The Cincinnati Bengals (13-7) are one win away from their first Super Bowl championship. The Los Angeles Rams (15-5) can win their first championship in Los Angeles since 1951. After going 54 seasons without it happening once, we will see a team play the Super Bowl in their home stadium for the second year in a row. Can the Rams get an outcome as favorable as Tampa Bay last year, or are the Bengals a team of destiny?
Los Angeles Rams vs. Cincinnati Bengals
Sunday, February 13, 2022 – 06:30 PM EST at SoFi Stadium
While the Bengals are technically the home team in this one, we know the Rams are more comfortable in their own stadium. However, Cincinnati is 6-1 ATS as a road underdog this season. The Rams were just 4-5 ATS as a home favorite. Both teams have won their last two playoff games by a late field goal, so after last year’s 31-9 dud, let’s hope for a higher scoring, closer game this time.
The No. 1 Factor: Which Defense Delivers the Splash Plays?
This game is high on offensive star power with three likely award winners in Offensive Player of the Year Cooper Kupp, Offensive Rookie of the Year Ja'Marr Chase, and Comeback Player of the Year Joe Burrow. Matthew Stafford probably would have been MVP if the season ended after Week 8.
But all that star power in the passing game aside, it has been the defenses for these teams in the playoffs that have led the way for this Super Bowl matchup to happen.
The Rams used their talent and pressure to terrorize Kyler Murray, Tom Brady, and Jimmy Garoppolo into game-changing turnovers and stops every round of the playoffs. They also have not allowed more than 61 rushing yards in any playoff game, turning every offense one-dimensional and playing right into the hands of future Hall of Famers Aaron Donald and Von Miller.
If it’s not the sacks, it’s the pressure that led to interceptions like the pick-six Murray threw from his own end zone to avoid a safety, and the game-ending pick by Garoppolo at the end of the NFC Championship Game.
While the Bengals lack the big-name talent of the Rams, their defense actually finished one spot above Los Angeles at No. 7 in points per drive allowed this season. The Bengals were mediocre in the regular season at forcing turnovers, but they have seven takeaways in three playoff games, including six interceptions.
The Bengals have intercepted a pass in the final minute of regulation or overtime in three straight playoff games, something no other defense has done since at least 2001, if not ever. They picked off Derek Carr at the goal line to beat the Raiders, intercepted Ryan Tannehill at midfield to set up a game-winning drive, and did the same to Patrick Mahomes in Kansas City in overtime.
The defense that wins the turnover battle or makes the clutch splash play late in the game will win this game. The Rams and Bengals are both 1-5 when allowing more than 24 points this season. Neither team is looking for a track meet, so every mistake is going to be magnified. With these offenses, there will be opportunities for the defenses to make plays.
No quarterback took more sacks than Burrow this season, and that was true before the Titans dropped him nine times in the divisional round. No quarterback threw more interceptions than Stafford, and while he only has one this postseason, he has left some opportunities on the field for opposing defenders. 13 of his 17 interceptions came in the last nine games of the season.
Neither team has been very effective at running the ball this postseason, so protecting the ball is extra important for these quarterbacks. If the worst thing Burrow does in this game is taking more sacks because of his line being so outmatched, then so be it.
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But that might prove to be less costly than if Stafford throws a pick-six or something he did four times this year, including each week during a three-game losing streak.
Another thing to look for is the second-half adjustments after a long halftime. During the season, these teams have scored almost the same number of points in each quarter.
But there are huge differences in defense. In first quarters, the Bengals allowed the eighth-most points while the Rams allowed the fourth-fewest. In third quarters, no team allowed more points than the Rams (116) and no team allowed fewer points than the Bengals (50).
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The Bengals really caught the Chiefs off guard with a three-man rush in the title game, leading to one of the worst halves of Mahomes’ career. That type of second-half wrinkle is something that can win an underdog a Super Bowl.
While Donald or Miller could win a Super Bowl MVP based on their pass-rush dominance, one of these underrated defensive backs on the Bengals could join a list of Super Bowl heroes with Ty Law, Tracy Porter, and Malcolm Butler if they are able to pick off Stafford in a big spot.
How Often Does the Better Team Really Win?
Both teams finished as the No. 4 seed in their respective conference, but by any reasonable measure, it is clear that the Rams had the better season. The Rams have the more talented roster with an experienced coach (Sean McVay) who was a mentor to Cincinnati’s Zac Taylor, a coach few expected to have a winning record this year, let alone be in the Super Bowl.
However, quick turnarounds and surprise upstart teams have happened numerous times in NFL history. The arrival of talents in the draft such as Burrow and Chase can certainly expedite things.
But what does the data say about this mismatch? According to Football Outsiders’ main efficiency metric, DVOA, the Bengals were No. 18 on offense and No. 19 on defense this season with a total rating that ranked 17th. The Rams were No. 5 overall with the No. 8 offense and No. 5 defense.
