that already featured three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald and cornerback Jalen Ramsey before he got there.
To reach the Super Bowl, the Rams started the season with a 7-1 record and, after a three-game losing streak, have won eight out of their last nine games (the only loss coming in Week 18 to the San Francisco 49ers). In the Wild Card round, the Rams blew out the Arizona Cardinals 34-11. The next week, they defeated the Buccaneers 30-27 in the Divisional round after almost blowing a 27-3 lead in what became Tom Brady’s last NFL game. In the NFC Championship, the Rams snapped a six-game losing streak dating back to 2019 against the 49ers by turning a 17-7 fourth-quarter deficit into a 20-17 victory. It is not a total shock to see the Rams in this spot since they were viewed by some as preseason Super Bowl contenders (if not favorites)- but their appearance is still great to see given the long season. However, they have a stingy opponent coming halfway across the country.
On the other side, Cincinnati has a lot to be proud of in their local leader. Ohio native and former Ohio State quarterback Joe Burrow (aka “Joe Shiesty”) has been elite in his first fully healthy season after a torn ACL shortened his rookie campaign. He is the NFL’s first quarterback selected number-one overall to reach the Super Bowl within his first two seasons. In the regular season, Burrow compiled the fourth-most passing yards in a game in NFL history by throwing for 525 yards in Week 16 against the Baltimore Ravens (he threw for a combined 941 yards and 7 touchdowns in just two meetings with the Ravens). In that game, he also became just the fourth player in NFL history to have 500 passing yards, four touchdowns, and zero interceptions in a game.
Being sacked the most times in the NFL has not stopped Burrow from connecting with a young and dynamic receiving core led by AFC Rookie of the Year candidate Ja’Marr Chase. Winning a national championship together at LSU (after Burrow transferred from Ohio State) provided preexisting chemistry and results that carried over to the NFL and aren’t too distant from those of Stafford and Kupp. Chase broke the Bengals single-season receiving record, logged the fourth-most receiving yards in the NFL (only trailed Kupp, former LSU teammate Justin Jefferson, and Davante Adams), and set the rookie record for most receiving yards in a game with 266 yards on 11 catches in Week 17 against the Chiefs. Another standout Bengals rookie is kicker Evan McPherson, who set an NFL record with nine 50-yard field goals made this season and converted walk-off field goals in the Bengals’ last two playoff games against the Titans and Chiefs. The former Florida Gator has become a very reliable weapon for the Bengals, and a bankable option when the Bengals can’t always score touchdowns.
To get to L.A., the Bengals have won six out of their last seven games, going 5-1 in one-score games during that stretch. In the postseason, they first beat the Las Vegas Raiders 26-19 in the Wild Card round. Next, they soiled running back Derrick Henry’s return for the top-seeded Titans by winning 19-16 in the Divisional round. Finally, they came back from a 21-3 second-quarter deficit to stun the second-seeded Chiefs 27-24 in overtime in the AFC Championship
(similar to their regular-season meeting in which the Bengals trailed by double digits at halftime and rallied to win 34-31 thanks to a game-winning field goal by McPherson).
Off the field, this Rams-Bengals showdown will also feature the youngest head coaching match up in Super Bowl history. Sean McVay, who turned 36 years old a day after the Rams’ victory over the Bucs, is making his second Super Bowl appearance in five seasons with the Rams and hoping that a quarterback change can get him over the hump. Meanwhile, this is 38-year-old Zac Taylor’s third season in Cincinnati and has led the Bengals from worst to first in the AFC North and their first playoff victory in over three decades. Both coaches’ teams are heating up at the right time heading into their third meeting since 2015 and 15th meeting overall (Bengals lead the series 8-6). The tale of the tape is surely entertaining and while one team’s fan base won’t be happy on Monday, February 14, everyone is looking forward to an exciting match up in which history will be made regardless of the outcome.
Both teams have strong cases to win: the Rams can approach it like a home game (even though Cincinnati is technically the home team) and can use that energy in their favor, while the Bengals are making it increasingly harder to bet against them by continuing to earn victories and keep games close despite a leaky offensive line. Both quarterbacks might experience nerves early on since neither have been here before, and the offensive firepower is nearly equal with the way they have been playing. Defense and other intangible factors could decide the outcome of this duel, but whichever team is awarded the Lombardi Trophy will have definitely deserved it against a worthy opponent. With Stafford vs. Burrow, Kupp vs. Chase, and McVay vs. Taylor, Rams vs. Bengals will surely have it all on Sunday Night!