Written by: Aydan Koyles
After an exciting few weeks of playoff football, we have two teams ready to fight for the Lombardi Trophy. The Rams and Bengals may not have been the most predictable matchup, but it should be a good one.
If you had told me 5 months ago that the Cincinnati Bengals and Los Angeles Rams would be facing off in the Super Bowl, I would have laughed. While the Rams were expected to compete for a chance to play in February, this Bengals team has come out of nowhere to represent the AFC on the biggest stage in football. In this article, I will break down the matchup from every angle to get an idea of what we can expect come Super Bowl Sunday.
Los Angeles Rams(-4.5) vs. Cincinnati Bengals
Sofi Stadium, Los Angeles, California
Preseason SB odds: Rams (15–1); Bengals (120–1)
ESPN FPI: Rams (66% to win)
FiveThirtyEight ELO: Rams (68% to win)
Los Angeles Rams (12–5, NFC West Champions)
The Rams have a well-documented story this season (and over the last few years). They have been a consistently good team since hiring Sean McVay in 2017, making the Super Bowl in 2018 (before losing to the Patriots) and making the playoffs in all but one season(2019). The Rams have also redefined the term ‘All-In’, making blockbuster trades to pick up stars on both sides of the ball. In 2019, the Rams gave up two first round picks to acquire star cornerback Jalen Ramsey. Then, this offseason, the Rams acquired QB Matthew Stafford at a high cost to replace former starter Jared Goff. During the season, they again traded picks to add OLB Von Miller to the mix. After a midseason release from the Browns, Odell Beckham Jr. was also added as an offensive weapon. Clearly the Rams are in win-now mode, and making the Super Bowl certainly justifies the various moves they made(at the expense of having little draft capital in the next several years). Stafford has been the expected upgrade that McVay envisioned and the defense has been stout in the playoffs behind Ramsey, Miller and perennial DPOY candidate Aaron Donald. While they have had their hiccups along the way, they find themselves one win away from Super Bowl glory and officially quieting the skeptics who questioned the purge of draft picks to acquire talent.
Cincinnati Bengals (10–7, AFC North Champions)
Wow, is this a surprise. Just two years ago, the Bengals were 2–14 and the Super Bowl was the furthest thing from their minds. Even last year, the team finished 4–11–1 and came into this season with low expectations. A perennially underperforming team with no success in the playoffs (last playoff win: 1991), everybody counted the Bengals out even when they made the playoffs. Now, following upset wins over the Titans and the Chiefs(!), the Bengals are ready to keep proving the doubters wrong. This journey really started in the 2019 with the selection of QB Joe Burrow in the draft. Burrow has blown away expectations this year and has fulfilled his №1 overall draft selection. This offseason, the Bengals tried to address many problems in free-agency with the signings of DL Trey Hendrickson, CB Chidobe Awuzie, CB Mike Hilton, DL Larry Ogunjobi and several others. And it mostly worked! While the offensive line is still atrocious (more on that later), the defense has exceeded expectations and has gotten solid contributions from those signings. The season contained many ups and downs, but the Bengals managed to win the AFC North for the first time since 2015 and are now in the Super Bowl for the first time since the 1988 season.
What the Stats Say
This graphic indicates that in both DVOA and EPA/play, the Rams were the far superior team on offense during the regular season. While DVOA continues that trend in the postseason, EPA actually gives the advantage to the Bengals. In general, however, the stats appear to indicate the Rams offense is the better of the two units.
This graphic shows us that the Rams defense has been far and away the better of these two teams. In fact, in the playoffs, the Rams have been incredibly successful on defense, overshadowing a fairly solid postseason performance from the Bengals unit.
This final graphic shows us the only unit where the Bengals may have the superior unit. Although the Rams were generally better in the regular season, the Bengals special teams has been incredible this postseason, helped by rookie kicker Evan McPherson’s 12/12 field goal attempts.
The QB Matchup
Quarterback is often considered the most important player on the field, so lets dive into what each QB brings to his team in this matchup. For the Rams, Matthew Stafford was impressive in his first season in LA, posting 4643 yards with 41 TDs and an EPA/play that ranks fourth in the league. His QBR of 63.5 also ranks fourth in the league and he has consistently provided a big play threat that was lacking when Jared Goff was starter. He did also have 17 INTs, but overall was an impressive player and thats also a part of being a more aggresive QB. His ability to drop back in the passing game gave coach Sean McVay another dimension in his offense, and Stafford’s elite arm talent gives the Rams the chance to win any game.
As good as he was in the regular season, Stafford has been elite in this postseason. He has the second best EPA/play, second best Completion Percentage Over Expectation(CPOE), and third highest air yards. This means he is producing a lot of value while also targeting receivers down the field. In the divisional round against Tampa Bay, Stafford made this throw to set up a game winning field goal despite heavy pressure. Stafford has been everything the Rams asked for and more these playoffs, and he will be the most important player on the field for them come Super Bowl Sunday.
