Destiny is not supposed to be a fickle thing.
The case for both the Cincinnati Bengals and Los Angeles Rams to reach it either this year or in the future was there. The Rams went all in on the 2021-22 season, once again setting fire to future draft picks to upgrade at quarterback with Matthew Stafford and create an even more fearsome defensive line with the addition of Von Miller. They added wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. when they seemingly didn’t need to, although Robert Woods’ nearly immediate injury afterward negated that talking point. Los Angeles was living up to the town they’re headquartered and will be playing Sunday’s game in: lavish, and unforgiving about it.
Cincinnati has gone about things in a very different way. It’s also embraced a mentality similar to the city it plays in – one that’s a semi-circle away from the Rams. It’s invested in the draft, and most importantly has made the right picks. The Bengals spent money, but not to bring in high-end talent on nine-figure deals. They spent it where they had to, and did nothing more.
They also nailed the quarterback position, which sort of fell into their lap. But there is something to be said – and respects to be paid – to the Bengals for taking advantage of the gift that has been Joe Burrow. Not everyone gets a generational quarterback – let alone makes the most of him. Cincinnati has, and as a result, they’re a win away from reaching the pinnacle no one – and perhaps even themselves – thought they could so soon.
But for the Bengals and the Rams, the path to destiny this season hasn’t been so smooth. No one actually thought Cincinnati would be here – it was the type of team you threw a futures bet on before the season at 500-1 to win or make the Super Bowl. At best, the Bengals were what this site pegged them as: a team that probably wouldn’t win, but one you couldn’t give a zero percent chance of doing so either.
Then the season hit, and nobody, including both of the teams playing Sunday, was that good. The Rams underwhelmed despite Cooper Kupp’s MVP-caliber season and their starry acquisitions, mostly in part due to stagnant offensive performances led by Stafford. The former Lions quarterback looked, at times, like the player he was in Detroit: good, but not quite good enough to elevate a poor-to-average surrounding cast. Those performances cost the Rams dearly – a lot of times entire games. He killed their offense in ways Jared Goff used to during the regular season.
Meanwhile, the Bengals looked a year away, thanks to a still shaky offensive line, simple lack of experience and the aforementioned case of of people just not shaking their preseason projection.
That means something has to give on Sunday.
It could be wise to just roll with the least likely negative thing that could happen in Super Bowl 56, given how this NFL season has gone. Matthew Stafford seems due for a meltdown game, similar to what happened in Weeks 9, 10, 16 and 18. That favors the Bengals. Cincinnati’s offensive line gave up nine sacks in its Divisional Round game against Tennessee, and now has to go up against the best defensive player in the league in addition to Miller and Leonard Floyd on the Rams front. That favors the Rams.
There’s also each team possessing a dominant wide receiver, and a No. 2 pass catcher just as capable of taking over or causing problems for the other’s defense. Then there’s the difference of one team having a dominant cornerback to place on the former receiver, countered by the potential unwillingness of that corner to move around the field.
So what’s the path of least destruction?
Stafford, Cooper Kupp, JaMarr Chase and Cincy’s offensive line are the true game-breakers on Sunday. If Stafford throws four picks out of sheer poor decision-making, it’d be incredibly hard for the Rams to emerge victorious. If Kupp simply runs past everyone in the Bengals’ secondary, scores three touchdowns and is purely unstoppable, it’d likely take the same type of performance from Chase on the other sideline to give Cincy a chance. Conversely, the same can be said for Chase’s effect on the Rams and Kupp.
But Los Angeles might have ways of mitigating Chase that Cincy doesn’t possess with regard to Kupp.
If a team is selecting anyone across the league to shut down Chase for a single game, it’s probably taking Jalen Ramsey. He’s long, physical and while aggressive, doesn’t let the trait lead to penalties.
Just the skills you need against Chase.
The rookie receiver from LSU is a yards-after-catch beast though. Ramsey letting his anxious side take over is likely a death wish for the Rams’ secondary, currently backed by Eric Weddle, who was retired just a month ago.
Cincinnati should hope Ramsey gets selfish and doesn’t care to be moved around as much, while the Bengals should experiment with Chase’s positioning. It could be of benefit for Cincy to line Chase up in the slot for most of Sunday, considering Ramsey’s played the least amount of snaps there during the regular season, his aggressiveness being more potentially more problematic in that area of the field and Tee Higgins’ vertical presence on the outside still existing. The downside is the swap of Tyler Boyd, a pure slot receiver, to the outside for Chase. But perhaps a heavy dose of 11 personnel – even with a banged up C.J. Uzomah at tight end – makes up for that loss.
