Super Bowl LVI: Our predictions: Super Bowl LVI is just two days away and we’ll have another year where no team is able to repeat as Super Bowl champions showing just how hard it is to win back-to-back championships.
The last team to win titles back-to-back was the 2003-2004 New England Patriots, this year the Tampa Bay Buccaneers had the chance to repeat but were defeated in the Divisional Round by the LA Rams. The Rams then beat the San Francisco 49ers to earn their berth representing the NFC.
The Cincinnati Bengals are everyone’s Cinderella team, except to themselves. They beat the Raiders, Titans, and the Chiefs and believe that they are the team to beat. They are widely considered the underdogs here but should not be overlooked. Their second-year QB Joe Burrow has proved to be worthy of all the hype he’s received and he gives the Bengals a good chance of taking home their first Super Bowl victory.
What to Watch For When the Rams Have the Ball:
The Rams have a prolific passing attack, led by QB Matthew Stafford who toiled for the Detroit Lions for 12 years and never advanced past the Wild Card Round. Detroit is the NFL version of Siberia but with talented pass-catching pieces around him, Stafford hasn’t had to put everything on his shoulders…but with a caveat.
Rams Running Game Woes –
The Rams running game which was below average all season long has been even less effective in the playoffs. They lost Cam Akers early in the summer and traded for Son Michel from the Patriots. Michel has been okay, but with Akers returning for the playoffs, it was hoped to be a shot in the arm. But that hasn’t worked out yet.
Things certainly started well enough, on their first play from scrimmage during the Wild Card game against Arizona, Sony Michel broke a run for 35 yards. But in that game, they averaged 3.6 yards per rush. Against Tampa, they rushed 30 times for just 73 yards, with the long run of 15 yards on a rush by WR Van Jefferson. Akers averaged just two yards per carry. In the NFC Championship Game, they rushed 29 times for just 70 yards
The Bengals’ run defense was #5 in the league against the run, so it looks like the game will be once again forced into the Rams passing game to win.
How Does Cincy Stop Cooper Kupp –
Kupp has had an MVP-type season with 145 catches for 1,947 yards and 16 touchdowns. Kupp is used mostly and most effectively out of the slot where he has the option of going either way and has been nearly impossible for opponents to stop. The Rams typically stack WRs if defenses try to jam, giving Kupp a free release.
Look for the Bengals to drop seven or eight men into coverage and take away some of the short inside slants and have the slot cornerback playing with outside leverage. But trying to disrupt his routes at the line of scrimmage may be one way to throw off his timing with Stafford. But he has another potent weapon to throw to.
Odell Beckham Jr. (OBJ) has been a huge plus for the Rams in the passing game, after flaming out with the Giants and Browns. He and Matthew Stafford have quickly built some chemistry together and filling in for an injured Robert Woods, OBJ has quickly become an integral part of the passing game. In three playoff games, he has caught 19 passes for 236 yards, including 9 catches for 113 yards in the conference championship game against the 49ers.
Bengals Pass Rush Will Have to Get Pressure With Just 3 or 4 Rushers –
The Bengals are no strangers to rushing just 3 or 4 pass rushers against opposing QBs. Defensive Coordinator Lou Anarumo has some talented pass rushers in Trey Hendrickson and Sam Hubbard off the edges and D.J. Reader as an interior pass rusher.
But they are going to have to get home and create pressure with four and at times three pass rushers. If the Bengals can create pressure and drop eight men into coverage, they have a puncher’s chance of winning the game defensively. But Matthew Stafford was brought to LA specifically for this game.
Now to the other side of the ball.
What To Watch For When the Bengals Have the Ball:
Cincinnati has the opportunity in this game to be well-balanced in running the ball as well as throwing it with Joe Burrow. While the Bengals rushing attack was ranked only 23rd in yards, Joe Mixon can be the great equalizer in terms of the Rams pass rush.
