Hold the dynasty talk for at least one more year: the Kansas City Chiefs are NOT going to Super Bowl LVI, and we should all rejoice. No Patrick Mahomes. No Tyreek Hill. No Travis Kelce. No talk about a new Patriots-like reign in this the last year of Thomas Edward Brady. Instead, mere days before Brady retired, Mahomes’ Chiefs took Brady’s 2006 Patriots off the hook as the sole owners of biggest conference championship game choke by blowing an 18-point lead to Joe Burrow’s Bengals.
For a second straight year, a team will host the Super Bowl in their home stadium. Go figure, because it didn’t happen in the first 54 years of this game’s history. But this feels a bit different. It isn’t Brady at the helm, but rather Matthew Stafford looking to fend off the fire emanating from Burrow and the white-hot Bengals. Cincinnati feels like a team of destiny after finally winning its first playoff game in 31 years. The Bengals have knocked off the AFC’s two top seeds on the road and have had the tougher road to get here than the Rams, who admittedly have been impressive in their own right thus far.
So how will this play out? Will it be like everyone says, with the Rams’ ferocious pass rush overwhelming a supposedly-mediocre Bengals’ offensive line? Will the big stars of L.A. be too much for the “little engine that could” Bengals? Or will Cincinnati keep finding a way behind the unflappable Burrow and send the Rams to their second Super Bowl loss in four years?
For me, I put a lot of stock in the amount of adversity two championship contenders have faced when trying to assess a big game winner. I have a seven-game personal winning streak picking the spread in the big game dating back to New England’s Super Bowl XLIX win, and have picked the overall winner correctly in all but one of those (I had New England over Philly in 2017). The Bengals have passed every test to this point and won games in every which way. They won in spite of nine sacks at Tennessee. They won in spite of a 21-3 deficit in Kansas City when it looked like the Chiefs were completely unstoppable on offense. And they won despite losing the overtime coin toss, something Bills fans would tell you is utterly impossible.
This isn’t to take away from the Rams. Their run has been impressive (this Super Bowl is the first-ever matchup of teams both playing their fourth postseason game), with two wins over division rivals and a road win over Lord Brady in his final frontier. So much has been made of the Bengals’ supposed inability to protect Burrow, but I suspect Zac Taylor, who has been on fire himself this postseason, will call a lot of screen passes to negate that. The key will be the run games and turnovers, something that the Rams are especially susceptible to.
My hunch is that Burrow has his moments under duress, but makes enough big plays, and the run game does its part. Scoring first will be important, as even though the Bengals showed they can rally from a big deficit, keep in mind that in the game they won with the nine sacks allowed, they never trailed. Los Angeles’ pass rush will become a much bigger problem than Kansas City’s if the Bengals put themselves in a big hole this time around.
From a coaching standpoint, I think Sean McVay was lucky to win Sunday, with his team bailing out two foolish challenges and the fact that the Rams did not have a single timeout for the majority of the fourth quarter. Cincinnati has played incredibly smart football throughout the postseason, something that the Bills, Chiefs, and Packers did not do in their playoff exits. I give a slight coaching edge to Taylor also given the fact that there is no pressure on him, but plenty on McVay after coming up short in this spot three years ago.
Cooper Kupp and the Rams offense are going to have big plays, without a doubt. But when it comes down to making a big play with the game on the line, which quarterback do you ultimately trust more? I’ll go with the 2020 first overall pick over the 2009 first pick. Prediction: Bengals 27, Rams 21.