The First Read, Super Bowl LVI: Seven factors that could determine NFL’s biggest game

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The matchup for Super Bowl LVI is set, and it’s not exactly the meeting that was expected. The Los Angeles Rams arrived here by finally vanquishing the San Francisco 49ers, a team that had beaten the Rams six straight times, in the NFC Championship Game. The Cincinnati Bengals came through the underdog route yet again. They stunned Kansas City by overcoming an 18-point deficit to win the AFC Championship Game, a victory that denied the Chiefs a third consecutive Super Bowl appearance.

The interesting part of all this is the game will feature two teams that are riding entirely different waves of emotions. The Rams have to be relieved to be here, especially since they built this roster exactly for this type of result. This is why they traded for Matthew Stafford and Von Miller and signed Odell Beckham after the Cleveland Browns dumped him. The Rams don’t have a first-round pick until 2024. They’ve literally bet the house on this specific team winning a championship.

The Bengals are the complete opposite. Head coach Zac Taylor had won six games in his first two seasons with that franchise when this season began. Quarterback Joe Burrow was coming off major knee surgery, wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase was merely a talented rookie who’d been the fifth overall pick in the draft, and the defense was filled with a number of free-agent acquisitions. Oh yeah, Cincinnati plays in a division that put three teams in the playoffs last year. Nine wins would’ve been reason to rejoice for this bunch.

Now here we are, with one team that manufactured a championship roster and another that’s ahead of schedule. With that in mind, we’ll spend this Super Bowl edition of The First Read focusing on the most important factors to consider when thinking about who wins it all …

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1) Joe Burrow must keep playing like the next Joe Montana. It would’ve been hyperbolic to make such a comparison prior to the AFC title game. Not now. Not after Burrow faced an 18-point deficit in Arrowhead Stadium against the two-time defending AFC champs and with Patrick Mahomes standing on the other sideline. The Bengals won this game because they indeed are a good team, as Burrow kept telling people after Cincinnati’s Divisional Round win over Tennessee. They believed they could win because Burrow — who threw for 250 yards with two touchdowns and one interception — sets the tone for this scrappy bunch. The comparison to Montana comes here because this is how Montana looked when he was a young signal-caller on the rise in San Francisco, not because Burrow is on his way to leading a dynasty. It was Montana’s brilliance that drove the 49ers to believe they could go from being an annual joke to being a champion, and he had to go through a dominant franchise (Dallas) in his first postseason to make it happen. Burrow just did the same thing. He also provided ample reason to believe he won’t be unnerved now that he’ll be competing in the Super Bowl against a Rams team playing in its own stadium. The Bengals hadn’t won a playoff game in over 30 years when these playoffs began. They just went on the road and beat the top AFC seed in the Divisional Round and the team most people expected to win it all heading into this weekend. There were a lot of factors that contributed to that victory. The biggest is undoubtedly the presence of Joe Burrow.

2) Matthew Stafford must keep proving his critics wrong. The Rams made a blockbuster trade to acquire Stafford because they believed he was the missing ingredient in their championship hopes. He’s proven to be just that throughout these playoffs. Yeah, the verdict may have still been out in Round 1, when he was asked to throw just 17 times in a wild-card rout over Arizona. But Stafford passed for 366 yards in a Divisional Round win over Tampa Bay and another 337 in the NFC championship win over San Francisco. Most importantly, the same quarterback who entered the postseason with three straight multiple-turnover games (and six on the season) has thrown six touchdown passes to just one interception during the postseason. That sounds like a signal-caller finding his groove. After all, the knock on Stafford was that he wasn’t a winner. He amassed plenty of impressive stats during 12 seasons with the Detroit Lions, but he only made the playoffs three times (and never won a game). The major question Stafford had to answer was how he’d handle these high-pressure moments. It’s hard to challenge the evidence he’s produced so far. Stafford has displayed an amazing chemistry with wide receiver Cooper Kupp all season and has developed an equally impressive rhythm with Beckham of late. There’s definitely another sizable challenge coming with the Bengals in Super Bowl LVI, especially after Cincinnati tormented Mahomes in the second half of the AFC title game. However, Stafford seems more than ready to perform on the biggest stage of his life.

