Super Bowl LVI Preview and Prediction


Cory Puffett '10, Advisor

We’re just a couple days away from Super Bowl Sunday! The longest season in NFL history is nearing its conclusion and we will crown a new Super Bowl champion!

Unfortunately, it will also be the second straight year that DeMatha will not be the alma mater of a Super Bowl champion. Prior to Super Bowl LV last February, we’d enjoyed three straight year’s boasting a Super Bowl champion with Rodney McLeod ’08, Ja’Whaun Bentley ’14, and John Lovett ’14 winning consecutive titles with the Philadelphia Eagles, New England Patriots, and Kansas City Chiefs respectively.

But that doesn’t mean we in the DeMatha community can’t still enjoy a terrific game on Sunday. It also makes it much easier for me to remain unbiased when rooting for, or prediction, one team to beat the other.

The Los Angeles Rams will be the second team ever, and the second in as many seasons, to play the Super Bowl in their home stadium. Unlike the 2020 Tampa Bay Buccaneers, however, the Rams will be playing as the de facto road team for the big game.

The last time the Rams played in the Super Bowl was in February of 2019 when they lost in the lowest-scoring Super Bowl of all time. The Rams became just the second of now three teams to fail to score a touchdown in a Super Bowl and tied the record for fewest points scored in Super Bowl history, with a 53-yard Greg Zuerlein field goal being their only score.

That 13-3 win for the New England Patriots, Brady’s sixth and final Super Bowl victory as a member of the organization, was a stain on Sean McVay’s early career as the head coach of the Los Angeles Rams.

The issue wasn’t that McVay lost to arguably the greatest coach in league history. Rather, the stain came from the fact that his highly touted offensive unit, one that put up 54 points that November in one of the most thrilling games in NFL history, managed only a single field goal, kicked from more than 40 yards shy of the goal line, in the biggest game of the year.

Super Bowl LVI will be an opportunity for McVay to re-earn the legacy so many analysts seemed ready to give him when he made Jared Goff look like a Top 10 quarterback.

On the other side of the draw, the Cincinnati Bengals improved to 3-0 all-time in the AFC Championship game with their impressive come-from-behind 27-24 victory against the Chiefs two weeks ago.

They now prepare to make their first appearance in the championship since Super Bowl XXIII. That January 1989 evening saw the Bengals lose to the 49ers for the second time in the Super Bowl, both times by one-possession margins.

In that game, a 40-yard field goal by Jim Breech gave Cincy a 16-13 lead with 3:20 remaining in the fourth quarter before Joe Montana led an 11-play, 92-yard drive with John Taylor’s 10-yard touchdown reception coming with just 34 seconds to play.

Anthony Cris Collinsworth, the three-time Pro Bowl wide receiver who played in both of Cincinnati’s previous two Super Bowl appearances, retired after that game. Now he’ll be a part of Cincinnati’s third trip to the Super Bowl, this time in the booth. NBC will broadcast it’s 20th Super Bowl this year and Collinsworth will join Al Michaels on the call.

The 2021 Bengals have been a fun, if inconsistent, team to follow. This is a team that had little trouble blowing out the Ravens twice by a combined score of 82-38 and won a thrilling Week 17 game against the Chiefs. They’re also a team that got blown out by the Chargers 41-22 in early December and by the Browns 41-16 a month prior to that.

But they’ve made it to the Super Bowl on the strength of three playoff victories, all by seven points or less. Their Wild Card win against the Raiders was fairly expected, but then they beat the AFC’s #1 seed, the Titans, in the Divisional round and, two weeks ago, the betting favorite to win Super Bowl LVI, the Kansas City Chiefs.

Zac Taylor, entering this season, was 6-25-1 as the Bengals head coach. Joe Burrow, the first overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft, lost the final six games of his rookie season to a torn ACL and MCL. Then, instead of a desperately-needed offensive lineman, the team selected wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase in the first round of the 2021 draft.

In short, nobody had any clue what to expect of the Bengals this year. It hasn’t always been pretty, but they’ve proven that they have a terrific foundation. Win or lose, the Bengals are set up for long-term success.

