LOS ANGELES — What to watch for in Sunday’s Super Bowl between the Bengals and Rams:
This is why the Rams traded for Jalen Ramsey: to lock down the other team’s best receiver. Sunday, that will be the Bengals’ Ja’Marr Chase, whose 1,455 receiving yards this season are the most a rookie has ever posted.
“Whoever you think their best man is, put me on him,” the Rams cornerback said this week. “Let me help the team win this game. That’s what it’s all about.”
While he said he’d do whatever his team needs Ramsey — whom Pro Football Focus graded as the best cornerback on the planet this season — will likely follow Chase no matter where he lines up.
Both players epitomize the way their teams look at the world. Chase, like quarterback Joe Burrow, is a first-round draft pick who helped to usher in the Bengals’ surprise turnaround.
Rams GM Les Snead acquired Ramsey punting on the draft. He traded the Rams’ first-round picks in 2016 and 2017 for then-quarterback Jared Goff and the 2018 first-rounder for receiver Brandin Cooks. He traded back out of the first round in 2019 and then dealt the first-rounders in 2020 and 2021 to the Jaguars for Ramsey. The Rams’ 2022 and 2023 picks belong to the Lions after Snead traded them, along with Goff, for quarterback Matthew Stafford.
Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford was one of the NFL’s best quarterbacks at home during the regular season. Of passers with at least 250 attempts, Stafford ranked fourth in passer rating (107.7) and passing touchdowns (21), fifth in passing yards (2,349), and second in yards gained per pass attempt (8.02).
He’ll play at home Sunday, even if it’s technically a neutral site. It will mark the second time ever — but also the second time in as many years — a team has played the Super Bowl in its own stadium. The Buccaneers won in Tampa, Fla., last year, though the crowd’s size was limited because of the coronavirus.
PLAYER TO WATCH
The Rams’ Cooper Kupp became the first person since 2005 — and only the fourth since 1970 — to win the receiving triple crown. He led the league with 145 receptions, 1,947 receiving yards, and 16 touchdowns. Both his receptions and yards are second-most in NFL history.
He’s been even better in the postseason, catching 25 passes for 386 yards and four touchdowns over three games. He needs seven catches Sunday to pass Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce for most postseason catches in a single season.
Rookie kicker Evan McPherson has made a walk-off winner in the Bengals’ last two playoff games — a 52-yarder to beat the Titans in the divisional round and a 31-yarder in overtime to top the Chiefs in the AFC title game.
He’s 12-for-12 in the playoffs and needs three field goals Sunday to pass Adam Vinatieri, who made 14 in 2016, for the most playoff makes in one year.
Along the way, he’s filed a trademark for his nickname, “Money Mac.”
Eighteen Super Bowl matchups were more likely than Rams vs. Bengals when the NFL playoffs started last month according to the betting odds.
Anyone — or, maybe, if there is anyone — who played a Super Bowl exacta with Cincinnati and Los Angeles is sitting pretty right now. Circa Sports had the Rams over the Bengals in Super Bowl 56 at 85-to-1 going into the postseason, and the Bengals over the Rams at 100-to-1.
The former result is now -200 (i.e., risking $200 to win $100) to occur at SoFi Stadium on Sunday, with the latter +175 (i.e., risking $100 to win $175), leaving a strong arbitrage opportunity even if a bettor only has one of the two exacta combinations.
Unfortunately, I’m not managing pre-existing positions on either outcome — or even any future. The 49ers’ loss 27-24 loss to the Rams in the NFC Championship Game painfully wiped out my final remaining future.
On the bright side, that means I can go into the final game of the season with a blank slate looking to do nothing but find the best value. It’s been an up-and-down year for the pick’em, mostly down in the playoffs, with a 139-144-1 (48-42 on plays, 48-44 on leans, and 43-58-1 on guesses) record picking every game against the spread.
That still represents profitability on the plays, which is the ultimate goal, and now there’s one last chance to add to the success.
