Football News

The biggest Super Bowl LVI stories explained for European football fans

By Emile Avanessian

Published: 16:04, 12 February 2022 | Updated: 13:14, 24 February 2023

A breakdown of Super Bowl LVI’s teams and headline star… from a European perspective.

Super Bowl LVI is mere hours away at this point. With nearly two weeks of prep time under our belts, the analysis, overanalysis and hyper-analysis of all things Los Angeles Rams and Cincinnati Bengals is at a fever pitch. In the midst of all of the statistical and tactical analysis, we thought it would be fun to look at the Super Bowl through a European football lens.

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Who are the closest team to the Rams in European football?

Emile Avanessian (@hardwoodhype on Twitter): More than any team in recent memory, the Rams have embraced a philosophy that values winning today over the allure of draft capital and future assets. This means loading the top of the roster with as many stars as possible.

In this sense, these guys are most similar to Galacticos-era Read Madrid, or recent vintages of Paris Saint-Germain – sides whose ultimate success or failure disproportionately rests on the shoulders of a couple of headliners.

Stuart Dick (@stuonsport): I’d also liken the current Los Angeles Rams to Paris Saint-Germain. The Rams have been aggressive in the trade and free agent market to put together and all-star cast. There most recent acquisitions, Matt Stafford, Odell Beckham Jnr. and Von Miller can be compared to this summer’s PSG haul of incoming talents, namely Lionel Messi, Gianluigi Donnarumma and Sergio Ramos.

PSG also have the likes of Kylian Mbappe and Neymar in their ranks, players who are comparable to defensive tackle Aaron Donald and cornerback Jalen Ramsey. Essentially, both entities are full of star names across the field.

Mohamed Moallim (@mhmdmllm): Arsenal and the Rams aren’t really equivalent teams, but there are some interesting parallels between them.

For starters, both are owned by the same man, Stan Kroenke; although due to a greater level of investment in his NFL project, he’s slightly more popular in Los Angeles than north London, which brings us to a second intriguing tidbit. Neither were originally based in their current location.

The franchise system in American sports means you often see teams relocate from one city/market to another. The Rams were originally based in Cleveland, Ohio before moving to LA until settling in St. Louis, Missouri before returning to La La Land.

As for the Gunners, they’ve always been a London-based team albeit one who started off in Woolwich before crossing the river to start a long-lasting rivalry in North London with Tottenham Hotspur (who are reportedly interested in hosting a future Super Bowl).

Who are the Bengals of European football?

EA: It’s tough to overstate just how much the Bengals are not supposed to be here.

It’s well-chronicled that, until a month ago, this franchise hadn’t so much as won a playoff game in over thirty years. And it’s not as though they spent those years flirting with contention. With the exception of a run of competence between 2009 and 2015, since 1991, this was arguably the NFL’s WORST franchise.

This current side, though boasting some elite talent, certainly didn’t seem ready – in terms of depth or experience, and with a second-year QB returning from a major injury – to be taken seriously as a playoff team, let alone a Super Bowl contender. In my own preview of the AFC North, I took what I thought was a rather bullish stance, proclaiming that the Bengals’ offense had a chance to be one of the league’s best and most fun… and that the team would win 6-7 games and take an early vacation.

These guys remind me of Leicester City’s Premier League-winning side of 2015-16 and Lille’s Ligue 1 champions from last season. Each was not only not tipped to contend, but had recently survived a relegation battle. For Leicester, it was the prior season, while Lille survived the drop by a single point in 2017-18. Each overcame the longest of odds (Cincinnati’s 125:1 isn’t Leicester’s 5,000. But in the NFL, it’s not far off), ground out results, and outlasted domestic giants in Man City and PSG.

SD: The Bengals are a more difficult comparison to make. As Emile says, in year two under Joe Burrow, thoughts of making the Super Bowl would have been fleeting in the minds of Bengals fans in August.

They are the reverse of the Rams. They are built on shrewd acquisitions through free agency – Trey Hendrickson the jewel in their crown – as well as through the draft process. In recent years they have added the talents of Burrow, Offensive Rookie of the Year Ja’Marr Chase and fellow receiver Tee Higgins.

To liken them to a European team is difficult, but I’d lean toward West Ham United for one simple reason: Joe Burrow reminds me of Declan Rice. Both Rice and Burrow improve those around them – not just through their play, but through their leadership on the field.  They are ascending stars on teams that many would argue are batting above their average.

Brad Cox (@BradJCox_): The Bengals are a tough team to compare to a European football club but they’re almost like West Ham this season.

Not many expected them to do as well as they have done but they’ve completely smashed all expectations. If West Ham are to secure a top-four spot in the Premier League then you could compare them to the Bengals.

But then you could also compare the Bengals’ situation to Leicester City in 2015/16, albeit not quite on a 5000/1 scale and, ultimately, only if they overcome the Rams on Sunday.

How exciting are Bengals duo Burrow and Chase?

EA: It’s rare that you see you see two young stars, at these high-profile positions, merge so seamlessly into the NFL game. This is Burrow’s second year, but he lost much of his rookie campaign and was recuperating in the lead-up to this season. So he’s not even as experienced as the calendar might suggest, and he’s this good and this unflappable and confident. As for Chase, what is there to say? He might already have been the best receiver in the NFL.

Given their shared experience and success in college at LSU, these two remind a bit of a couple of legendary footballing duos from history. First, there’s Johan Cruyff and Johan Neeskens, who powered Ajax to a European Cup ‘three-peat’ in the early 1970s, starting at, respectively, 24 and 20 years of age, before leading the Netherlands to the final of the 1974 World Cup, where they narrowly missed out against Germany.

