The Cincinnati Bengals were 125-1 preseason long shots to reach the Super Bowl, having won an NFL-worst two games in 2019 and then only four games last season. They’ve made the quickest turnaround from worst record to the Super Bowl in league history. They’ll face the Los Angeles Rams, who will now become the second consecutive team to play the Super Bowl in their home stadium. (The Tampa Bay Buccaneers won Super Bowl LV last season at Raymond James Stadium.)
Here’s what we have to get the Super Bowl conversation started: Kevin Seifert looks at each team and how each can win the Super Bowl; Seth Walder crunches the numbers to give you some key stats to know; Matt Bowen dives into the game plan with a key matchup and an X factor; Dan Graziano answers big questions surrounding the final game of the season; Jason Reid explores what’s at stake for each quarterback’s legacy; and finally, we have early, gut-reaction predictions from our experts. Let’s dive in.
Note: Game lines are via Caesars Sportsbook. Predictions are from ESPN’s Football Power Index (FPI).
When: 6:30 p.m. ET Sunday, Feb. 13, on NBC
Where: SoFi Stadium, Inglewood, California
Opening line: Rams -3.5 (O/U 50)
FPI prediction: Rams (66.3%) by 5.5 points
Two weeks of hype will center on quarterback play, and for good reason. The Bengals’ Joe Burrow has been playing lights out in the playoffs, and the Rams’ Matthew Stafford has provided exactly what his new team was looking for. But the best player on the field will be Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald, who helped close out the NFC Championship Game and could be the Rams’ antidote to Burrow’s hot play. — Seifert
Kevin Seifert’s first look at the matchup
Regular season: 12-5 | No. 4 seed in NFC
Reason for hope: No Matthew Stafford team can be counted out in the fourth quarter of a game. Based on how close the NFL’s playoff games have been over the past two weeks, his resourcefulness will be a huge advantage. Stafford’s 34 fourth-quarter comebacks in the regular season are the fifth most in NFL history, and he has pulled off consecutive late victories in each of the past two weeks. The Bengals’ Joe Burrow might be playing at a higher level at the moment, but it’s hard to argue against having Stafford — along with receivers Cooper Kupp and Odell Beckham Jr. — on the field with the game on the line.
Reason for concern: This will sound wild, given that he has now led the Rams to a pair of Super Bowls, but sometimes coach Sean McVay gets in his own way. His haphazard use of timeouts is well documented. His playcalling sometimes can be overthought. And he even admitted he didn’t adjust to how the New England Patriots were playing defense against them in Super Bowl LIII. McVay has at once been the top driver of the Rams’ success in his tenure and also one of the reasons it hasn’t yet led to a championship. Can he take the final step?
How the Rams win: The Rams’ front four — especially defensive tackle Aaron Donald and edge rusher Von Miller — are a huge mismatch against the Bengals’ offensive line. We’ve seen how Burrow has managed to hold his own against pass-rushers who are getting home, especially in the divisional round against the Titans, but the Rams’ will be the most aggressive and talented rush he has faced. Many Super Bowls have been won by dominant interior pass rushes taking quarterbacks out of their comfort zone.
Regular season: 10-7 | No. 4 seed in AFC
Reason for hope: You can’t overthink it. The Bengals’ reward for having the worst record in 2019 was quarterback Joe Burrow, who is now the first No. 1 overall pick to get his team to the Super Bowl within his first two seasons. He has been holding up well behind an offensive line that can’t keep him clean. On Sunday, he completed seven of 12 passes when under pressure and converted three third downs via scrambles, including two of third-and-6 or greater. And when the Chiefs found ways to cover top receiver Ja’Marr Chase, Burrow simply shifted to Tee Higgins (six catches, 103 yards). Burrow is playing like a hot point guard in the NCAA basketball tournament, carrying a team that has some otherwise disqualifying deficiencies.