Once their salary cap rollover is added to next year’s cap, Cincinnati is expected to have around $58 million in cap space with more to come with one or two players expected to be released in the offseason. This is a very young team with a significant percentage of their roster still playing on rookie deals for at least another year or two.

On to the actual matchup. I love the lead up to the Super Bowl. Just two teams remain and it becomes so much easier to research the two teams in depth to come up with, hopefully, an accurate prediction.

This year I’m doing it without the help of Madden for the first time since Super Bowl LII. I’m 2-2 all-time when making my prediction without Madden (14-7 overall), and I absolutely would have gotten Super Bowl LV wrong if my prediction game hadn’t inexplicably resulted in a 28-14 victory for the Buccaneers (they wound up winning by an additional eight points).

Super Bowl matchups are usually tough to gauge. Obviously both teams are very good to have gotten this far. But often times you have to really dig deep into the analytics to find advantages you can consider while making your prediction.

This year, though, the advantages are right there on the surface. DVOA is a metric created by Football Outsiders that attempts to show teams’ offensive and defensive success rates compared to the league average and adjusted for the quality of their opponents. While it isn’t always the most useful metric for individual game predictions, it is great for following trends and understanding teams’ strengths and weaknesses.

I’m rooting for the Bengals in this game and offense is more fun, so let’s take a look first at how the Bengals offense matches up with the Rams defense.

Cincy has improved drastically since their Week 10 bye on the offensive side of the ball. They’ve continued to play well in the playoffs, but there’s been a clear decline in success rate in these past three games, particularly in the passing game which is this offense’s strength. Joe Mixon is a good running back, but thanks in large part to a poor offensive line, their DVOA numbers in the run game are middle of the pack.

The Rams defense, meanwhile, began the season in the middle of the league and then saw a dramatic improvement against both the run and the pass following their Week 11 bye. In the playoffs, they’ve only gotten better. Against the pass, they’ve sported a -43.9% DVOA in the postseason (you want a positive DVOA on offense and a negative DVOA on defense, and -43.9% is outstanding)!

In this matchup, there is a clear and obvious advantage in favor of the Rams. Bummer.

Let’s switch sides and look at how the Bengals defense stacks up against the LA offense.

Los Angeles really struggled after their bye week. Their strength through most of the season, like the Bengals’ offense, was the passing game and their DVOA ranking dropped from 4th prior to their bye week to 12th down the stretch. That’s still above average in the league, but it’s not what you expect from a Super Bowl contender.

In the playoffs, though, they’ve been incredible in the pass game. Even in their low-scoring, 20-17 victory over the 49ers in the NFC Championship game, they sported a 35.1% offensive passing DVOA because the success they had came against a well-respected, high-performing defensive unit.

LA’s run offense has been the second worst out of the 14 teams that qualified for the playoffs, but the passing game has been so strong that they still rank 3rd in total offensive DVOA this postseason!

The Bengals also showed improvement against both the run and the pass after their Week 10 bye, but they still ranked in the bottom half of the league defensively. In the playoffs, their pass defense, their weakness in the regular season, has actually been pretty strong with a -14.9% DVOA. The run defense, meanwhile, which was in the top half of the NFL through the regular season, ranks 13th out of 14 playoff teams this postseason.

Overall, their defense did improve in January, but not nearly to the extent of the Rams offense. So, once again, the Rams have a marked advantage.

It seems pretty obvious then that the Rams should win this game. As long as Matthew Stafford avoids costly turnovers, which he’s done this postseason with just one interception in his three games, the offensive will be nearly unstoppable.

Defensively, the Rams don’t have many weaknesses to exploit. Their secondary has been fantastic and their defensive line, led by maybe the greatest defensive lineman of all time and certainly of my generation, should consistently overpower the Bengals offensive line.

If there is one area the Rams defense has struggled in, it’s defending the intermediate pass in the middle of the field, an area in which the Bengals can be very successful even if C.J. Uzomah isn’t effective or can’t play at all.

But Raheem Morris is a terrific defensive coach and he can absolutely find ways to cover for his linebackers’ lackluster pass coverage ability. The question, then, is whether Zac Taylor, Brian Callahan, and Joe Burrow can find the weaknesses that will inevitably open up if LA makes that adjustment.

