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The Rams were billed a Super Bowl contender before the season even started and had made the playoffs in three of the last four years. The Bengals hadn’t won a playoff game in more than 30 years and hadn’t even touched the postseason since 2015.
Both ended up where they wanted to be: playing for it all on Super Bowl Sunday.
On paper, the game looks like a mismatch. Los Angeles is loaded with top-line talent, including one of the NFL’s greatest defensive players ever in Aaron Donald and a big-name starting quarterback in Matthew Stafford.
But Cincinnati has slain a few dragons, including Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs, to get to Sunday’s game. On top of that, they happen to have probably the biggest wild card of either team: a budding young superstar quarterback named Joe Burrow.
But they’re far from the only Rams and Bengals players who matter in Super Bowl LVI.
In a game full of stars, Burrow’s is shining the brightest heading into Sunday. The second-year quarterback’s monster production in his second season (4,611 yards passing, 34 touchdowns, 108.3 passer rating) is matched only by the legend he’s cultivating as a competitor.
The No. 1 pick in the 2020 NFL Draft returned from an ACL tear in his rookie season to lead Cincinnati to its first playoff win in 31 years as an NFL sophomore, earning him the league’s Comeback Player of the Year award. Even more impressive: he and the long-shot Bengals knocked off the full-strength No. 1 seed Tennessee Titans and foiled Patrick Mahomes’s bid for a third-straight Super Bowl.
How Burrow has managed to do that behind arguably the league’s worst offensive line is wizardry. The Bengals had the third-worst pass-block win rate in the league this season and opted not to upgrade the position in the draft (more on that later). But the silky smooth young quarterback makes it work with unbelievable pocket presence and the kind of pure guile that has people comparing him to Tom Brady.
On paper, the Bengals shouldn’t win the Super Bowl. In fact, them even making it to the game feels ridiculous. But they are there, and their budding superstar quarterback is the biggest reason why.
Might the Bengals have been well-served to draft Penei Sewell, the best tackle in the 2022 NFL Draft, instead of Chase with their No. 5 overall pick? Maybe. But clearly, Burrow, who won a national championship with Chase at LSU, and the Bengals knew what they were doing when they pushed their chips in on the dynamic receiver.
All Chase did was go out and win NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year honors in a landslide — sorry, Mac Jones — and play like one of the best receivers in football in his first season.
There’s nothing the young wideout can’t do. He has the feet, quickness, and physicality to get open against press coverage and the intelligence to find holes in zones. He can track the ball in the air down the field, go up and high-point the ball over a defender or box them out in the endzone.
On top of that, Chase can just flat-out fly. Miss an angle or a tackle, and you might as well start lining up for the extra point.
He’ll have a tough task ahead in elite cornerback Jalen Ramsey on Sunday, but he’s going to have his chance to change the game.
The Ramsey-on-Chase matchup could create a prime opportunity for Higgins to play the hero as he did frequently during the season.
The second-year receiver might quietly be one of the best No. 2 options in the league, topping 1,000 receiving yards this year and breaking out for 100 or more yards four times from Week 12 on. Like Chase, Higgins is a top-10 receiver in terms of PFF’s yards per route run (min. 37 targets), indicating he’s one of the most efficient receivers in football when he’s on the field.
Higgins is going to be a tough matchup for Darious Williams, LA’s No. 2 outside corner, and could be firmly in the spotlight as a dark horse Super Bowl MVP candidate if the Bengals can win.
Unfortunately, Apple’s on this list for a bad reason: he’s definitely the worst of the two Bengals starting corners, and everyone knows it.
All things considered, he’s actually played better in recent weeks (including the playoffs), allowing no more than two catches and no touchdowns in six of his last seven games. The outlier in that sample was the AFC Championship Game, where he got mercilessly cooked to the tune of six catches for 88 yards and a touchdown, surrendering a perfect 158.3 passer rating.
The Rams don’t typically use Cooper Kupp on the outside, where Apple spends almost all of his time, as much as they deploy him in the slot. So Apple might not have to get smoked by the best receiver in football much. But he’ll definitely spend some time going up against Odell Beckham Jr.
You might not think of Hendrickson as one of the better pass-rushers in the league. But when you check the numbers, he’s in that league.
