LOS ANGELES - A Bengals franchise that won one of the two coldest NFL games ever tries to win its first NFL championship Sunday in what may be the hottest Super Bowl ever behind the young quarterback nicknamed Joe Cool.
The longshot Bengals, two years removed from 2-14 and two months removed from an overtime loss that dropped them to 7-6, don't have many friends in Las Vegas after they beat the Raiders to start this postseason. But they are big favorites in the Super Bowl edition of the Bengals.com Media Roundtable.
Naturally we had to call on a Bengal who played in the last Super Bowl and Sirius safety Solomon Wilcots, the anchor of Channel 88's Opening Drive, thinks his secondary descendants get their hands on Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford's offerings and do what they couldn't do to Joe Montana in Super Bowl XXIII.
Joe Reedy, the estimable Associated Press reporter covering the Rams, knows the Bengals well. He covered the rise and fall of the Green-Dalton Bengals at The Cincinnati Enquirer, but he believes this new version of the franchise is so young that they are playing free of the past while the Rams still lug around the loss to the Patriots.
The local contingent is manned by two reporters who grew up in Cincinnati and came back to chronicle their hometown team's AFC championship season. Paul Dehner, Jr., of The Athletic, a podcasting pioneering from his days at The Cincinnati Enquirer, talks us through why it is Evan McPherson again at the gun. Mike Petraglia of CLNS, who went away to cover all of Tom Brady's Super Bowl wins in New England (not to mention all the Red Sox' rings of the 21st century), breaks down why the Bengals are going to beat the Rams like the Patriots did in 2018.
A 1990 Reds-like sweep, the last Cincinnati championship. Let's go around the Super Bowl Bengals.com Media Roundtable. As always, former Bengals, visitors and the alphabet first:
People kept saying, are we going to protect him? I don't know how we're going to block Aaron Donald, Leonard Floyd and Von Miller. But take the whole snapshot of the season. He was the most sacked quarterback in the league, but did that prevent them from winning? Did that prevent them from winning the division? Did it prevent them from winning in the playoffs? At no point have we've been able to say because we couldn't protect Joe Burrow we couldn't win the game. In fact, a large sample size would indicate that he overcome being the most sacked quarterback and put his team in the Super Bowl, so why couldn't that happen in this game?
The Rams secondary busts more coverages than any other team in the league. They have miscommunications on the back end and Bengals head coach Zac Taylor will exploit that.
The Rams quarterback is no longer the deep ball passer he used to be. His balls float, they hover and they're inaccurate when he goes deep. The Bengals watch the same tape I do. When he throws the ball deep, it hovers and it is either dropped for an interception or it is intercepted. Go back to the last game of the year. San Francisco intercepted his last pass of the game because it hung in the air. Last week they could have intercepted it, but it just hung up in the air and the guy dropped it. Our guys will catch it. We've proven it because we've ended every playoff game with an interception on defense. This will be the same.
THE EDGE: Make sure you let everybody know I think they're going to win. BENGALS, 30-27
From the Rams perspective, I have to land a knock-out punch by the middle of the third quarter. If the Bengals are still within seven, I think Cincinnati has momentum. I think the Rams are one of these teams that lets teams hang around and have life. With the Rams playing in their own stadium, even though technically they're the visiting team and Super Bowl venues are different than home venues, if they are not up big in their own place, I think the momentum goes more and more towards the Bengals.
If Matthew Stafford throws multiple interceptions, the Rams are in trouble. Running back Cam Akers has to be more consistent and he may be now that it is five weeks after his Achilles' injury. He's not averaging three yards per rush. Their receivers are their receivers. Cooper Kupp is going to get his yards and his key third-down catches, but they have to limit everybody else. The injury to tight end Tyler Higbee is significant because it puts more pressure on Kupp to have a big game. He did come up big in the NFC title game after Higbee came out in the first quarter.
