To our readers: In lieu of our usual “Sports Weekend” column by Pete Zaristica, we present this in-depth look at Sunday’s Super Bowl clash between the Rams and the Bengals.
By Barry Wilner
AP Pro Football Writer
Across both Super Bowl rosters, there is a great divide.
The Rams are the team loaded with veterans and the Bengals are the new kids on the block. Los Angeles has the star power, which figures with Hollywood next door. Cincinnati has a bunch of relative no-names outside of Joe Burrow and Ja’Marr Chase.
Bengals coach Zac Taylor worked for Rams boss Sean McVay – even though Taylor is more than two years older.
Both teams were No. 4 seeds after winning their divisions, so there are some similarities. It might be the differences that, well, make the difference on Feb. 13 at SoFi Stadium. Oh, yeah, that happens to be the Rams‘ new home.
WHEN THE BENGALS HAVE THE BALL:
Burrow (9) and Chase (1) are the Dynamic Duo for Cincinnati. They were at LSU and nothing changed when Chase, who sat out the 2020 season because of the COVID-19 pandemic, was chosen fifth overall in last April’s draft. His effect has been immense, scoring 13 times on 81 receptions for 1,455 yards in the regular season.
Of course, Burrow has been just as impactful. He went 2-7-1 in a rookie season cut short by a knee injury and made a sensational return, as accurate as any passer in the league. Cool as they come – yes, Joe Cool – he had 34 touchdown passes, and in the Bengals’ three postseason victories after having none since 1991, Burrow has gone 75 for 109 for 842 yards and four TDs, showing scrambling skills as well.
The key for LA to slow down that combination lies with the pass rush; Cincinnati allowed a league-high 51 sacks during the season, 12 more in the postseason. So unanimous All-Pro DT Aaron Donald (99), LB Leonard Floyd (54) and revitalized Von Miller (40), the MVP of the 2016 Super Bowl, must be negated somewhat. If the Bengals’ offensive line, from tackles Jonah Williams (73) and Isaiah Prince (71) to center Trey Hopkins (66) to guards Quinton Spain (67) and the rotation of Hakeem Adeniji (77) and rookie Jackson Carman (79) don’t step up, Burrow will go down a bunch.
If he gets the protection that has been missing too often, Chase’s matchups with All-Pro CB Jalen Ramsey (5) could be epic. But Ramsey won’t always be on Chase, who can break free on any route, and he also has some potent partners in WRs Tyler Boyd (83) and Tee Higgins (85), their battles with the remainder of the secondary could be significant.
In his seventh pro season, TE C.J. Uzomah (87) has emerged as a threat, but he damaged a knee last week and his status is uncertain.
RB Joe Mixon (28), who ranked third with 1,205 rushing yards, can wear down defenses, but the Rams ranked sixth against the rush.
WHEN THE RAMS HAVE THE BALL:
Like with the trades that brought Miller and Ramsey on defense, the Rams have bolstered their offense immeasurably in recent years. They solidified left tackle five seasons back with Andrew Whitworth (77), who remains a stud at age 40.
Much more recently came QB Matthew Stafford (9), RB Sony Michel (25) and WR Odell Beckham Jr. (3). All of have been key contributors, though Stafford is by far the biggest upgrade.
Sure, the Rams made the 2019 Super Bowl with Jared Goff, but Stafford, finishing his 13th pro season, is a class above. After languishing in Detroit for a dozen years, he’s been a main cog in the Rams getting this far.
No one is better against the blitz than Stafford, and while he can make some head-scratching throws and turn over the ball, he also makes some head-shaking passes that put you in awe.
And, like Burrow, he has one of the league’s best targets in unanimous All-Pro WR Cooper Kupp (10). Opponents could put all 11 defenders on the guy and he’d still get free, as his triple crown of receiving shows: 145 receptions for 1,947 yards and 16 TDs. He’s been just as unstoppable in the playoffs, and this could be a major mismatch. Bengals CBs Eli Apple (20), Chidobe Awuzie (22), Mike Hilton (21) and Tre Flowers (33) will be tests big time.
Cincinnati is stronger at safety with Vonn Bell (24), whose pick of Patrick Mahomes set up the winning field goal for the AFC title, and Jessie Bates III (30). The entire bunch also must account for Beckham, who seems to be re-energized in LA, and Van Jefferson (12).
Michel and Cam Akers (23), who came back quickly from a torn Achilles tendon, share backfield duties, but this is a throw-first team operating behind standouts such as Whitworth. The 16-year veteran figures to be challenged by Cincinnati’s top pass rusher, Trey Hendrickson (91), and DE Sam Hubbard (94), who was terrific against the Chiefs.
The Bengals don’t have a linebacker in Miller’s class, but Logan Wilson (55) and Germaine Pratt (57) have made some key plays in the postseason.
It’s all about rookie Evan McPherson (2). The fifth-round draft choice – no, Cincinnati did not bungle a pick on a kicker here – the kid has hit all 12 of his field goals, including four in the wild-card round, then winners at Tennessee and Kansas City.
Kevin Huber (10) did not have a particularly strong season, but he’s a veteran who has kicked in the postseason before.
LA’s Matt Gay (8) is steady enough, and he also has two straight winning field goals in the playoffs.
Johnny Hekker (6) has been one of the league’s best punters for a decade, and is a threat on fake punts.
Neither team scares you on kick returns.
This is so juicy.
Taylor spent two years working for McVay and didn’t even reach coordinator status when the Bengals came calling in 2019. He went 6-25-1 his first two seasons, but the Bengals were building their roster. His work in the past six weeks has been particularly exemplary.
McVay remains the poster child – OK, he’s a wise old 36 – for hot-shot offensive minds. His game management has been questioned, but it’s hard to argue with four playoff trips in five seasons, and a Super Bowl loss three years ago.
Two assistants worth high praise: Bengals defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo, who has done a lot with no real stars except Hendrickson, and Rams offensive coordinator Kevin O’Connell, who like Anarumo has gotten some head coaching interviews.
The Rams are built for now. They have been all-in on this season, using lots of draft capital _ not to mention $$$ capital – on this roster.
They also have the bitter memory of a putrid performance against New England in the 2019 Super Bowl.
For those who think this is gravy for the surprising Bengals, remember they are 0-2 in Super Bowls, both losses to the dynastic 49ers, though in close contests. They also hadn’t won a postseason game since 1991. What do they have to lose now?