More recently, there is a the pairing of Lionel Messi and Andrés Iniesta, both of whom grew up together in La Masia, graduated to Barça’s senior side within two years of one another and, upon becoming regulars, helped create the greatest sides in club football history.

SD: They have been a joy to behold in 2021 and not just because I took Ja’Marr Chase in my fantasy league. Burrow has taken the second-year step that few do at the position. The last player to really do what he has done was Carson Wentz in the Philadelphia Eagles Super Bowl-winning campaign. He then fell off a cliff, but don’t expect the same from Burrow. He has the mental game to maintain his ascension to the top of the game.

Chase, after taking a year off during the COVID-19 season, has instantaneously found the rapport with his college football quarterback. The pair know what the other is going to do; Burrow knows the nuisances of Chase’s route running, knows where he wants the ball thrown and has the timing down to a tee.

When you think of footballing comparisons to the pair, my mind turned to the chemistry and ability the Arsenal pair of Beth Mead and Vivianne Miedema, both world-class attacking talents that when put together combine to cause untold problems to opposing defenses in the WSL and UWCL.

BC: They’ve arguably been the most dynamic duo of the year and their past is what keeps this partnership so entertaining. The young stars are yet to lose a playoff game whether that be in the NFL or College Football and the connection they share on and off the pitch is impressive. They’ll definitely be the pair to watch on the Bengals’ offence during Super Bowl LVI.

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Who’s the best player across both teams? 

EA: Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald is very much the Virgil van Dijk of NFL. Each is/has been the best defensive player in his sport, if not arguably the best player full stop; in Donald’s case, he already is a legitimate all-time great. But, because of the greater focus on other, more glamorous positions – the NFL MVP these days begins and ends with the QB, while attack is king when it comes to the Ballon d’Or (as Van Dijk found out in 2019) – each is unlikely to receive the ultimate individual honour in his sport.

SD: Aaron Donald as well for me. There’s a reason he has been voted the league’s Defensive Player of the Year on three occasions. He dominates the line of scrimmage with his power and agility for a man his size (6″1, 289lb) and is unstoppable one-on-one. Think of him as a dominant winger who forces his counterpart to track back and defend in tandem with their full-back. He forces the opposition to defend him with two players opening up space for others to exploit the space, namely all-pro linebacker Von Miller.

BC: For the Rams, it’d be tough to bet against Cooper Kupp, who has had one of those seasons that will go down in history. He’s broken numerous records and saved their season with a HUGE touchdown on one of the last plays against Tom Brady’s Tampa Bay.

For the Bengals, it’s either Ja’Marr Chase or Joe Burrow. It’s almost impossible to pick one of the two, as they’ve both been tremendous but Burrow just gets the nod.

After he was drafted first overall in 2020, he suffered a serious knee injury in his rookie year which cut his debut season short. To then bounce back and defeat one of the Super Bowl favourites in Patrick Mahomes and Kansas City Chiefs, is an impressive feat.

How has the NFL’s ‘transfer window’ influenced the Super Bowl?

SD: The NFL operates slightly differently in terms of a ‘transfer window’, as teams can either acquire player through trade, or sign players who contracts have expired.

NFL franchises have until midway through the season to make trades. Teams who are in contention for a playoff tend to look for all-star talents who are struggling on franchises at the bottom of the NFL. The contending team usually offer compensation in the form of draft choices, although player for player trades have been done before.

Free agency, meanwhile takes place in the offseason – in the NFL, players regularly run out their contracts to hit free agency in an effort to secure a substantial payday on the open market – something that happens a lot less in European football.

If we look at the two Super Bowl contenders, the Rams are the team who have regularly used the trade market to secure talent. Without the trades they have made in recent years – Jalen Ramsey, Matthew Stafford and Von Miller to name a few – Rams would likely not be in the ‘big show’ in 2022.

BC: The trade activity back in November certainly boosted LA’s chances of a Super Bowl run as they brought in star linebacker Von Miller and renowned wide receiver, Odell Beckham Jr (a free agent after being released by Cleveland).

At the time it was one of those moments where it quite literally was boom or bust for the Rams and looking back, it has most definitely paid off.

They’re in the Super Bowl and during the playoffs, Beckham scored his first post-season touchdown but also set an NFL record. He became the first player in NFL playoff history to have a 30-yard reception AND a 30-yard completion in the same game.

How does the NFL’s tournament structure compare with European football competitions?

SD: It’s essentially the knockout stages of the Uefa Champions League, but without the two legs. The regular season is your domestic leagues; win your division in the NFL and you make the playoffs. Strong divisions, who have multiple high-calibre teams, will likely have one team (or sometimes even two) also qualify for the postseason as a ‘wildcard’.

We’ll skip the group stage – as it doesn’t fit out comparison narrative – and head into the knockout stages. The playoffs are a one-game shootout where it’s either win or go home, much like the last 16 of the Champions League. Only difference is that the team who performed better in the regular season is awarded homefield advantage.

In summary, the regular season is like a domestic league, with the best teams qualifying for an all-star cup competition.

BC: The structure is actually one of the things confuses many new fans, as there are quite a few variables that lead to the post-season (such as wildcard games and divisional places).

But once you know the teams, sit back and relax. I’ve always said I personally think the NFL playoffs and Super Bowl are up there in terms of the most exciting sports to watch, if not the most.

Unlike football (soccer), the NFL playoffs seem to have drama right down to the wire with high-scoring games and both teams going right at it. How many big European tournaments end with a cagey final that becomes tedious to watch when both teams settle for extra time and penalties?

And how many footballing leagues are decided well before the final game week? The playoffs provide an endless amount of entertainment and the Super Bowl (bar the half-time show) continues that.