Reason for concern: The Bengals made a major defensive adjustment after falling behind the Chiefs 21-3 on Sunday, most notably taking away receiver Tyreek Hill and passes outside the numbers in general. Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes completed all 11 of those attempts in the first half for 127 yards and three touchdowns. After halftime, he missed on seven of eight such throws. It’s great that defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo was able to make that adjustment, but we would all be foolish to assume that the Bengals can absorb a similar body blow in the Super Bowl. The Bengals’ defense had its questionable moments during the regular season and ranked No. 24 in opposing Total QBR. Do you trust them against Matthew Stafford?
How the Bengals win: They’ll ride the wave that we’ve seen other recent Super Bowl winners find. The regular season’s best team doesn’t necessarily win the Super Bowl. It’s the team that plays the best and with the most confidence in the postseason. Sometimes the gap can be wide. Every single member of the Bengals’ organization believes it can win, and that’s more than half the battle.
Seth Walder’s big stats to know
The Rams dominate the trenches. Through Sunday, Los Angeles ranked first in pass block win rate, pass rush win rate and run stop win rate. Yup, No. 1 in all three. Offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth and defensive tackle Aaron Donald lead the way along the two lines, but it’s a team effort. While receiver Cooper Kupp gets the highlights (and rightfully so), but don’t forget about the linemen who have fueled Los Angeles’ path to the Super Bowl.
If Joe Burrow can get the ball out of his hands, the Bengals are in great shape. Entering Sunday, they had the second-highest expected points added per play on plays when a pass is thrown — buoyed by Burrow leading the league in completion percentage over expectation (plus-6%), per NFL Next Gen Stats. But that’s all a big if: Going into the AFC Championship Game, Cincinnati ranked 30th in pass block win rate, and Burrow had a 9% sack rate, fourth highest in the NFL.
Matt Bowen goes inside the matchup
When the Bengals play man coverage, it will be Hilton vs. Kupp in the slot. We know Kupp has the route-running traits to win one-on-ones, and L.A. coach Sean McVay will use reduced formations and bunch sets to give Kupp free access off the ball.
X factor: Jessie Bates III, S, Bengals
Bates is playing his best football of the year in the postseason. With easy range, ball skills and playmaking traits, the Bengals’ safety can impact the game at multiple levels of the field. Bates has an interception and four passes defended in these playoffs.
Dan Graziano answers big questions
Will Sean McVay’s offense flop in the Super Bowl again?
McVay’s 2018 Rams averaged 32.9 points per game in the regular season, and 28 in two playoff games, before showing up for Super Bowl LIII and losing 13-3 to Bill Belichick, Tom Brady and the New England Patriots. It was a major letdown for McVay, who said in the weeks that followed that he would do some things differently if he had another chance. Well, not only does he have that chance, he has it with Matthew Stafford at quarterback. The Rams traded for Stafford a year ago because McVay decided he’d gone as far as he could go with Jared Goff at QB. McVay believes Stafford elevates the Rams’ ceiling at the QB position and that the offense can do more with him than it could with Goff.
Sunday’s NFC Championship Game victory over the Niners means Stafford has now gone as far with the Rams as Goff did three years ago. Now, on the biggest stage, he and McVay will have to show they can light it up like the Rams are supposed to. Wide receiver Cooper Kupp is looking to cap off a record-breaking season. Odell Beckham Jr. looks rejuvenated in L.A. Cam Akers, just six months removed from a torn Achilles, looks fantastic at running back. All of the players are in place. Can the Rams become the second team ever (and the second in the past two years) to win the Super Bowl in their home stadium?
Can the Bengals keep Joe Burrow protected — and does it even matter?
Burrow was the 55th quarterback in league history to be sacked 50 or more times in the regular season. None of the previous 54 reached the Super Bowl. He took 51 sacks in the regular season, two in the wild-card-round victory over the Raiders, an incomprehensible nine in the divisional-round win over the Titans and then just one in the AFC Championship Game victory over the Chiefs. The Bengals’ offensive line is a weak spot, and a big part of the reason Burrow didn’t get sacked more Sunday was his ability to escape pressure.
