Super Bowl LVI: Los Angeles Rams vs. Cincinnati Bengals
The coaches: Rams – Sean McVay (55-26 overall, 55-26 with Rams); Bengals – Zac Taylor (16-32-1 overall, 16-32-1 with Bengals).
Last game: NFC championship game: Rams beat San Francisco 49ers, 20-17. AFC championship game: Bengals beat Kansas City Chiefs, 27-24.
Last meeting: Oct. 27, 2019; Rams won, 24-10.
Rams DT Aaron Donald vs. Bengals RGs Jackson Carman and Hakeem Adeniji: There are not enough superlatives to describe Donald, who quite simply is the best defensive player of this generation. Donald commands double teams on nearly every play, and the Bengals know all too well how he can disrupt a game. The last time these teams met, Donald had one of the Rams’ five sacks, created several more and finished with three tackles for loss. Carman and Adeniji split time at right guard, and whoever is in will have help from center Trey Hopkins. Collectively, the Bengals allowed nine sacks in their AFC divisional win over the Tennessee Titans. If they are not significantly better Sunday, Donald could end up Super Bowl MVP.
Rams WR Cooper Kupp vs. Bengals CB Mike Hilton: As good as Donald is, Kupp might be the Rams MVP this season. He has an NFL-record 2,191 yards receiving in the regular season and playoffs and has delivered many of L.A.’s signature postseason moments. Hilton plays primarily for the Bengals, where he’s shined in the playoffs. He locked up Hunter Renfrow in the Bengals’ wild-card win over the Las Vegas Raiders and had an interception on a corner blitz against the Titans. He will have his hands full with one of the savviest route runners in the NFL, but should get plenty of help from safety Jessie Bates and the Bengals’ talented linebacking corps.
Rams run offense vs. Bengals run defense
Former Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford never had much of a running game in Detroit, and the same has held true in his one season in L.A. The Rams ranked 25th in the NFL in rushing yards per game and average yards per rush in the regular season and they’ve averaged a paltry 2.9 yards per carry in the postseason.
One thing L.A. does have going for it in the run game is the return of Cam Akers, who has made a miraculous recovery from a torn Achilles tendon. Akers has at least 13 carries in each of the Rams’ playoff games, so he’s ready to shoulder a workload if needed. Akers did fumble twice in a divisional win over the Bucs, and Sony Michel has been only moderately effective as a backup.
The Bengals have given up less than 20 points per game this postseason, but they struggled to defend the run in wins over the Chiefs and Titans. Some of that is gameplan-related as the Bengals were determined not to let Patrick Mahomes beat them in the AFC title game. Cincinnati finished fifth against the run in the regular season and is led by the underrated Logan Wilson at linebacker. Edge: Bengals
Rams pass offense vs. Bengals pass defense
The addition Stafford, as well as Odell Beckham Jr., has given the Rams a passing attack on par with recent Super Bowl champions the Chiefs and Buccaneers. Stafford has completed 72% of his passes this postseason with six touchdowns and one interception. He’s the NFL’s best quarterback against the blitz this year, and while he’s prone to mistakes — and nearly had a gut-punching interception against the 49ers — he’s taken good care of the football in the playoffs.
Beyond Stafford, the Rams have a deep and talented receiver corps led by the slippery Kupp, who missed the Rams’ last trip to the Super Bowl with a torn ACL. Beckham remains a tough cover one-on-one and Van Jefferson is Stafford’s favorite deep threat, but the Rams will be without top tight end Tyler Higbee because of a knee injury.
Don’t expect the Bengals to blitz much given Stafford’s proclivity for success against extra-man rushers, so Cincinnati will have to generate pressure from a front four led by ends Trey Hendrickson and Sam Hubbard. Hilton is one of the best slot cornerbacks in the NFL and Bates is an emerging star, but the Bengals have a weak link at cornerback in Eli Apple. Edge: Rams
Bengals run offense vs. Rams run defense
Joe Mixon had a career-high 1,205 yards rushing this season, but the Bengals’ running game is complementary to one of the league’s most dangerous passing attacks. Mixon topped 4 yards per carry against the Chiefs for the first time since November, which is something of an accomplishment given the state of Cincinnati’s offensive line.
The Bengals use a rotation at right guard and have played backup Isaiah Prince at right tackle since Riley Reiff’s midseason ankle injury. Mixon gets the bulk of the work at running back, though Cincinnati gets receivers Ja’Marr Chase and Tyler Boyd involved on jet sweeps. Backup running backs Samaje Perine and Chris Evans have three carries in the playoffs.
The Rams allowed less than 4 yards per carry in the regular season and have been even better in the playoffs. Donald is a disruptive run defender along with being maybe the best interior pass rusher ever, and former Lions lineman A’Shawn Robinson helps form a wall up front. The Rams are vulnerable in the middle of the field if Mixon can get to the second level. Edge: Rams
Bengals pass offense vs. Rams pass defense
There is some amazing young quarterback talent in the NFL right now and the Bengals’ Joe Burrow might be the best of the bunch. Burrow processes defenses as well as any quarterback playing and has a calm about him in the pocket that permeates through the rest of the offense.
Protecting Burrow has been an issue at times as the Bengals allowed 55 sacks in the regular season, but if Cincinnati can keep Donald and Co. at bay, it has the horses to make this a high-scoring game. Chase has a powerful connection with Burrow, his old college teammate, that makes him one of the premier deep threats in the league, and Boyd and Tee Higgins give Burrow two more reliable weapons on the outside. Like the Rams, the Bengals could be shorthanded at tight end as C.J. Uzomah is returning from a knee injury.
Along with Donald, the Rams have two dangerous edge rushers in Leonard Floyd and Von Miller, who has two sacks this postseason appears rejuvenated after his October trade from the Denver Broncos. Jalen Ramsey is the best cornerback in the NFL. There’s a good chance he shadows Chase in what should be one of the top matchups of the game. Edge: Rams
The Bengals and Rams have similar special teams profiles with young kickers who’ve made big field goals this postseason and coverage units who limit big mistakes. Cincinnati finished 12th in longtime NFL writer Rick Gosselin’s composite special teams rankings, a few spots ahead of the Rams, though those rankings flipped in FootballOutsider’s compilation.
Evan McPherson is a perfect 12-for-12 on field goals this postseason with three kicks of 50-plus yards. He made a game-winning 52-yarder as time expired against the Titans and hit a 31-yarder in overtime to beat the Chiefs. The Bengals miss return man Darius Phillips, though Trent Taylor is averaging 12 yards a punt return in the postseason. Matt Gay was 32 of 34 on field goals in the regular season and Johnny Hekker gives the Rams get a slight edge in the punting department, but the Lions exposed some of L.A.’s vulnerabilities on special teams by converting two fake punts and a surprise onside kick against the Rams in October. Edge: Bengals
The Bengals have had a remarkable run to reach their first Super Bowl in 34 years and the future is bright for the franchise with Burrow at quarterback and good, young talent throughout the rest of the roster. But the Rams feel like a team of destiny. They’ve been on an all-in binge for years in their pursuit of a championship and have assembled the most talented roster in the NFL by trading draft picks for Ramsey, Stafford and Miller, and developing stars like Donald and Kupp. This is the stage where those moves pay off. Donald is primed for a huge game against Cincinnati’s woeful offensive line, and Stafford seems ready for his moment after 12 years in Detroit. Burrow is good enough to will the Bengals to victory, but if Cincinnati gets off to another slow start, it could be a long day for a team that’s already exceeded most everyone’s expectations entering the year. Pick: Rams 31, Bengals 23.