On the other sideline, Joe Burrow has been everything the Bengals envisioned when they drafted him first overall in 2019. After he missed most of last season with an injury, he has returned with a vengeance this year, posting 4241 yards and 34 TDs with the seventh best EPA/play. He also led the league in CPOE, showing his ability to pinpoint receivers in tight windows. His connection with former college teammate Ja’Marr Chase led to an incredible year for both of them and helped Burrow develop into a star QB.
Although he hasn’t been quite as dynamic this postseason, Burrow has still managed to give his team a chance to win despite numerous problems around him. With an offensive line that has been one of the worst in football, Burrow has constantly been chased around in the pocket. He has responded with less shot plays and more efficient underneath passing. Though both his air yards and CPOE have fallen in the postseason, he has still been an effective passer capable of leading the team on scoring drives. His ability to avoid the pressure against the Rams could be paramount to the Bengals chances.
Rams Offense vs. Bengals Defense
Sean McVay has been lauded as one of the best playcallers in the league, and developed the Rams offense into a work of beauty despite using a subpar QB in Jared Goff. His ability to use play-action and set-up plays for later in the game helped propel this team to victories. Now, with Matthew Stafford in the fold, he has been able to expand his playbook and implement more dropback passing into the mix. Over the four seasons with Goff as his starter, the Rams ran play-action on about one-third of their plays, but with Stafford this year, that number dropped to about one-fifth. Even with that being said, the Rams are still able to effectively use the play-action game and they have other ways of confusing defenses. The McVay-Shanahan offense is famous for manipulating linebackers on the defense and forcing them to commit to one option, while another option is opened up. This ability allows the offense to operate at a high level and opens up all kinds of passing lanes. Last week against the 49ers, the Rams struggled a little bit to do this effectively because of the brilliance of Fred Warner, but the Bengals don’t have a linebacker who brings the same elite skills to the table.
However, don’t count out the Bengals defense. Led by numerous free agent additions, the Bengals have had a solid defense most of this year, most recently shutting down Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs in the second half of the AFC Championship. In the second half, the Bengals dropped eight defenders into coverage on almost half of all snaps, and Mahomes was unable to break through that coverage. With a good pass rush led by Trey Hendrickson and a rapidly evolving secondary, the Bengals have the tools to make Stafford and the Rams work for their yardage. As impressive as the defense has been, however, the Rams ability to put those linebackers in conflict and take advantage of play action may prove to be too much for this Bengals defense.
Bengals Offense vs. Rams Defense
The Bengals offense thrives on running the ball from under center and using a semi-spread shotgun look to give Joe Burrow plenty of options in the passing game. In particular, the Bengals like to dial up deep go routes and get the ball outside the numbers. Looking at a pass chart for Burrow helps to illustrate this:
Clearly Burrow is at his best when aiming for receivers on the edge of the field and he is very good at hitting deep balls. His timing and confidence in the pocket help him withstand pressure and find the open man. The run game has been less effective, as evidenced by looking at their success rate on early down rushes and passes. On first and second down, the Bengals have a rushing success rate of just 27.4% in the playoffs, while the pass success rate is at 48.3%, per RBSDM. Although passing will always be more efficient than running, this disparity is telling. And yet, Zac Taylor continues to insist on running the ball way more than the numbers indicate they should. His playcalling and schematic decisions could be a huge part of the Bengals ability to stay ahead of schedule on offense.
Perhaps the biggest problem for the Bengals offense is that they will be facing the toughest defense they have seen in these playoffs, including a terrifying defensive line composed of stars like Aaron Donald and Von Miller. The Bengals offensive line is its biggest weakness, and they will be forced to face arguably the best pass rushing defensive line in football. Joe Burrow has had to run for his life these playoffs, and none of the defensive lines they have faced match up as well as this Rams unit. And even if they can’t get home every play, Jalen Ramsey and a disciplined secondary are ready to shut down Burrow’s receiving options. The Rams stop the run and the pass equally well, and present several matchup problems for this Bengals offense. Unless the offensive line can make massive strides and give Burrow at least a little bit of time, this could be a long day for the young QB.
As we went through the various angles of this matchup, it was clear to see that the Rams are the better team. They have more talent, more experience, are playing a quasi-home game and have been building to this moment. But the Bengals have had a recent run of winning games they had no business winning. Though it hasn’t been pretty, they have made plays when it mattered most, and that cannot be overlooked. However, the matchup problems along the trenches and at several key positions make it hard for me to pick against the Rams. Though I think it will be close for a while, I have the Rams winning by two touchdowns.
Final Score Prediction: Rams 31, Bengals 17