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A Few First Impressions of Super Bowl LVI

An early look at the story lines surrounding the Super Bowl and what the Rams and Bengals need to do to win it.

Just like everyone expected, here is a preview of the Los Angeles Rams’ attempt at winning a Super Bowl against the (double-checks notes) Cincinnati Bengals! On the heels of one of the greatest playoff tournaments in modern NFL history, in which five straight games were decided on the final play and the Bengals became one of just two teams in playoff history to win an overtime game without winning the coin toss, we have a wholly unexpected Super Bowl. From the NFC, a star-studded roster perpetually mortgaging their future for the chance to make games like this. From the AFC, a homegrown roster peppered with a handful of fantastically overperforming free agents who all orbit around their collective sun, quarterback Joe Burrow.

Let’s get into it …

Who does Las Vegas think will win?

The Rams are currently a 3.5 point favorite, according to SI Sportsbook. While a big deal is being made of the fact that a second straight team will play in their home stadium, this will not be an overwhelmingly pro-Rams crowd. There were several times Sunday that the Rams had to use a silent count in their own stadium on offense. Attempts to curb the 49ers’ ticket purchases were laughably ineffective. A Super Bowl always produces a neutral crowd, anyway, which will further drown out the Rams’ nascent Los Angeles fan base.

Bengals fans travel impressively well. A firsthand account of their presence in Nashville shows a willingness to make the trip. This is a magical run. They will be well represented.

How do the Rams win this game?

While it sounded like some Rams fans were openly rooting for a Bengals victory before their own win Sunday, Cincinnati’s success defending the perimeter against the Chiefs cuts at the heart of what the Rams do so well. The fourth-down stop of Tyreek Hill and the way their defense instinctively flooded a short-yardage bread-and-butter play is a good microcosm of the instinctive-effort plays Lou Anarumo’s defense have shown throughout the playoffs. Sean McVay often bets that his opponents are going to struggle to make open-field tackles. It is the same core philosophy that drove Kyle Shanahan to load up on YAC superstars like Deebo Samuel. It is the reason Cooper Kupp is a triple crown winner at the wide receiver position.

San Francisco 49ers defensive back Dontae Johnson (27) tackles Los Angeles Rams wide receiver Cooper Kupp (10) during the first half of an NFL football game Sunday, Jan. 9, 2022, in Inglewood, Calif.

Kupp’s presence in the screen game is beautiful to watch. He slithered through a very aggressive 49ers secondary Sunday and has beaten almost any kind of coverage teams have thrown at him. He is the Rams’ short yardage/running game when the running game isn’t effective. When the Cardinals figured out a way to neutralize him a few weeks ago, Odell Beckham Jr. and Tyler Higbee were able to dominate in isolation.

The Rams can win and will win if they are able to dictate the terms by which the defense has to play. If McVay gets a chance to put the chess pieces on the board, there is no way he can lose. If the defense is too scared to get after Matthew Stafford, wary of downfield passing plays, if he is able to get off some semblance of a running game, the Bengals can kiss their miracle season goodbye.

This is especially true if Los Angeles can build some semblance of a lead. We saw that illustrated well against the 49ers. While Von Miller’s name wasn’t called a whole bunch, Raheem Morris dials up the perfect delayed blitz to force Jimmy Garoppolo’s hand on the knockout interception. When this defense knows they can simply rush the passer, they are set up to thoroughly dominate.

How do the Bengals win this game?

I’m not sure how many people will be talking about Samaje Perine’s touchdown before the half, which made an unmanageable game a 21–10 deficit, but they should. It was indicative of the kind of effort plays the Bengals have gotten from their skill-position players that keep them in games and change the complexion of what the opposing defense is trying to do.

This was similar to Ja’Marr Chase’s massive catch against the Titans, which was on one of the few plays that Mike Vrabel decided to send extra rushers and prevented Vrabel from doing so again (even though the Titans still had plenty of success with basic four-man pressure). 

The Bengals win this game by keeping Joe Burrow somewhat upright, allowing him some small stretches of time to get in rhythm and getting another one of these massive, game-altering plays on offense. Will it be any more difficult against the Rams? Possibly. 

