Super Bowl LVI: CIN v. LAR

These two teams have traveled very different paths to get here. The Bengals have been mired in mediocrity (at best) for years but have hit two consecutive home runs in the first round with Joe Burrow and Ja’Marr Chase and signed some underrated free agents on defense to round out a competitive roster. They squeaked by in three consecutive playoff games and, outside of the Chiefs game, avoided elite competition.

On the other side of the ball, the Rams have been a piece or two away for years and spent picks and money on several proven stars who have made all the difference and brought them back to the Super Bowl. Their path involved easily dispatching the Cardinals and strong wins against two top teams in the Bucs and 49ers. Without looking too deeply into the matchup, the Rams are clearly the favorites based on performance. But we can’t stop there, can we? It’s time for a matchup deep dive. I’ve embedded some of my Super Bowl prop bets in the write-up. Enjoy!

CIN Offense v. LAR Defense

The Bengals offense has been average (15th overall) based on season-long performance, but did improve over the course of the season. In their first 8 games, they struggled to the tune of a -0.30 adjusted rating (performance relative to opponent defense), but have improved to +0.31 since then, as Zac Taylor opened up the playbook a little and gave Burrow more responsibility. To his credit, Burrow himself has shown marked improvement, particularly in his reaction time and decision-making. This offense was clearly trending up heading into the playoffs, even if it has cooled off a little since then:

Burrow may lack the arm strength and athleticism of fellow AFC quarterbacks Mahomes, Allen, and Herbert, but elite accuracy gives him a chance to succeed with one of the best receiving corps in the league. His biggest mistakes have not been inaccurate throws, but rather mental errors. He takes bad sacks when his receivers are locked up and sometimes underestimates the speed of defensive players. This is not unusual for successful college quarterbacks in their first few years in the NFL and I expect it will improve. But for now, it remains a liability.

Their best performances have come against teams that rely on the blitz for pressure. The Jaguars, Ravens, and Chiefs are the only teams they’ve faced who blitz more frequently than the Rams. You’ll note on the performance chart that four of the Bengals’ best five offensive performances came against these teams. Burrow’s accuracy in the face of pressure and elite receivers allow him to combat the blitz and get the ball to his playmakers. By contrast, their worst game in the second half of the season came against the Broncos, who might be the only NFL team who can match the Bengals’ receivers with elite cornerbacks across the secondary. If someone is open, Burrow will hit him. But if not, things go south.

The Rams 4th-ranked defense has also shown improvement this season, playing its best football in the playoffs with Von Miller fully acclimated:

They have been surprisingly strong against the run despite running light boxes for the most part. In the playoffs they have shut down three consecutive run games that are better than the Bengals. They also excel against teams with one stud WR (like the Bucs without Godwin and AB) because Jalen Ramsey is an elite shutdown corner. In this matchup, their strength (interior defensive line led by Aaron Donald) matches up against the Bengals’ weakness (interior offensive line), which could spell trouble. But on the outside, there will be a ton of pressure on the Rams’ secondary outside of Ramsey to keep up with Higgins, Boyd, and whichever tight end starts for the Bengals.

If the Bengals come out and try to establish Mixon on the ground to protect Burrow from Donald & co., it won’t work. If they put Burrow in constant third-and-longs and then expect him to take 7-step drops and beat the Rams defense straight-up, I don’t give the Bengals much of a chance. Instead, they should get creative and aggressive. They need to attack the linebackers, run sweeps with Chase, hit Higgins and Boyd on quick routes, and try to negate the pressure. Either way, I like Mixon Under Rushing Yards Props. With the Rams likely blitzing, I also like Mixon Over Receiving Yards Props as Burrow will likely use him as an escape valve. He may even get 20+ yards on one catch.

With the Rams likely to succeed in pressuring Burrow, I don’t see a lot of deep passes for the Bengals. With Ramsey likely on Chase, I see Burrow peppering Higgins with targets in the short area, so I like Higgins Over on catches, and Under on longest reception props for both Chase and Higgins. I anticipate a slow, methodical approach as opposed to splash plays.

It won’t be easy for the Bengals, but this is not the nightmare matchup many are making it out to be. On the season, the Rams blitz at the 11th-highest rate and yet pressure at the 8th-lowest rate. They play zone defense that can be beaten by accurate quarterbacks with good timing. That is a combination that plays right into Burrow’s hands, if the offensive line can do even a close to average job in protection. But despite the low pressure rate, the Rams did have the 3rd most sacks. This could be a problem if Burrow holds the ball too long. Success on this side of the ball will likely depend on how quickly Burrow gets rid of the ball. A lot of that comes down to game planning.

