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Upstart Bengals Take On L.A.’s Big Names in Super Bowl LVI

Cincinnati’s preseason odds of winning Super Bowl LVI were among the NFL’s longest. According to Pro Football Reference, only the Texans’ and Lions’ odds to win it were longer than the Bengals’ 150-1 odds at the start of the NFL season. After beginning the year 1-1, losing to the lowly Bears, Cincinnati’s odds to win the Super Bowl were at 200-1 at some sportsbooks. Oh, the money we could’ve raked in if we could only see ahead in time…

Instead of an expected clash of the titans, this game has turned into a David vs. Goliath. The Bengals are still paying out $1.70 for every dollar bet on them to win the big game. This isn’t to say that Cincinnati is tiny and L.A. is huge (well, not the teams at least). It’s just that the Rams began the season as Super Bowl favorites and proceeded to act like it throughout the season, whereas the Bengals have come from seemingly nowhere to suddenly find themselves on the cusp of greatness.

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Who will actually win the game? Well, as we’ve seen from this playoffs already, each team has as good a chance as the other on any given Sunday. Heck, there’s even a Twitter feed that encourages users to submit their wildest Super Bowl LVI prediction in six words or less to earn a possible placement on the roof of SoFi Stadium. (Speaking of SoFi, this is only the second time in NFL history that a team will play in the Super Bowl at home. The last team to do it? The Tampa Bay Buccaneers just last year when the Tom Brady-led squad smashed the heavy favorite Kansas City Chiefs, 31-9.) What a breakdown of the teams might suggest about the outcome, however, we can still postulate before the final matchup of the NFL season kicks off on Sunday, February 13.

This year, the Rams feature several high-priced stars and big names after going all-in to get back to the big game after losing Super Bowl LIII during the 2018-2019 season. This time, L.A. returns led by new signal caller Matthew Stafford, who arrived in a landscape-shifting trade from Detroit in the offseason. Stafford, for his part, has lived up to his reputation as a clutch performer who provides many heart-stopping moments along the way.

Matthew Stafford of the Los Angeles Rams scrambles during the 2022 NFC Wild Card game.
Scott Clarke/ESPN Images

On the Rams’ first trip into the red zone two Sundays ago against the 49ers in the NFC Championship, Stafford’s pass intended for Cooper Kupp in the end zone was deflected and intercepted by Jimmie Ward. A few drives later, Stafford proceeded to lead his team on a 97-yard touchdown drive. During the drive, Stafford scrambled for a first down on one third down, hit Kupp on another critical third down deep in San Francisco territory, and then tossed a 16-yard touchdown to Kupp on third-and-long.

With the Rams trailing by three points in the fourth quarter, Stafford sailed a deep pass down the middle of the field, a wounded goose that was nowhere near its intended receiver, which San Francisco safety Jaquiski Tartt subsequently let bounce right off his chest, dropping what should have been one of the easiest interception of his career. Following this stomach dropper, Stafford led L.A. to the tying field goal and then followed that with another field goal drive that gave the Rams a 20-17 lead with less than two minutes remaining.

Stafford’s psychic connection with Kupp, growth with midseason addition of receiver Odell Beckham Jr., and the miraculous late-season return of running back Cam Akers also highlights the anchor of this offense — a rock-solid offensive line led by 40-year-old left tackle Andrew Whitworth.

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Cincinnati may not be intimidated, though, by these stars as its unheralded young defense just shut down what has consistently been one of the NFL’s top three offenses in the last three years. The AFC Championship was the Bengals’ second win over the mighty Kansas City Chiefs this season, and this was at Arrowhead Stadium, one of the toughest road venues in the league. That victory brought the Bengals to the apex of one of the most unlikely Super Bowl runs of all time.

In head coach Zac Taylor’s first two seasons as coach, the team posted a 6-25-1 record. Everything has clicked at the right moment, however.

The team’s big free-agent acquisition, ex-Saints defensive end Trey Hendrickson, menaced quarterback Patrick Mahomes in the second half, with his 1.5 sacks coming on third downs in the fourth quarter. Lou Anarumo, the defensive coordinator of the Bengals’ no-name secondary, dropped eight players into coverage on almost half of the Chiefs’ second-half pass attempts, holding them to three total points. This includes overtime when free safety Jessie Bates III, who owned up to poor early season play after being distracted from the lack of an offseason contract extension, generated the tip-drill interception that saw Cincinnati take over in the extra period.

This allowed second-year quarterback Joe Burrow, who was coming off a devastating torn ACL in 2020, to lead the Bengals’ young one-two punch receiving corps of rookie Ja’Marr Chase and second-year player Tee Higgins to within range for rookie kicker Evan McPherson (aka, Money Mac) to his second game-winning field goal of the playoffs. McPherson is a perfect 12-for-12 on playoff field goal attempts and has made an NFL record 12 field goals from 50 or more yards this season.

Bengals receivers celebrate a touchdown in a November 21st game.
Al Powers/ESPN Images

Chase and Higgins have been nearly unstoppable in the 2022 NFL playoffs with a combined 34 receptions for 488 yards (a 14.5 yard/catch average), including six catches over 20 yards and one touchdown.

These young guns will be going up against a tough, star-powered defense in the Rams, though. Jalen Ramsey, who L.A. paid a pretty penny to acquire from Jacksonville, is one of the best cover corners in the league. The Rams also feature a powerful defensive line, led by defensive tackle Aaron Donald, who is a proven game-changer. In three postseason games in 2022, Donald has nine tackles, including three solo, two for a loss, 1.5 sacks, and the one pass breakup.

The Rams only rank 21st in total defense, allowing an average of 373.9 yards per game, but the get tough when teams get close. The defense’s strength is near the goal line, where the team ranks second in the NFL in red zone efficiency, only allowing 42.3% of opponents’ red zone trips to result in touchdowns. This led L.A. to give up an average of 20.9 points per game, good for a tie with the Green Bay Packers and Carolina Panthers for seventh in the league.

Though the teams have taken very different routes to get to the Super Bowl, it looks like this is going to be one heck of a fight for the Vince Lombardi trophy.

Super Bowl LVI is set to kick off at 6:30 p.m. EST on NBC.

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