The Bengals are going to have to deal with the Rams two newest additions. Von Miller and Odell Beckham Jr., They've played tremendously during the postseason. You have to contain Von and you have to put bodies on OBJ. At least Von has a Super Bowl ring. Stafford and OBJ don't and at that point in your career not knowing if you're going to get back, that puts more pressure on people. When you're a younger player, you always think, yeah, you're going to be back one day. The older you get the less opportunities you do.
Special teams I see as very even because Matt Gay can boom the ball, too, as well as Evan McPherson. I think both teams get to the 35, that's plenty for both kickers. Even the 38 or the 39 depending on what the time of the game is. I think both coaches are not afraid to try the 53- or 55-yarder and see if their defense can hold up.
I like this Bengals roster. They're young enough they don't know any better about being in this game and the stakes, while it might weigh on the Rams a little bit. I think last year when Rams head coach Sean McVay beat Bill Belichick, he got that Super Bowl hangover alleviated. But do memories of Atlanta and their loss to the Patriots come back?
THE EDGE: Maybe in terms of points it's more than people would expect. The Rams haven't had the knock-out punch all year. I don't know if they're going to have it against this team. The Rams let Tampa Bay come back from a huge margin and the Bengals have come back from a couple of significant large margins during this postseason and I would not say that's a good combination now. In the unlikeliest of runs, why not just complete it and win the whole damn thing? BENGALS, 30-28
It has to look the same as every Bengals game, doesn't it? It's about turnovers, isn't it? They've found ways to get turnovers and steal possessions and turn them into points. It's been just enough to set up Burrow in a close game and let him go do what he does and that's find a way to win. That's what you've got, a guy in Stafford that can turn it over and a team that has thrived off that. That's the difference. It's finding points here and there and get the turnover at the end.
No one wants to talk about how the defense has carried this team because everybody loves the offense and that's understandable given where the star power is. They've been doing just enough. They have holes. Their offensive line is an issue. Bu they've found ways to get points when they needed them. Can this game have anything but four Evan McPherson field goals? How could it be any other way? Four field goals and turnovers have been the way to go. A shootout doesn't fit them. They've reverted to that point where they're winning grinding games like they did in Vegas and Denver. They can win games different ways, but at this level it just seems like that's what they've fallen into.
THE EDGE: McPherson at the gun from about 46. McPherson's four field goals and Burrow drives them to get them in position. BENGALS, 19-17
I see this coming down in a similar fashion to the Rams' 13-3 Super Bowl loss to the Patriots three years ago. Bengals slot receiver Tyler Boyd is going to have a huge game just like Julian Edelman when he was the MVP in that Super Bowl. Ten catches for 141 yards. A very similar scenario could be unfolding. You have two explosive receivers the Rams are trying to shut down in Tee Higgins and Ja'Marr Chase and that's going to leave Boyd underneath. The Rams' focus three years ago was containing Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski and they did until the very end of the game.
I also think running back Joe Mixon, like Sony Michel did for the Patriots, could have a huge impact. He'll have two touchdown runs and I think they're going to grind the game. I think they're going to want to slow the game down. I don't think they want a shootout at all with these guys. They want it like the Raiders game in Vegas. In Denver. In that game Tyler had the big touchdown reception. That's kind of what I see happening.
I think you'll see the Bengals drop eight in coverage against Matthew Stafford. They're going to try and bait Stafford into forcing the ball into bracket coverage on Cooper Kupp. I think they'll plaster and blanket their receivers as much as they can and take their chances with Rams running backs Sony Michel and Cam Akers.
THE EDGE: Same kind of game as when the Patriots upset the Rams 20 years ago. The Bengals grind it out, slow down the Rams and Burrow gets the ball late. McPherson at the gun. BENGALS, 24-21
THE BOTTOM LINE
If the mercury goes higher than the 84 degrees the Dolphins finished off their 17-0 season in 1973's Super Bowl VII, the Freezer Bowl Bengals are now officially in the Super Sauna Bowl Bengals as they try to cool off the Rams' monstrous pass rush.
But they have a breezy second-year quarterback who already goes by Joe Cool in the first matchup ever of Super Bowl quarterbacks with losing career records. But both are as hot as the Southern Californian heat wave.
