Super Bowl Preview
April 29th, 2021: with the 5th Pick of the 2021 NFL draft the Cincinnati Bengals select Ja’Maar Chase dooming Joe Burrow to another season of being sacked for fun. How can they pass on Penei Sewell, do they not want to win any games this season? What a horrible decision that turned out to be, as we all expected the Bengals *checks notes* won the AFC North, beat the no 1 seed in the divisional round, and then went into Kansas City and beat the Chiefs on their own turf…wait what???
In all seriousness, yes the offensive line is still a problem. But win or lose on Super Bowl Sunday, there’s no way you’d go back and do anything differently. Burrow and Chase lit up the league and their fireworks have probably made almost every neutral fan temporarily hop onboard the Bengals train.
We can trace the roots of this Super Bowl even further back than that though. Rewind a bit further to 30th January 2021 when the Los Angeles Rams decided to move on from Jared Goff and swing a trade for Matthew Stafford who wanted out of Detroit. Unlike the Bengals draft day move, many people expected this move to turn out exactly the way it did.
The Rams made it to the Super Bowl in 2018 but only scored 3 points and never hit those heights in the following seasons. The conventional wisdom was that they were only a better QB away from being a true contender. As well as moving on from Goff, they also previously gave up 2 first rounders for Jalen Ramsay. Talk of the Rams being “all-in” to win a Super Bowl was consistent, even before further mid-season moves to acquire Von Miller and Odell Beckham, who found themselves in undesirable situations and teams willing to move on from them.
So, we have the ultimate Cinderella story vs the team who bet the farm on being at the Super Bowl in their own stadium. Let’s look at the Bengals first.
The Bengals started the season playing well, without showing significant signs that they’d be this team. The first signs were a dominant 41-17, week 7 win over the Ravens. That was a statement game, going into Baltimore a team at the time that were considered one of e favourites for the AFC north. This game was the first of what would be several 200-yard games for Chase and the signs were there that the Bengals weren’t just there to make up the numbers. More wins followed but also an inexplicable loss to the Jets. While the Bengals were consistently occupying a playoff spot in the standings doubts persisted until weeks 16 and 17. A repeat performance against Baltimore, this time at home followed by a stunning victory against the Chiefs in a shootout sealed the deal for a home playoff game.
Chase and Burrow are special, they’ll be the cornerstone of this team for years to come. Along with Tee Higgins, Tyler Boyd, Joe Mixon and an up-and-coming CJ Uzomah this is an offence that can carry the team far. However, during the Playoffs it’s the defence that has been the biggest reason for Cincinnati, making it all the way.
I said the offensive line is still a problem, and this was apparent in the divisional round game, against a fearsome Titans front 7. Joe Burrow was sacked 9 (nine) times but a stellar defensive effort limited the Titans to 16 points, ensuring they could not take advantage of the stalled drives. The following week against the Chiefs in the AFC Championship game – it looked to be a bridge too far, as the Chiefs scored 21 quick points and squandered another goal to go possession just before half-time that would have padded their lead. Not so fast though. One more example this season of Defensive Co-Ordinator Lou Anarumo’s ability to make adjustments meant that the Chiefs didn’t score again until they were forced to kick a late field goal to force overtime.
The Bengals secondary looked like a weakness of the team last season but it’s been bolstered by bringing in veterans Eli Apple, Chidobe Awuzie and Mike Hilton, and production from Von Bell who came over in 2020. Trey Hendrickson on the defensive line has also proven to be a hugely impactful signing.
The Athletic Podcast broke down brilliantly how the Bengals managed to nullify the Chiefs in that second half, so credit to them for this next bit of analysis They went to almost exclusively a three-man rush, dropping 8 men into coverage. Usually when teams do this, it’s a soft zone, prevent style defence, which would be suicide against the Chiefs and Mahomes. But Anarumo didn’t do this, he still had his guys mostly playing man coverage up front, with 2 robbers patrolling the field. He changed up who the robbers were and where they’d drop from which confused Mahomes, and threw him of his rhythm, hanging onto the ball trying to extend plays while he figured out who was in man coverage and who wasn’t. It’s going to take one more Herculean effort from Anarumo and co for Cincinnati to go all the way.