3) The Bengals’ defense has to stay strong. Burrow may be the headliner in Cincinnati these days but that defense keeps improving each week. This unit now has forced seven turnovers in the postseason. What that defense did against the Chiefs is one of the more impressive performances in recent playoff history. The Chiefs held a 21-3 lead in the second quarter of Sunday’s game. The Bengals only allowed 83 yards after halftime while posting four sacks and intercepting Mahomes twice, including that fateful pick in overtime by Vonn Bell that led to Evan McPherson’s game-winning field goal. This isn’t a defense brimming with star power. It is one that has found an identity. The Bengals are going to harass the quarterback, tackle consistently and make game-changing plays when the opportunities arise. Like their quarterback, this bunch also won’t rattle under pressure. The Bengals came into their Divisional Round win over Tennessee with some serious injury problems on their defensive line, most notably the loss of defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi to a foot injury. They wound up holding the Titans to just 16 points. Mahomes completed 18 of 21 passes for 220 yards and three touchdowns in the first half of the AFC Championship Game. His accuracy fell to 44.4 percent after halftime, with the Bengals also keeping the Chiefs out of the end zone on the final play of the second quarter. That stop — Cincinnati cornerback Eli Apple tackled wide receiver Tyreek Hill on the Bengals’ 1-yard line as time expired — changed the entire complexion of the contest. Cincinnati’s defense has made a similar impact on the second half of the season. It’s simply made the plays it’s needed to make in order to help this team thrive.

4) The Rams’ pass rush must go off. There will be no bigger mismatch in this game than the one featuring the Los Angeles defensive line against the Cincinnati offensive line. The Rams ranked third in the NFL with 50 sacks this season. The Bengals ranked third in the league in sacks allowed, with 55. As much as this Super Bowl will feature plenty of storylines about the quarterbacks, the outcome really could come down to how often Cincinnati can keep the Rams from harassing Burrow. The first problem is obvious: Figuring out how to contain All-Pro defensive tackle Aaron Donald. He is the key to everything the Rams want to do up front, and his relentless interior pressure can keep any talented quarterback from enjoying a good night’s sleep prior to facing him. The Rams also have seen a rejuvenated Von Miller since he arrived in a midseason trade, while Leonard Floyd is a constant threat off the opposite edge. The Bengals have proven they can still thrive when Burrow is under duress. The Titans sacked him an NFL-record nine times in the Divisional Round, and he still completed nearly 76 percent of his passes. Cincinnati also used an excellent game plan to stifle the Chiefs’ pass rush, as Kansas City only sacked Burrow once Sunday. The Rams, however, are a different animal. They’ve relied on their defensive front four to make life difficult for opposing quarterbacks all season. They’ll now have the chance to do that one more time against an offensive line that doesn’t have close to the level of individual talent and a quarterback who can be prone to holding the ball too long.

5) Evan McPherson has to stay hot. McPherson was the only kicker selected in the 2021 NFL Draft. That fifth-round pick has proved to be invaluable. McPherson launched himself into the record books during Sunday’s win over Kansas City, as his 12 made field goals are the most all time in the postseason by a rookie kicker. He hasn’t missed a kick in the playoffs (which includes four field goals in each of Cincinnati’s three wins so far). He’s actually connected on 35 of his last 37 attempts going back to Week 6. It’s ironic to think that McPherson started that stretch of success after missing a potential game-winner in an overtime loss to Green Bay in Week 5. He’s been nothing but nails ever since, with the deciding points in Cincinnati’s last two playoff wins coming courtesy of his right leg. We’ve already talked about the Bengals’ offense and defense. McPherson’s consistency proves how strong this team is in all three phases of the game.

6) Jalen Ramsey must contain Ja’Marr Chase. This will be the best head-to-head matchup of Super Bowl LVI. As critical as Aaron Donald is to the Rams’ front, Ramsey is equally crucial on the back end of this defense. He’s the best cornerback in football, which means plenty in this game because he’s about to face one of the best wide receivers in the league. Chase blossomed into an All-Pro in his first NFL season. Like McPherson, he also set a playoff record in that win over Kansas City: No rookie in history has produced more receiving yards in the postseason than Chase, who now has 279 through three games. The Chiefs limited Chase to 54 yards in the AFC title game, largely by playing more two-high safety looks than normal. The Rams are more likely to have Ramsey shadow him the entire game. Ramsey has the talent and the ego to demand such a challenge. Such a strategy also would give the Rams more flexibility in how they defend the Bengals’ other weapons. After all, the Chiefs would be the first to acknowledge this: Containing Chase means nothing if players like Tee Higgins, Tyler Boyd and Joe Mixon still can get loose. Having one defender who can single-cover the Bengals’ star is a luxury most teams don’t have.

7) Zac Taylor needs to shine. The edge in this game has to go to the Rams because their head coach, Sean McVay, led this team to a Super Bowl just three years ago, and they’re playing at home. But Taylor, the Bengals head coach, was an assistant on that 2018 Rams team that won the NFC championship (Taylor coached quarterbacks that season before taking the Bengals job). He knows a thing or two about McVay’s system and how to attack it. That will be a major storyline in this game. So while this feels like it should be a Hollywood ending for the Rams, the reality is the Bengals have written a nice story of their own, with Burrow firmly establishing himself as a star for years to come. There are a lot of reasons to like the Rams in this contest. It’s just hard to bet against the Bengals after all they’ve accomplished on their postseason run.

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