While Zac Taylor was creative with his usage of Chase on Sunday, at times making him a decoy to lighten the box for Joe Mixon, he’ll have to yank Chase out of the Jalen Ramsey trap and force the Rams to respect their very talented set of complementary wideouts. They’ll also need to establish Mixon early in the game, which is a tough ask given that the Rams will likely use Aaron Donald over their weaker right side, forcing all the running plays to the opposite side where a swath of defenders are waiting.

What are the major story lines?

• Early Sean McVay legacy game: McVay is still only 36 years old but is three years removed from his first trip to the Super Bowl. He’s been open and honest about the lessons he’s learned, namely not diversifying enough of what he did well during the postseason to match the defense Bill Belichick trotted out specifically to stamp out some of their staple offensive concepts. Of course, McVay has provided a coaching master class over his first few years in the NFL and has weathered an extraordinarily difficult NFC playoff field to get back to the Super Bowl. He is also now armed with one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL. Winning this game takes him from a potentially likely future Hall of Famer to a could-he-ever-rival-Belichick kind of career.

• Matthew Stafford in the Super Bowl: While it seemed impossible for so many years given that he was on the Lions, Stafford is now in the biggest game of his life—the kind of games he said he wished he could play in all those lonely years in Michigan. The moment legitimizes all of the pick and cap gymnastics the Rams have had to do, both to clear the books of Jared Goff’s contract and to bring Stafford aboard in the first place. Now, Stafford will be pressured with returning the favor. While he has been tremendous in Los Angeles, he has not been immune to some Goffian interceptions and nearly tossed a season-ending one against the 49ers on Sunday. Had the pick not been dropped in the fourth quarter, allowing the 49ers a chance to go up 10 points, we could be discussing a vastly different kind of Stafford narrative.

• Andrew Whitworth, the Rams’ seemingly ageless offensive tackle, spent the majority of his career in Cincinnati and is perhaps the last active bridge to both the Bengals’ rocky past and their string of playoff failures. Whitworth’s departure was seen, at the time, as an example of the Bengals' white-flag waving in free agency, averse to spending money.

Joe Burrow playing for the Bengals.

• Joe Burrow’s star rising: Burrow came to the NFL with a reputation as one of the best big-game players in recent college football history. However, what he has done at the NFL level is simply transcendent. We are witnessing one of the greatest runs for a young quarterback in NFL history, and he could become the first person ever to win a Heisman, college national title and a Super Bowl. Through it all, he has been unflappable, engaging, tough and tireless. With a week off to get dialed in for Raheem Morris’s defense, there should be little doubt left in his ability to keep this game close.

• Another battle of familiar minds: Zac Taylor was Sean McVay’s offensive coordinator in Los Angeles before taking the Bengals' job and represents the second coach McVay has faced in a row with intimate knowledge of how he likes to operate. Kyle Shanahan did a fine job forcing McVay to punch with one hand behind his back schematically. Taylor will no doubt have his own ideas. As the nouveau-Shanahan tree begins to spread throughout the NFL, these matchups are going to become increasingly common. Will the relative stalemates?

• What is next for Odell Beckham? Beckham’s nine catches for 113 yards against the 49ers was a benchmark of sorts, forcing teams to recognize that he is simply unguardable in single coverage. His humble beginnings in Los Angeles were not for long. He showcased an ability to digest a complex playbook quickly and to understand the nuances of a McVay offense that hinges on the wonderfully small details. It seems like another life and time that Beckham first stepped into our consciousness as a one-handed catching rookie phenom. And that may be true. But he’s come through some dry spells to emerge as one of the Rams’ offensive fulcrums. The more he embraces this system, the more it loves him back.

More NFL Coverage:

The Bengals Are the NFL's Best Underdog Story in Decades
• Cooper Kupp’s Scientific Approach to Greatness
Von Miller on His Trade, OBJ and Cleveland, and Demaryius Thomas's Death
Joe Burrow’s Rise, Through the Eyes of His Parents
Conference Championship Sunday Takeaways: Burrow Makes Magic