Super Bowl 56 breakdown: Who has the edge once Rams and Bengals take field?
LOS ANGELES – Super Bowl 56 is just about ready for kickoff. The Cincinnati Bengals (13-7) and Los Angeles Rams (15-5) have completed their pre-game practices and media obligations and must simply endure a few more meetings, tape jobs and such before strapping it up Sunday with the Lombardi Trophy on the line.
The contest projects as a close affair, the Rams favored by 3½ points on their SoFi Stadium home field (even though the Bengals are technically the home team). Neither club was a great bet to get this far, both No. 4 seeds entering the playoffs. The Bengals only had six wins – total – in the two years preceding this season's Super Bowl run.
One roster, Cincinnati's, was largely homegrown with a strategic infusion of key free agents. Meanwhile, LA imported stars like QB Matthew Stafford, CB Jalen Ramsey, OLB Von Miller and WR Odell Beckham Jr. – seemingly at the expense of the organization's near- and long-term future given Los Angeles' next first-round pick is scheduled to come in 2024 – in a bid to bring the Rams their first crown as this city's team.
Who comes away with the sterling silver hardware? Let's break it down:
When the Rams run the ball
No team has rushed more often this postseason than LA (97 attempts) ... yet the Rams are only getting 2.9 yards per carry despite the commitment. Yet the resistible force is about to meet the movable object given Cincinnati has surrendered 127.3 yards per game and 5.9 per carry in the playoffs. Los Angeles should get a lift with the return of RB Darrell Henderson, who suffered an MCL sprain late in the regular season. His 4.6 yards per rush and 57.3 yards per game led the team during the season. Henderson, Cam Akers and Sony Michel should keep things fresh and diverse – all are also capable receivers. The Bengals will hope to recapture a regular-season formula that made them the fifth-best run defense in the league.
► Advantage: Rams
When the Bengals run the ball
Cincinnati's Joe Mixon has 190 rushing yards in the postseason, most in the league, and was arguably the best back this season not named Jonathan Taylor. Playoffs included, the Bengals are 6-0 when Mixon rushes for more than 70 yards. However the Rams own the postseason's stingiest run defense, allowing 54 yards per game and just 3.1 per rush. And speaking of the 70-yard threshold, LA is 8-1 this season when keeping opponents below it.
► Advantage: Rams
When the Rams pass the ball
Stafford had about as good a debut season with a new team as any quarterback in league history, his 41 TD passes second only to Tom Brady (43), and his 4,886 yards through the air third in the league. Stafford did serve up an NFL-high 17 interceptions during the regular season but has only one turnover in three playoff games – though San Francisco 49ers S Jaquiski Tartt dropped what might have been a decisive pick in the NFC championship game. Stafford has looked so good in large part due to Cooper Kupp, the league's newly crowned Offensive Player of the Year, who's having the biggest season by a receiver ever. In 20 games, Kupp has 170 catches for 2,333 yards and 20 TDs, and he always appears open no matter what coverage defenses throw at him. Opposite Kupp, OBJ now looks completely comfortable with a team he joined in midseason, breaking out for his best performance of the year (9 catches for 113 yards) in the NFC title game. No. 3 WR Van Jefferson is a deep threat, but the Rams won't have starting TE Tyler Higbee due to a knee injury. The Bengals have been susceptible through the air all season, ranking 26th in pass defense. But Cincinnati also makes big plays, DEs Trey Hendrickson and Sam Hubbard combining for 21½ sacks during the regular season. In the playoffs, the Bengals lead all teams with six interceptions, and Stafford should be especially wary of the savvy safety tandem of Jessie Bates III and Vonn Bell. Mike Hilton is one of the league's premier slot corners and will provide a significant challenge to Kupp.