Mixon is a 220-lb back who ran for over 1200 yards and 13 TDs while catching 48 passes out of the backfield. Joe Burrow has been under a ton of pressure during the playoffs and they could use Mixon to help slow down that Rams pass rush and allow Burrow to get the ball to Ja’Marr Chase, Tee Higgins, Tyler Boyd, and TE C.J. Uzomah if he’s available.
Can the Bengals Protect Joe Burrow?
How well this matchup plays out could very well determine who’s hoisting the trophy when the confetti drops. The weakness of the Bengals offense, indeed their Achilles Heel is the offensive line.
No one has been pressured more than Burrow in the playoffs. He was sacked an incredible nine times in the win on the road in Tennessee against the Titans. Against the Chiefs, although he was only sacked once, he was pressured on seemingly every snap, and he was able to escape long enough to make plays.
The Rams have a trio of very talented pass rushers in Aaron Donald, Von Miller, and Leonard Floyd. If they bring pressure on Burrow, unlike the Chiefs, they’re going to have to finish the sacks and not allow Burrow to escape.
Ja’Marr Chase Isn’t the Only Playmaker in the Passing Game –
A lot of hyperbole has been leveled at the matchup between the explosive WR Chase and the Rams Jalen Ramsey. And it is a given that we can expect those two to be matched up in an intense battle all night long.
But the Bengals don’t need just Chase to win the game, not that Chase isn’t important, he is, and if he can consistently get open, their odds of winning going up by a large margin. But the Bengals have Boyd, Higgins and Uzomah to throw to.
With the Rams playing a lot of two deep safeties looks (Cover 2, Cover 2 Man, Cover 4 Quarters, etc), if Chase is isolated on one side of the field, it gives Cincinnati a lot of room to work the other side. It will probably be a chess match where Ramsey will probably be left on an island with Chase for much of the game.
And that could open the door for Higgins to be the “X”-Factor in this one.
Look For Cincinnati To Work the Middle of the Field –
The Bengals will probably run a lot of plays where they’ll have a receiver that will be waiting for Joe Burrow to get rid of the ball quickly due to the pass rush. Those hot routes and other concepts will no doubt try to work the middle of the field.
Look for the Bengals to work Chase to the perimeter which frees up another receiver to run a dig route across the middle in the area between linebacker Troy Reeder and the safeties. Reeder is excellent against the run but can be victimized in coverage. If there is one weakness in the Rams defense it is the middle of the field.
Countering this, however, is Eric Weddle who came out of retirement for a Super Bowl run with the Rams. He’s always been one of the smarter players and he has the capability to disrupt things in the middle. Look for the Rams to move him around.
Special Teams Could Turn A Close Game:
Bengals’ kicker Evan McPherson has been getting a ton of press this postseason and deservedly so, the rookie has been money with several high-pressure kicks in the playoffs and has ice water in his veins. “Money Mac” as he’s known to his teammates won’t be affected by the scope of the game on Sunday.
However, Rams kick Matt Gay owned the 2nd highest field goal percentage in the league in 2021 and earned a Pro Bowl berth. LA also has punter Johnny Hekker, who besides being one of the best punters in the league, has frequently been used in fake kicking situations. Don’t be shocked to see Hekker throw a pass early in this one if the situation presents itself.
The Rams also hold the edge in the return game and the kick coverage units.
So, while this one may be closer than many people think, the feeling here is that the Rams will hold off Joe Burrow and the Bengals on Super Sunday. The Rams pass rush will put too much pressure on him and the Rams offense will be tough to stop.
Prediction: Rams 28 – Bengals 17
MVP: Cooper Kupp
Steve Balestrieri is a 1945 National Security Columnist. He has served as a US Special Forces NCO and Warrant Officer before injuries forced his early separation. In addition to writing for 1945, he covers the NFL for PatsFans.com and his work was regularly featured in the Millbury-Sutton Chronicle and Grafton News newspapers in Massachusetts.