Still, Ramsey is a weapon the Bengals don’t have. It’s more likely he doesn’t allow Chase to expose him, putting much more pressure on Higgins to get open quick, thanks to what’s likely going to be a limited amount of time for Burrow in the pocket.
No one has more to deal with in this game than Burrow, but no one may be more even-keeled and equipped to handle it than him, either.
Before every drop back, he’s got to find Ramsey and see if he’s stationed on Kupp. Then he has to process how that could affect where he goes with the ball. Next, he has to make sure his offensive line is in as best a position possible to deal with the Rams’ front, which it probably won’t have a chance against anyways.
That’s a lot to ask for a quarterback who’s hardly in his second year as a starter and has never played in the Super Bowl before. While he might be able handle all of it, he still has to go out and execute after doing so.
That’s not all Cincinnati has to deal with in this game, either.
Kupp is a nightmare. The Bengals’ secondary has held as strong as it could this postseason, with the first half against Kansas City being an exception. In the second half, the Bengals dropped back an extra defender, exposing the Chiefs’ early season problems of not having a reliable second receiver once again. That’s just not a problem the Rams have.
Sure, it’s a big responsibility on the plate of Odell Beckham Jr., who hasn’t exactly been the best pressure-handler over the years, to step if the Bengals show Kupp heavy attention. But he’s been excellent for Los Angeles since signing with it in November, and the Rams aren’t here without him in the absence of Woods.
It’s hard to think Kupp won’t be himself on Sunday. He only had one game this year where he had below 92 yards receiving and zero touchdowns. The Bengals have to hope for that type of performance, and then ensure that every talking head will be leading their show on Monday morning with “Where was Odell?” Higgins then turning in the performance we talked about earlier likely gives the advantage to the Bengals, but the odds of all of that occurring seem to be favoring the Rams.
Plus, Higgins’ big game is predicated on whether Burrow can get the ball to him. The Bengals gutted out their nine-sacks-allowed win against Tennessee by getting a Tannehill meltdown, which is in the cards with Stafford but is a tough thing to count on. By simple proportions, if the Bengals allowed nine against the Titans, Sunday’s number could clock in at 15.
Of course, that’s an unreasonable projection, but you get the point. Cincy’s offensive line could ruin every drive and every spark of momentum the Bengals light. The mismatch is that big, and Aaron Donald is that good. It’s quite easy to see him hoisting an MVP trophy postgame after turning in a game-wrecking performance.
The last thing the Rams have in their favor, even if it’s slightly so, is home-field advantage. That’s not to say SoFi Stadium is going to be packed full of die-hard Rams fans on Sunday – it certainly won’t be, and it’s not like the Bengals have the following a team like San Francisco or Pittsburgh does. But, the Super Bowl is about being comfortable and settling nerves. Typically, teams walk into unfamiliar environments during Super Bowl Week and during the game itself.
Not the Rams. They’ve been practicing in their own facility all week, sleeping in their beds at their homes, and will go through their normal routine on the morning of the game in their stadium and locker room.
Super Bowls are not supposed to be comfy. For the Rams, that is certainly not the case, and if anything, their home-field advantage inside SoFi will be amongst their best all season, thanks to the small market and fanbase that Cincinnati is.
Regardless of the outcome Sunday, it will perhaps be the perfect cap on what’s been a chaotic, confusing season. It’s very plausible that the Bengals or Rams could win. It’s also very easy to imagine one losing, and looking like they never belonged here in the first place.
This season has largely been about trust, consistency and safety when it came to hitching oneself to a team. Neither of the two teams playing on Sunday possess much of that, but certain scenarios and outcomes certainly seem more likely to occur than the other. Kupp dominating? Likely. Donald doing the same? Mhm. On the other side: Ramsey getting cooked? Eh. Higgins being the best player on the field? Hard to believe. One of the worst Super Bowl performances ever from a QB? Stafford would never be able to recover.
It certainly wouldn’t be surprising if Cincinnati won on Sunday, but it does seem like the future is brighter for them. Destiny can wait, and will be for the taking again soon.
But this is the Rams’ time. This is what they have been building for all along.
Prediction: Rams-23 Bengals-13