The defensive front of the Rams is formidable — and a major reason they’ve made it this far. This is yet another tough test, especially with Aaron Donald collapsing the pocket from the interior. So far, it hasn’t cost the Bengals. If you can win a playoff game while allowing nine sacks, you have to figure you’re capable of overcoming just about everything. But surely, Burrow would appreciate a little bit cleaner pocket one of these days. Super Bowl Sunday would be a good time to start.
Jason Reid on what’s at stake for each QB
Matthew Stafford, Rams
Believing Stafford was the quarterback they needed to reach the Super Bowl, the Rams acquired the talented veteran from the Detroit Lions in the offseason. Stafford delivered, helping the Rams win the NFC title. Now, he’ll try to finish the job on the Rams’ home field. The No. 1 overall pick in the 2009 NFL draft, Stafford, in the minds of some fans, had been tarnished by Detroit’s lack of success during his long tenure there. By leading the Rams to one more win at SoFi Stadium, Stafford would finally silence many of his doubters.
Joe Burrow, Bengals
In only his second season, Burrow ascended to superstar status with many signature performances, and none was bigger than Sunday’s win on the road against Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs in the AFC Championship Game. The AFC is loaded with many great young quarterbacks, including Mahomes, Josh Allen, Justin Herbert and Lamar Jackson. But if the Bengals — who finished in last place in the AFC North during Burrow’s injury-shortened 2020 rookie year — cap their season with one more victory, Burrow would arguably move ahead of all except Mahomes. He already has a Heisman Trophy and a college football national title, and despite it being so early in his career, Burrow is now building his NFL legacy. A Super Bowl title would look great on the list.
Sam Acho, NFL analyst: Bengals. They targeted Tyler Boyd and Tee Higgins on third down on Sunday, and that’s what makes this team dangerous. Chase is the best receiver, but any of them can beat you. And then you have to account for Joe Mixon. It’s all about their balance and depth.
Ben Baby, Bengals reporter: Bengals. Throughout the season, Cincinnati’s players and coaches kept saying there was something special about this year’s team. On paper, the Rams seem like a very daunting matchup. But maybe it’s time to believe what the Bengals have been telling us.
Matt Bowen, NFL analyst: Rams. I like L.A. here given the pass-game structure with Stafford. It’ll be schemed throws to create open voids against zone coverage, plus man matchups with Kupp.
Mike Clay, NFL analyst: Rams. McVay has been here before and fell just short. With a star QB under center, he’ll get it done this time around.
Jeremy Fowler, national NFL writer: Bengals. I picked against them three times in the playoffs, and they’ve proved me wrong each time. No longer. What they did in Kansas City converted all nonbelievers.
Dan Graziano, national NFL writer: Bengals. I can’t hop off the bandwagon now.
Jordan Reid, NFL draft analyst: Bengals. Burrow didn’t lose a playoff game at LSU and has yet to lose a playoff game in the NFL. It seems to be the Bengals’ year to bring home their first Super Bowl title.
Kevin Seifert, national NFL writer: Bengals. The team with the best quarterback wins, and Burrow has been the best quarterback in the playoffs this season.
Mike Tannenbaum, NFL analyst: Bengals. The Rams are better on paper, but Cincinnati is a team of destiny this year.
Lindsey Thiry, Rams reporter: Rams. The Rams were built to win a Super Bowl, and there’s no greater opportunity for them to get it done than behind Stafford and Donald, who is eager to finish the job after L.A.’s effort fell short against the Patriots in Super Bowl LIII.
Seth Walder, analytics writer: Rams. Donald and Miller will overrun the Bengals’ offensive line with pressure, and Burrow’s propensity to take sacks will prove particularly costly.
Seth Wickersham, NFL writer/reporter: Rams. And Donald will play the game of his life.
Damien Woody, NFL analyst: Bengals. With his offensive supporting cast, Joe Cool isn’t rattled by anything.
Field Yates, NFL analyst: Bengals. Burrow’s confidence has permeated into my pick. Cincy gets its first Super Bowl win.