Super Bowl 56: Los Angeles Rams -4 vs. Cincinnati Bengals, over/under: 48.5
It’s happening again.
Rams vs. Bengals recreates the Super Bowl trope of a juggernaut side going up against “a team of destiny”-type. It’s happened four other times in the last 15 years — Patriots vs. Giants in 2008, Steelers vs. Cardinals in 2009, 49ers vs. Ravens in 2013, and Patriots vs. Eagles in 2018.
In each of those instances, I’ve opted to go with the larger sample size and back the favorite. In each of those instances, that’s backfired with the underdog keeping up its hot streak and covering and winning outright in three of four (the Steelers edging the Cardinals 27-23 as a 7-point favorite was the exception).
Can I switch sides in a similar setup this year and go with the spunky underdog that’s captured the hearts of football fans everywhere? It’s a difficult sell, particularly considering this point spread is lower than the aforementioned four examples.
To be incredibly simplistic, when it comes down to it, the Bengals are just not that…. good. There’s a lot of volatility in a single-elimination tournament regardless of the sport, and every once in a while, the NFL reminds of that fact. It’s reminding this year with the Bengals, a team that rates No. 18 in the league by Football Outsiders’ DVOA and won its three playoff games by a total of 13 points despite getting outgained on a per-play basis in all of them.
Cincinnati has benefited from incredibly good fortune in each contest. A wild-card round 26-19 win over the Raiders was probably the Bengals’ best performance, but even then, they got gifted a touchdown via an inadvertent whistle and had to make a late goal-line stand to win.
A 19-16 victory over the Titans in the divisional round was their worst performance, but three interceptions allowed the Bengals to squeak by. The second half of a comeback 34-31 victory at Kansas City in the AFC Championship Game was highly impressive, but arguably not as telling as a first-half where Cincinnati was steamrolled and could have been down 28-10 if the Chiefs converted from the 1-yard line.
The Rams, meanwhile, are every bit the Goliath some are making them out to be despite their No. 4 seed. They were unlucky to finish 12-5 straight-up in the regular season with DVOA’s second-highest expected wins.
To bet an underdog at this short of the price in the Super Bowl, I’d want them to have at least one clear advantage. Do the Bengals have any?
It’s not even close on defense. The Rams are better at every level, against the pass and the run.
Because of their memorable postseason run, popular opinion may argue the Bengals are better at quarterback but that’s a reach at best. Cincinnati quarterback Joe Burrow, in his second season, is well on pace to surpass Los Angeles veteran Matthew Stafford but he’s not there yet.
Stafford has been better by any advanced measure this season including DVOA, EPA (expected points added) and QBR. And he’s been playing behind a much-superior offensive line.
The receiving corps are close, but the Rams should be set over the top there too by Cooper Kupp having one of the best seasons in the history of the position.
The Bengals have run the ball more efficiently than the Rams over the last month, but not on the season as a whole. The importance of rush offense also pales in comparison to all the other aforementioned major categories.
Oh, and the Rams have been more reliable on special teams — No. 4 in DVOA to the Bengals’ No. 8 — despite Bengals kicker Evan McPherson having not missed a field goal in more than a month and going 12-for-14 on the year on 50+ yard attempts.
Before the Bengals began their current six-game win streak, they would have been at least a 6-point underdog against the Rams at SoFi Stadium. And it’s not like Los Angeles has been floundering late in the season.
On the contrary, the Rams are 8-2 since their Week 11 bye week with their only losses at the Packers and in a Week 18 game against the 49ers that ended up meaning nothing to their playoff positioning. The Bengals are 8-2 in the same span, but with a +50 point differential in comparison to the Rams’ +73.
Expecting Cincinnati to win the Super Bowl because it’s appeared primed for this moment down the stretch of the season is foolish. So has Los Angeles and in a more dominant fashion.
An upset isn’t outside the realm of possibilities and they’ve had a tendency of occurring in spots like these. But that short sample of recent history holds no predictive value.
The Rams’ superiority means more. It’s significant and should present itself in the Super Bowl.