► Advantage: Rams
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When the Bengals pass the ball
Cincinnati's Ja'Marr Chase, Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd were the only trio of wide receivers this season to each reach 800 receiving yards. Chase, the 2021 Offensive Rookie of the Year, had 13 TDs in the regular season to go along with 1,455 yards – most ever by a rookie during the Super Bowl era (since 1966). The Bengals have shown increased willingness to use him out of the backfield, realizing how explosive he is once the ball is in his hands. The Rams will have to determine whether they're best served by putting perennial All-Pro Ramsey, the league's premier corner, on Chase or letting Ramsey go one-on-one with Higgins and doubling Chase. The bigger hope is that the Rams DBs simply hold up long enough to allow the LA front – led by DL Aaron Donald and OLBs Miller and Leonard Floyd – to go after Cincinnati QB Joe Burrow, who was sacked a league-high 51 times during the regular season and 12 more in the playoffs, nine of those coming from the Tennessee Titans. The Rams' front is also getting a boost with the return of NT Sebastian Joseph-Day from injured reserve to help underrated linemates Greg Gaines and A'Shawn Robinson. C.J. Uzomah, one of the league's better combination tight ends, seems likely to play two weeks after suffering an MCL sprain in the AFC title game.
► Advantage: Even
The Rams' Johnny Hekker has made a case that he's the greatest punter in league history, one bolstered by the fact that the former high school quarterback is also so dangerous on fakes. Cincinnati counterpart Kevin Huber is more than solid, giving the Bengals stability for the past 13 seasons. Speaking of solid, how about Rams K Matt Gay? He missed all of three kicks in the regular season, going 32-for-34 on field-goal attempts while making all but one of 49 extra-point tries. He's been less accurate in the playoffs, making seven FGs but missing twice. And Gay can't hold a candle to Bengals rookie Evan McPherson, who's been one of this postseason's rock stars. McPherson is 12-for-12 on field-goal tries in the playoffs, including game-ending game winners in the divisional round and AFC championship game. McPherson's 12 FGs without a miss are the most ever in one postseason. His dozen field goals from at least 50 yards, playoffs included, are the most ever in one season. One potential X-factor is Rams return ace Brandon Powell, who excels on kickoffs and punts, including a 61-yard punt return for a TD in Week 16.
► Advantage: Bengals
Bengals head coach Zac Taylor was on Sean McVay's staff when the Rams reached Super Bowl 53. There are unlikely to be many secrets here, and it should be interesting to see which team does a better job executing and if either has success at breaking tendencies. Taylor, 38, seemed slow to adjust in the divisional win at Tennessee, when the Titans routinely teed off on Burrow. He also had some questionable game management decisions at the end of a Week 17 win over the Kansas City Chiefs, who bailed him out with a pair of penalties. McVay, 36, has admitted to being "outcoached" by New England's Bill Belichick in Super Bowl 53, perhaps slow to adjust to what the Patriots threw at the Rams and maybe loading up his players with an overly ambitious installation leading up to the game. All of that aside, McVay and Taylor appear to have earned complete trust from their players, and the results show why. McVay, a wunderkind since taking over the Rams in 2017, and Taylor, who turned the Bengals around much faster than anyone anticipated, sport the youngest combined age of any two head coaches in Super Bowl history.
► Advantage: Rams
The Rams are the second team in as many years to play the Super Bowl on their own field – that had never happened in the first 54 Super Sundays – and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers beat the Chiefs going away in Raymond James Stadium a year ago. That said, there seems to be a lot more pressure on the veteran-laden Rams, who have invested so much to get to this point and almost certainly can't keep this core of players together in 2022. Conversely, it feels like Cincinnati is playing with house money, the organization's championship window perhaps just swinging open. Burrow, who's never lost a postseason game going back to LSU (7-0), can seemingly do no wrong and could be the league's next superstar. McPherson could be the next great kicker and also provides a sense of security to the Bengals, who are pretty much in his range once they cross midfield.
► Advantage: Bengals
PICK: Rams 30-27
Follow USA TODAY Sports' Nate Davis on Twitter @ByNateDavis.