The Rams are mostly who we thought they were. Right from the early games Matt Stafford opened up the offence and pushed the ball down the field. Cooper Kupp is the main beneficiary having one of the most incredible seasons we’ve seen from a Wide Receiver, amassing 1947 receiving yards and 6 TDs.
They set their stall early with a win over the defending Champion Buccaneers in Week 3 and kept pace with the Arizona Cardinals before outlasting them in the race for the NFC West. They lost Robert Woods to a season ending injury in November, which would open up questions about if this offence would still be a juggernaut. However, those were quickly put to the side when they brought in Odell Beckham after his departure from Cleveland. Von Miller also came over in a deadline day move, adding to an already fearsome front 7. The Rams are a team with talent across the board and no glaring weaknesses.
That’s not to say there weren’t scares along the way. There was a mid-season blip where games were lost to the Titans, Packers and bogey team 49ers, along with a slump in play from Matt Stafford. Week 17 also saw a major collapse when they lost to the 49ers again after having a 17-point half-time lead, that snapped a 5-game win streak and also Sean McVay’s perfect record when leading at half-time.
After a convincing wild card weekend win against the Cardinals it looked like something similar would happen for the second time in three weeks on Divisional weekend. In a re-match against Tom Brady and the Buccaneers, the Rams were leading 27-13 late in the fourth quarter before somehow finding themselves tied at 27-27. But a bewildering decision by the Buccaneers to give Cooper Kupp a free release against a blitz allowed Matt Stafford to fire a dagger down field and let them kick the game winning field goal.
Matt Stafford was the best QB in the NFL against the blitz this season. With better weapons at his disposal, he could carve up teams who sent pressure after him. Kupp, Beckham and Van Jefferson are just as intriguing a trio as the Bengals receivers. The change of scenery has done wonders for Beckham in particular who is playing again like we all know he is capable of. This should be an extremely interesting matchup.
On paper the Bengals look overmatched in one key area; Aaron Donald, Leonard Flloyd and Von Miller against that Bengals offensive line. Joe Burrow has shown a great ability to extend plays with his legs and he will likely need every bit of that.
Although if Joe Anarumo can come up with another scheme to confuse and confound Matthew Stafford, he has shown an ability to make a mistake by trying to force the ball down field instead of checking it down or throwing it away. In each of the last two games, he’s almost hurt his team. Against the Buccaneers he made a bad read trying to force the ball into the end-zone and threw the ball straight to a Buccaneers defender who dropped it. And in the Championship game when the 49ers had the lead, he hit Jaquiski Tartt right in the hands and relied on the safety dropping it to bail him out again.
Also, there are questions over Sean McVay and some of his coaching in the big moments. If just 1 or 2 plays had gone differently this season, the Rams might not be here.
This is great Super Bowl for the neutral to watch, it promises to be a really fun game. I’ll summarise what I think are each teams’ keys to victory are Below.
- Protect Joe Burrow enough for him to make the plays he needs to.
- Play lights out on defence and steal a few possessions like they did against both the Titans and Chiefs.
- Get Joe Mixon going, the Rams run defence has looked good in certain situations but overall is giving up 4.4 yards per carry. If the Bengals become one dimensional that will only add to the pass protection problems.
- Attack that offensive line relentlessly. Get to Joe Burrow without allowing him to escape.
- Play turnover free football – be patient if the Bengals don’t blitz.This secondary won’t be as forging as in other games.
- If they get a lead, keep the pedal down – don’t get conservative or change what is working to protect the lead.
The X-Factor in this game will be the battle of wills between the QBs. Every year the media hype the QB matchup when often other aspects are more important. But for once, I believe it could come into play.
Joe Burrow has consistently elevated this team and dragged them to heights beyond what is expected. All he does is win. Going back to the college playoffs, he’s shown up and played his best football in the biggest games.
Matt Stafford has only played in one other playoff game before this season, he’s had a career being a good player on a bad team and there has been a weight of expectation that he was the missing piece for the Rams. Its Super Bowl or bust for the Rams and Stafford has to win to justify the move the Rams made. Just getting there isn’t enough. If this game is close and it comes down to who has the ball last, I think I’d trust Joe Burrow more in that situation despite the NFL experience gap.
My final verdict is that my heart is 100% with the Bengals but I believe the Rams will more than likely come out on top. These have been the most intriguing Playoffs I can remember for a long time with high quality games, and these two teams are set up to give us a Super Bowl that will deliver a fitting end.