Overall, the Rams definitely have an advantage on defense. But the Bengals are equipped to combat the Rams if they call a good game on offense. That might be a lot to ask for Zac Taylor, but he at least has two weeks to prepare. I think it will likely be an uneven performance for the Bengals offense, but I think they get points on roughly 40% of their drives en route to a modest 20 points or so.

LAR Offense v. CIN Defense

The Rams offense has also been very good this season. In fact, they were one of three teams (along with the Bills and Bucs) to grade top-5 in both offense and defense on the year. Last year, the Bucs were the only team with top-5 grades on both sides of the ball and they won the Super Bowl. But performance dropped off drastically in the wake of the injury to Robert Woods. His reliability and route-running gave the Rams two downfield options, which was essential to their pass-heavy attack that was so successful early in the season. Heading into the playoffs, the Rams had adjusted to a run-heavy approach and Stafford started being careless with the ball. Prior to the playoffs, the offense was mired in a major slump:

But finally, Odell Beckham, Jr. has filled the void left vacant by Woods. Stafford has once again captured the downfield success that made the Rams successful early. Kupp has been an absolute monster this year with an uncanny ability to get open and great chemistry with Stafford. McVay has schemed ways to get Kupp in space without getting jammed at the line, and it works. Despite a fairly unsuccessful run game, the Rams have made it work on the shoulders of Stafford. But even in these successful games, Stafford has shown that he can be careless with the ball. His turnovers (and near turnovers) have come in really bad spots. Although the Rams are favored and Stafford is the Super MVP favorite, Vegas odds indicate that he is more likely to throw an interception than Burrow. This is justified.

In my opinion, three of the four units in this game (each team’s offense/defense) are fairly rated by analysts and bettors. But I believe the Bengals defense is underrated. Even after shutting down the Chiefs in the second half, everyone wants to blame Reid and Mahomes for poor play design and decision-making. But the Bengals defense stepped up. They locked down a really tough group of pass-catchers and got to Mahomes rushing just 3 or 4 linemen. Their steady improvement over the course of the season has been masked by a back-loaded schedule:

Note their last 8 (meaningful) opponents have been fairly strong overall on offense: KC, TEN with Henry, Brown and Julio, LV, KC again, BAL, DEN, SF, and LAC. Over that span of games they have averaged a solid +0.33 adjusted rating and have won 6 straight games, excluding a game they were clearly throwing away against the Browns to secure a favorable playoff schedule. They have been strong in coverage against some decent pass-catchers and they have pressured the quarterback consistently. Most importantly, they have been opportunistic, capitalizing on any mistakes their opponents have made. Turnovers are not often a sticky stat, but teams certainly go on sustained runs with a high conversion rate.

The Bengals can be burned by good receivers. I expect Stafford to find Kupp early and often in this game, and big plays are on the table. I like Kupp longest reception Over props. I also think there’s a chance the Rams win a low-scoring game in which Stafford makes some key mistakes but also finds Kupp for some clutch plays late. This means there is value on Kupp for Super Bowl MVP If you can get it at +700. I think the line may have moved, but definitely shop around.

But the Bengals should be able to slow down the Rams’ fairly inefficient run game, and should be able to get to Stafford. I think if Stafford plays a clean game, the Rams can win comfortably. If he has zero turnovers and takes one sack, it’s tough to see how the Bengals counter. But I don’t think he plays a clean game here. The Bengals can make games ugly, and Stafford has shown he will play into that. If you can get a good price, I like Bengals Sacks Over and Stafford to throw 1+ INTs.

I think this side of the ball will be tougher for the Rams than people anticipate. Stafford has relied on throwing downfield but has been inconsistent. The Bengals will capitalize on any mistakes, and this gives them a chance. If the game gets tight, and it comes down to which team can make a stop, I think the Rams have the advantage. Kupp and Stafford have made play after play when it matters, and I don’t think the Bengals are a powerhouse who will stop that. But I don’t see the Rams running up the score here with easy drives.

The Prediction

The game starts slow, with both teams opening up with a cautious game plan. Nothing comes easy, and the teams trade blows in a quiet first half. Stafford plays an up-and-down game, but makes more splash plays than Burrow and takes a lead in the second half. The Rams play too conservatively and allow the Bengals back in the game, but deliver a key drive late to win the game, like they have the previous two weeks. Rams win, 23-20.

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