As much as I like Joe Burrow and don’t believe for one moment that he’s out of his depth in this game, I don’t have much faith in Zac Taylor as an NFL head coach, much less one capable of overcoming this sort of disadvantage in the Super Bowl. I’ll be thrilled for Cincy if they can pull it off, but I just don’t see it.

Final Score: Los Angeles Rams – 31, Cincinnati Bengals – 17 | MVP: Matthew Stafford

What do some of your classmates and teachers think? I asked a few of them for some thoughts and predictions. Here are a few of their responses:

The Stagline’s editor-in-chief, Thomas Krukar, likes the favored Rams to win the big game. “The biggest weakness for the Bengals is their offensive line,” Thomas says. On the other side, the Rams defensive line is a huge strength with Aaron Donald, Von Miller, and company. “Burrow is unbelievable, but the lack of experience, coaching-wise especially, could wind up hurting the Bengals.” He also believes Matthew Stafford has cleaned up a lot of his turnover problems from earlier in the season, which is shown by his strong 6:1 touchdown-to-interception ratio in the playoffs.

Stags defensive back Zilan Williams, who has committed to Rutgers for the fall of 2022, thinks the Rams have a decisive advantage in the defensive backfield “because of [Jalen] Ramsey.” He doesn’t think we should read too much into him getting beat by Mike Evans at the end of the Rams near-loss to the Buccaneers in the wild card game. “As a cornerback, or any DB, it happens. Getting toasted one time doesn’t take away from what he can do.”

Zilan did concede that the Bengals could still give the Rams problems with Ja’Marr Chase, Tee Higgins, and Tyler Boyd all capable receivers. “Three wide receivers are an issue for any defense no matter how good you are. Ramsey can’t do it all by himself, so everyone else is going to have to step up, too,” he said.

Mr. Holsey, who everyone in the school knows is a huge Cleveland Browns fan, saw Odell Beckham leave his team in the middle of the year. Now he’ll play in the Super Bowl for the Rams against a fellow Ohio team and AFC North rival of the Browns. Mr. Holsey isn’t a fan of Beckham “not because of his athletic ability, [but] because of his personality.” On Beckham reaching the game, Mr. Holsey was concise about his feelings. “Congratulations, I hope he loses.”

Fellow Stagline editor Darin Martin “wants the Bengals to win because of Joe Burrow,” but he thinks the Rams will ultimately come out on top because Eli Apple, the Rams number two corner, will have to cover either Odell Beckham or Cooper Kupp and Darin doesn’t think he’s up to the challenge.

Mr. Lattanzi says his heart says Bengals but his head says Rams. He does, however, believe the Bengals will have a chance if the Rams aren’t up by at least three scores late in the third quarter.

Austin Boynes, who serves as a Stagline editor with Thomas and Darin, is curious to see how the two offenses operate. He says the tight ends, C.J. Uzomah of the Bengals and Tyler Higbee of the Rams, provide safety blankets for their quarterbacks. But with Higbee looking doubtful for the Super Bowl and Uzomah’s health also in question, Austin is concerned that the check downs may not be there for either quarterback.

Austin thinks the Bengals will win, primarily because Stafford’s lack of experience making deep playoff runs could expose him. He’s also concerned about the pressure LA must feel after going all in for this Super Bowl. “If they don’t win the Super Bowl, this season will have been a disaster,” Austin says.

Mr. April ’10 is excited for the normalcy of seeing a crowd at full attendance for the Super Bowl. He’s also happy to have a Super Bowl without Tom Brady, “as good as he is… I think the league is ready to move in a new direction. Sure, we have Stafford, but he deserves it after serving his sentence in Detroit.”

But Mr. April views Joe Burrow as the new face of the league and he loves the new, up-and-coming quarterbacks replacing recent players like Brady, Ben Roethlisberger, Philip Rivers and Eli Manning. And as if to emphasize Burrow’s status in his mind, Mr. April says he thinks the Bengals will win by 6 points or less, saying they have “team of destiny vibes written all over them.”