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Super Bowl LVI: Seven key matchups for Bengals v Rams

By Nat Coombs

Published: 13:00, 11 February 2022

Ahead of Super Bowl LVI on Sunday evening, our resident NFL expert Nat Coombs – who will host the BBC’s coverage of the game at SoFi Stadium – takes a look at the key matchups that will decide who takes home the Vince Lombardi Trophy, the Cincinnati Bengals or the Los Angeles Rams. For more on Super Bowl LVI, check out the latest ‘The Nat Coombs Show’ podcast.

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The hype train hits LA

The Super Bowl hype machine is in full effect as we build up to Sunday’s showdown between the all-star Los Angeles Rams and the upstart Cincinnati Bengals.

These are two teams whose respective front offices deserve a lot of credit, despite their different paths to the big show.

The Rams haven’t just pushed all their chips into the middle of the table, they’ve thrown their car keys in, and the condo in Malibu. High priced acquisitions like Matthew Stafford, Jalen Ramsay and Von Miller have cost them significant future draft capital, so they’re in win now mode.

The Bengals have used a draft and free agency hybrid model to re-up – and are way ahead of schedule. As such, the Rams seem to have the weight of “win-now” expectation on their shoulders, and are significant, if not monster, favourites on Sunday.

But any idea that there is more pressure on one team than the other in a Super Bowl is fanciful at best.

So, who takes it down? Here are my keys to the game:

Matthew Stafford vs Joe Burrow

Yeah, I realise quarterback head-to-heads are simplistic and misleading – they’re not duelling each other directly, rather the opposing defense – but both carry a huge responsibility, and their respective performances will most likely be amongst the most significant determining factors on Sunday.

What makes this a particularly intriguing face-off are the intertwined narratives. They are both number one overall picks, both brought in to drive their teams to success (as opposed to offenses shaped around game manager competence), and both are making their Super Bowl debut, Joe Burrow in year two, Matthew Stafford in year 13.

Burrow and Stafford are relatively unreconstructed QB’s in a dual threat era – big arms, smart in the pocket, accurate – although Stafford is prone to a rush of blood to the head. While Burrow’s moxie and composure is remarkable, it masks the fact he’s a sophomore that could be prone to confusion by smart scheming from Raheem Morris.

Rams Pass Rush vs Bengals Offensive Line

On the surface this is the most imbalanced match up, with the formidable Rams front – sack artists all around – squaring off a Bengals offensive line that’s allowed their franchise QB to be sacked 63 times and counting.

Whilst Burrow isn’t entirely blameless for that number, this becomes a question of not whether the Bengals can neutralise Aaron Donald and Co, it’s whether they can keep the damage incurred to problematic as opposed to cataclysmic.

Expect the Rams to target the right side of the line, and expect the Bengals to boost pass protection with running backs or tight ends.

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Joe Mixon vs Rams Run Defense

For Burrow to have a chance to get a passing game going, especially with the inevitable pressure, it’s essential the Bengals get Joe Mixon going.

On the plus side, this is a better run blocking unit than pass blocking, and Zac Taylor has been looking to run on first down more as a game plan.

Glass half empty? The Rams are one of the best Run Ds in the business too, allowing teams less than 100 yards per game (95.8) – and only allowed 54 yards per game during the postseason.

Jalen Ramsay vs Ja’Marr Chase

Lots of talk as to whether the Rams will use Jalen Ramsay – one of the few elite shutdown corners in the NFL – on Bengals explosive number one receiver Ja’Marr Chase, or, as Ollie Connolly from The Read Optional suggested on my podcast this week, will they double Chase, and put Ramsay on Tee Higgins or Tyler Boyd (Ramsay can also) cover the slot effectively.

It’s a nice problem (for LA) to have, and I suspect we’ll see Raheem Morris mix things up. I also like Tyler Boyd to have a big game despite his relatively quiet postseason to date.

Evan McPherson vs Matt Gay

Evan McPherson personifies this Bengals side – fearless, clutch and not fazed by the big occasion. With his walk off winning field goal against the Tennessee Titans underpinned by his pre-kick swag, he’s single-handedly upped the hip factor of kickers by 10,000%.

But Matt Gay is not to be underestimated. One of the few kickers in the NFL to be drafted, he was subsequently cut by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, only to serve it up in the playoffs to shut down the defending champ’s unlikely comeback and send the Rams to the Championship game.

McPherson may be getting the hype, but Gay could be the player that leaves SoFi Stadium a Super Bowl legend.

Zac Taylor vs Sean McVay

Two coaches not getting the credit they deserve, despite guiding their teams to the Super Bowl – in McVay’s case for the second time in 4 years.

Taylor was under fire coming into this season, and critics suggest that he’s limited with his offensive vision. The culture, and self-belief he’s engendered is not to be scoffed at, and the development in Burrow year-on-year must be factored in (Taylor was the former QB’s coach with the Rams, under McVay).

McVay’s star has waned in recent years after his dazzling start – similarly to his QB, he’s compared unfavourably to certain contemporaries when assessing the leading coaches in the league. Sure, the offense isn’t (yet) as consistently fluent as in his first few years, but there are some key factors at play – losing Cam Akers right before the start of the season, Robert Woods during – and it’s a reactionary, short-sighted backlash.

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