Well, here we are, the Super Bowl matchup that everybody expected. In two short weeks, Matt Stafford and the Rams will battle Joe Burrow and the Bengals for a place in the history books. Featuring two likable first-timer quarterbacks at very different points in their careers, we can all hope that this game will live up to expectations. It will be no easy feat to cap off what has been without a doubt the most entertaining playoffs I can remember.
The Rams are clearly in win-now mode, and a victory would justify every move that general manager Les Snead has made over the past several years, trading what seems like entire classes of draft picks for veteran stars. No move was bigger than acquiring Stafford from the Lions, a move made exactly one year before Sunday’s NFC Championship win. On the flip side, the Bengals entered the season with the fourth-worst odds of winning the Super Bowl, ahead of only the Jets, Texans and Lions. That they are one win away from a Lombardi trophy is not only a testament to Joey Franchise, Ja’Marr Chase and their well-timed takeaways, but also to Zac Taylor and Co. who coached this team well past their expected ceiling. Both teams have stars and weaknesses, and it may very well come down to one unexpected hero to pull out the victory. I’ll highlight some of the key matchups and outcome predictions below.
Bengals RBs and O-Line vs. Rams D-LineThe most talented player in this game, Aaron Donald, will be looking to prove himself a winner after being held in check with no sacks in Super Bowl LIII. The Rams line, with Donald as their anchor, is stout and will no doubt cause problems for the Bengals line, which rebounded nicely from a horrible nine-sack showing against the Titans to later let up only one against the Chiefs. Protecting Burrow and opening up holes in the run game will be essential for the Bengals offense to start strong, something they’ve struggled with in the playoffs.
Ja’Marr Chase vs. Jalen RamseyRamsey has struggled at times in the playoffs but is still one of the most feared corners in the league. He’ll have his hands full with Chase, offensive rookie of the year and the most dangerous weapon on Cincinnati's offense. Chase has eclipsed 100 yards in two of his three playoff games and, as Burrow’s favorite target, will have plenty of opportunities to prove himself the real deal on the countries biggest stage. This one will be fun to watch.
Rams Wideouts vs. Bengals SecondaryIf Twitter mentions counted for anything, then Eli Apple and the Bengals secondary would have the advantage here by a landslide. Luckily for the Rams, Apple’s Twitter trash talk goes out the window once the two teams take the field. The dynamic duo of Cooper Kupp and Odell Beckham Jr. will no doubt receive most of the attention; this matchup could hinge on the play of Tyler Higbee (who is currently questionable with a knee injury), Van Jefferson and Notre Dame’s own Ben Skowronek (Go Irish!). One interesting note to make here: The Bengals have come up with clutch picks to seal each of their three playoff wins.
Sean McVay vs. Zac TaylorMcVay’s hire jump-started the current trend of hiring young head coaches, and the strategy has paid off for at least these two teams; McVay (36) and Taylor (38) are both younger than several players in this game. Both coaches have made questionable decisions throughout the playoffs, but have largely benefited from even poorer coaching on the other sideline. McVay has the experience edge (he’s prepped for a Super Bowl before), but the game may ultimately be decided by a crucial should-have-kicked-the-field-goal moment or a well-timed trick play (looking at you, Doug Pederson).
Matt Stafford vs. Joe BurrowIn all likelihood, the game will be decided by this matchup, both of whom have so much to prove. Stafford has the benefit of being surrounded by a steadier, more proven offense and Burrow has acquired a cool, calm and collected yet equally fiery mystique during his playoff run. Stafford has never played on such a stage, but has nonetheless orchestrated countless game-winning drives for the Lions through the years, which certainly counts for something. Burrow won a CFP championship just two years ago and will be looking to become just the third quarterback ever to win titles at both the college and professional level. Burrow will have his time, but I see the grizzled veteran outplaying the rising star and taking home the MVP.
Special TeamsAs the Packers learned so harshly, special teams play can make or break a season. On LA’s side, Matt Gay has struggled in the playoffs, and Johnny Hekker is one of the best punters in the business. But Cincinnati rookie kicker Evan McPherson is a perfect 12-for-12 on field goals in the playoffs, and that gives the Bengals special teams a distinct edge.
My Pick: Rams 31, Bengals 26