Of the 80 teams to reach the Super Bowl since 1983, or as far back as the data currently goes, the 2021 Bengals are the only ones to not rank in the top 16 in DVOA on offense or defense. No team won the Super Bowl with a lower DVOA ranking than the 2007 Giants (No. 15), and the only other team to play with a lower ranking than Cincinnati was the 2008 Cardinals (No. 21). Those Cardinals almost upset the Steelers but still lost in the end.
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Of the last 38 Super Bowl winners, 35 ranked No. 7 or higher on at least one side of the ball. Only the 2001 Patriots, 2007 Giants, and 2012 Ravens, three of the luckiest Super Bowl winners in history, did not. The team with the higher DVOA in the regular season is 24-14 (.631) in the Super Bowl.
Through three playoff games, things track with the Bengals having a difficult postseason to get to this point. They beat the Titans after allowing nine sacks and not scoring 20 points, a situation that teams had a 1-126-2 record in since 1960. They needed an 18-point comeback and overtime win in Kansas City, the largest road comeback in a championship game in NFL history. The offense has been settling for too many field goals in the playoffs.
Yet the Bengals are one more upset away from history. If the Bengals win this game by fewer than eight points, they will join the 2001-03 Patriots as the only teams in NFL history to win four straight playoff games by fewer than eight points. That would be Burrow’s first four playoff games and Tom Brady’s first four playoff games. Who did Burrow play in his first game? The Raiders, just like Brady (Tuck Rule Game). They both get the Rams as an underdog in their first Super Bowl. The Bengals also have the opportunistic defense and a kicker (Evan McPherson) who has been outstanding this postseason, just like Adam Vinatieri.
But while Burrow may compare favorably to a young Brady, it’s hard to ever see Taylor as a Bill Belichick-caliber of a coach. It’s hard to see McVay ever getting a better chance to win a ring than this game.
Officiating Notes: Advantage for Either Team?
If you are a Cincinnati fan, then you know that officials can become a huge part of a playoff game’s story these days. There was the inadvertent whistle controversy on a touchdown against the Raiders even though everything the players did was legitimate.
Then in the AFC Championship Game, Bill Vinovich’s crew called the fewest penalties in the regular season and there was a noticeable lack of flags on both teams as a lot of contact was allowed.
In last year’s Super Bowl, head ref Carl Cheffers was notorious for calling pass interference penalties, and his crew called two very suspect flags on the Chiefs in the second quarter to blow open the lead for Tampa Bay.
While the NFL uses an “all-star crew” for these games, it is still worth checking out the season stats on the game’s top official. Ron Torbert gets the big assignment this year, and in 2021, his crew calls the third-fewest flags per game (10.3) and fifth-fewest penalty yards per game (92.0), a good thing to hear.
He has been among the leaders in offensive holding (48) and unnecessary roughness (13) penalties.
Neither of these teams is flagged often for offensive holding, but the Bengals have been the beneficiary of 30 such calls, second to only Dallas (32). As for whether the Rams will be able to cover these Cincinnati wide receivers without grabbing them, the Rams were penalized a league-low four times in 20 games for defensive pass interference.
Good thing there is no recent history in the playoffs of the officials swallowing their whistles on a play with pass interference involving the Rams. Torbert will be judged as a success if Monday comes and we are not talking about the officiating.
Purists must be frustrated with this matchup because you’re not supposed to “buy” your way to a championship like the Rams are trying, yet you’re also not supposed to be this outmatched in the trenches like the Bengals.
If both teams play their best game, the Rams should win as the more talented team with more experience at key positions. But NFL history has shown us plenty of examples of the superior team falling apart on the big stage, and there is more pressure on the Rams to deliver at home as the favorite.
These Bengals may be young, but they are very confident, and coming back from a 21-3 deficit in Kansas City should be all the confidence they need to know they are never out of a game.
It also does not hurt to see the Rams nearly cough up a 27-3 lead in Tampa Bay in the divisional round, and this team did blow a 17-0 lead at home to San Francisco in Week 18. A week earlier, the Rams had to rally back late in Baltimore for a 20-19 win against an injury-ravaged team.
Over the last 12 games, the only teams the Rams were able to blow out were the Jaguars and Arizona in the playoffs, a game that fell apart early after Kyler Murray made that horrible pick-six decision. If Burrow can avoid that kind of mistake, the Bengals should be in this one late.
With their 19-16 win in Tennessee in the divisional round, the Bengals snapped a seven-game losing streak (0-7 ATS too) for 4-point underdogs in the playoffs. I keep doubting this team late in the season, and yet the Bengals are 6-0 ATS with Burrow since Week 15. For the last NFL pick of the season, in the Year of the Tiger, I am now going to trust the Bengals to cover one more spread even if it still does not result in a championship celebration.
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