The Bengals' Joe Burrow, the centerpiece of back-to-back stunning draft classes, has won his last six starts throwing 13 touchdowns and two interceptions. Matthew Stafford, poster child for the win-it-now Rams after 12 grueling seasons in Detroit, has won eight of his last nine with 20 touchdowns and nine interceptions. As good as Burrow has been in the postseason (a 96.2
passer rating, 68.8 completion percentage, four TDs, two picks), Stafford has been ever better (72, 115.6, 6-1) and the stats say both guys kill the blitz.
So the Rams figure to take away rookie sensation wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase with the great Jalen Ramsey in their NFL Films matchup and dare the Bengals beat them with running back Joe Mixon and slot receiver Tyler Boyd while trying to figure out how to take away 1A receiver Tee Higgins and harassing Burrow's inconsistent offensive line with the best four-man pass rush in the league. They don't need to blitz, right?
Everybody from Athens to Zanesville knows Burrow is getting rid of it fast. Former Bengals wide receiver Cris Collinsworth, who just happens to be calling his fifth Super Bowl, thinks Mixon could catch ten balls. This is Rams wide receiver Cooper Kupp's Super Bowl with his 25 third-down catches. But Boyd has 14 catches in the postseason with some big ones on third down that include a red zone touchdown against Vegas.
And there's a stat out there that says the Rams are vulnerable against quick passes. But after giving up nine sacks against Tennessee, how much are the Bengals going to pass against Hall-of-Fame rushers Von Miller and Aaron Donald?
But, as Burrow would say, the Rams are going to have to pick their poison.
After stifling the great Patrick Mahomes by dropping eight in coverage in the AFC title game, the assumption is that Bengals defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo is going to cool off Stafford the same way. Stafford had a league-leading 17 interceptions during the season and is playing way over his career line of a 91.1 passer rating completing 63 percent of his passes.
Can the Bengals get him back to earth? No way he's going to play against them like he did when he was with the Lions, when he was 0-3 against Cincy with a 51-percent completion percentage and a 75 passer rating. Holding him somewhere between that and this postseason could be enough. All eyes again turn to that opportunistic back seven of the Bengals that has conjured up so many big post-season picks.
Bengals kicker Evan McPherson has been hotter than those two quarterbacks with a 12-for-12 postseason, but there's no edge there. The Rams' Matt Gay missed just two field goals this season and has a long of 55 so that's about even under the SoFi canopy.
The Bengals have won grind jobs in the postseason.
They are the first team to win one-possession games in each of the Wild Card, Divisional, and Championship rounds of a single postseason. Their plus-13 point differential is the lowest by any team to win three games to reach the Super Bowl.
It sounds like it could be a replay of 20 years ago, when the Pats muddied up the Rams' Greatest Show on Turf, a game won by the cool of a second-year quarterback, Thomas Edward Patrick Brady. The Greatest Show is now on the Rams defensive line, meaning the Bengals have to play another tight, grinding game so those guys don't wreck it. It's OK to get in a shootout with Matt Stafford Cooper Kupp. But not when they have Donald and Miller.
In the end, it's a great matchup of how to build a team and roster. Bengals president Mike Brown didn't pull the trigger on his young head coach after two would-have-been-fired-anywhere-else seasons. Director of player personnel Duke Tobin's young room showed staff size doesn't matter but eyes do with two straight staggering drafts along with back-to-back gold-plated free-agency classes that now characterize the Bengals as resourceful instead of cheap.
If Brown gets to raise the Lombardi Trophy Sunday night, he'll also be raising the banner of old school football building blocks complemented by cutting edge technology off the field and new wave scheming on the field.
They go against the Rams, a team built for this one moment, this one game, this one season. The Bengals are built to get back here, but sometimes the fates are not.
And yet Brown, Burrow and their Young and Relentless Bengals are here playing like their time is now as the Super Sauna Bengals are poised to do what the Freezer Bowl Bengals couldn't.