The fifth-year edge rusher’s 75 total pressures tied him for fifth in the NFL with San Francisco’s Nick Bosa and Tampa Bay’s Shaq Barrett. He and Bosa also tied for fourth in the league with 16 sacks.
Though the Bengals have the horses to contend in a shootout with the Rams, they’ll have to make a stop sooner or later. Hendrickson getting consistent pressure on Matthew Stafford is one of Cincinnati’s best chances of making that happen. Of course, that means he’ll have to beat left tackle Andrew Whitworth, who has somehow remained one of the best players at his position at 40 years old.
After all the snide remarks about his time with the Lions and all the doubts about whether he can be trusted to win “the big game,” Stafford is finally here: at the Super Bowl.
He’s shown quite a bit along the way to help the Rams get there, too, completing 72 percent of his passes for 905 yards, six touchdowns, just one interception and a 115.6 passer rating in the playoffs.
With Los Angeles facing the possibility of overtime against Tom Brady and the Buccaneers and the divisional round, Stafford connected on two huge throws to Cooper Kupp with under a minute left in the game to steal a win on the road and send Brady to retirement.
He’s answered the bell just about whenever the Rams have asked him to this postseason. Can he do it one more time and forever put the “loser” label to rest?
T.J. Watt might have won Defensive Player of the Year this season, but there’s no more destructive defensive player in football than Donald.
His 86 pressures placed him second in the league behind only Los Angeles Raiders edge rusher Maxx Crosby in the regular season, according to Pro Football Focus, and blew all other interior defenders out of the water.
Donald’s explosive quickness, elite moves and relentless motor are a totally unfair matchup for any guard or center and almost always require teams to commit multiple blockers to him. Sometimes, even three men aren’t enough.
You don’t stop Donald. You just slow him down. If you can manage that, you still have to worry about the other members of the Rams’ tough defensive front. But if the Bengals allow Donald to feast on Burrow, they won’t have a chance.
Kupp taking his game to another level when the Rams upgraded the quarterback position, trading out Jared Goff for Stafford, wasn’t that surprising But even the most optimistic projections for Kupp probably didn’t include him almost setting the NFL’s single-season receiving yards record (albeit in 17 games) and winning Offensive Player of the Year honors.
He’s quite possibly gone even beyond that in the playoffs, topping 140 yards in his last two postseason games and scoring twice in the NFC Championship Game against the rival 49ers.
Kupp is especially deadly from the slot, where he plays the overwhelming majority of his snaps. Few, if any, slot cornerbacks can cover him one-on-one (which we saw against the Bucs three weeks ago), and he has impeccable awareness for finding windows in zone defenses as well. He also had the third-most third-down conversions among NFL wide receivers during the regular season.
Everything the Bengals have defensively must go into containing Kupp, who is undoubtedly the head of the Rams’ offensive snake.
There’s no better all-around player at the cornerback position than Ramsey.
He has the size and physicality of a safety with the speed and ball skills of a smaller cornerback, giving him the ability to go toe-to-toe with any receiver in football.
Despite being targeted 93 times, which is tied for the eighth-highest mark among cornerbacks, Ramsey allowed a passer rating of just 74.4 on throws his way, knocking down 12 passes and picking off four. He also forced incompletions on 17 percent of his targets, which was tied for eighth in the NFL as well.
There’s no doubt Ramsey will spend a lot of time covering sensational Bengals rookie Ja’Marr Chase on Sunday night. The winner of that matchup could hold the key to a Super Bowl victory for their respective teams.
The Bengals must absolutely circle Aaron Donald’s name on the game plan first and foremost when they’re on offense. But Donald also has a Super Bowl MVP-winning teammate Cincinnati has to account for.
Though Miller doesn’t quite have the same juice as he did back when he had 2.5 sacks and two forced fumbles in Super Bowl 50, he’s still not a player you want to leave one-on-one with your offensive tackles all game long, especially if you’re the Bengals.
Since coming to Los Angeles via a mid-season trade, the 33-year-old Miller has put up 48 pressures, including a whopping 10 pressures on Tom Brady in the divisional round, and six sacks.
Cincinnati has no choice but to double and possibly triple-team Donald when the opportunity presents itself. That means Miller will have his shots to do damage against Bengals right tackle Isaiah Prince, who’s been one of the lowest-grade players at his position in the NFL.
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