the westminster news
Published by the students of Westminster School
By Ryan Jainchill ’23
On Sunday, Feb. 13 at 6:30 p.m., Super Bowl LVI (56) will conclude the 2021 NFL season at the brand-new SoFi Stadium in Los Angeles. A season full of exhilarating games ends with a matchup that no one would have predicted back in August– the Cincinnati Bengals vs. Los Angeles Rams. Both teams feature high-flying offenses, firing on all cylinders throughout the season; both also have solid defenses and special teams units, making this matchup particularly interesting. Let’s take a look at each team and their path to the big game.
Cincinnati Bengals. If you told me that the Cincinnati Bengals would be representing the AFC in Super Bowl 56, I would have laughed at you. A team that finished dead last in the AFC North the prior season with a record of 4-11-1, during which their rookie franchise quarterback tore his ACL behind a porous offensive line, was shown no respect this year with preseason 125-1 Super Bowl odds. For those who are unfamiliar with preseason odds, that means that they had nearly no chance in the eyes of Las Vegas sportsbooks. Well, allow me to introduce you to Joe Burrow, the aforementioned franchise quarterback. “Joe Brrr” has a swagger about him that is unprecedented for such a young quarterback. This season he led the Bengals to a 10-7 record, capturing the AFC North Title. He then got the Bengals their first postseason win since 1991, a home Wild Card victory against the Las Vegas Raiders. Next, Burrow went into Tennessee and helped his Bengals knock off the top-seeded Titans. Finally, the crown jewel of the postseason: during the AFC Championship Game in Kansas City — with the winner going to the Super Bowl — Burrow led his team to a comeback victory, erasing a 21-3 deficit against the reigning AFC champs, winning the game on an Evan McPherson field goal in overtime, 27-24. Burrow has been a star, making excellent decisions with the ball and running when necessary. The players around him have also elevated their games from the year before. On the offensive side, powerful running back Joe Mixon is the beneficiary of the majority of the handoffs. Wideouts Tee Higgins, Tyler Boyd, and tight end CJ Uzomah have been the go-to targets for Burrow. But the real star of this offense is rookie wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase. Drafted sixth overall in 2021, Burrow’s former college teammate at LSU has made an immediate impact, breaking rookie receiving records and becoming the obvious WR1. Game-breaking speed is Chase’s best attribute, beating defenders all over the field. However, the weak spot for Cincy’s offense is their offensive line. Statistically ranked 20th in the regular season, the line has allowed a whopping 12 sacks this postseason. Against the Rams’ deadly pass rush, that might become an issue. But to their credit, when it matters, they have been sturdy in many times of need, providing Burrow the time and space he needs to make plays.
On the flip side, the Bengals’ defense was not a highly touted unit coming into the season. But the addition of edge rusher Trey Hendrickson from New Orleans benefited fellow linemen Sam Hubbard and DJ Reader. Logan Wilson and Germaine Pratt hold down the linebacker positions. An unsung secondary of safeties Jesse Bates and Vonn Bell, and corners Eli Apple, Chidobe Awuzie, Mike Hilton, and Tre Flowers have had their struggles but shut down the star receivers of the three teams they played to reach this point. A meaningful addition to their Bengals team has been kicker Evan McPherson, a rookie out of Florida. As the only kicker selected in the 2021 draft, McPherson has sent the team to the next round with two kicks, winning the divisional and conference rounds. He was quoted as telling Burrow before his kick for the win in the divisional in Tennessee, “looks like we’re going to the AFC Championship.” Confidence oozes through this young and hungry Cincinnati team, with an ever-growing “bandwagon” of fans wishing for a Bengals title.
Above: Bengals kicker Evan McPherson celebrating after drilling the game-winning kick to win the AFC Championship
Los Angeles Rams. On March 18, 2021 (first announced in January of that year), the Los Angeles Rams traded quarterback Jared Goff along with draft picks to the Detroit Lions for quarterback Matthew Stafford. Stafford was regarded as a player who had the ability to be a top quarterback but was always languishing on underachieving teams in Detroit, failing to win a playoff game during his tenure. A team mired by poor quarterback play with Goff under center had possibly found their guy. Stafford’s top target on the West Coast: Cooper Kupp. An underrated receiver going into this season, Kupp shattered receiving records, finishing with the triple crown (leader in touchdowns, yards, and receptions). The star receiver had a quarterback dropping dimes right into his hands, becoming one of the most reliable receivers in the league. In addition to Kupp, the Rams receiving core consists of Odell Beckham Jr., fresh out of a release from Cleveland, and Van Jefferson, who had a career year. However, mainstay receiver Robert Woods went down with an ACL injury in mid-November, a crucial loss to the team. In the backfield, Sony Michel was brought in to be the starting back after Cam Akers went down with a torn Achilles during the offseason. To their benefit, Akers made a miraculous return, reinforcing the backfield. Tyler Higbee is the number one tight end target, followed by Kendall Blanton. A sturdy o-line gives Stafford time and space to throw the deep ball.
The Rams defensive group is stellar. This unit is loaded with talent, including defensive tackle Aaron Donald, perennial defensive Player of the Year candidate, a force in the middle of the defensive line. A’Shawn Robinson and Greg Gains aid Donald. Off the edge, Super Bowl champion and former Denver Bronco Von Miller is still a menace when blitzing. He is flanked by Leonard Floyd and Tavin Howard, solidifying the linebacking core. The secondary: also loaded, led by All-pro cornerback Jalen Ramsey, one of the best in the game at his position.
The Rams’ road to Super Bowl 56 included beating Tampa Bay (in Tom Brady’s last game) on the road. However, they almost blew a 27-3 lead, winning on a buzzer-beating field goal, 30-27. The Rams followed that up by beating San Francisco in the NFL Championship Game in a home game with arguably as many 49ers fans as Rams fans, but did not look strong in that game, winning 20-17, as they never could get their offense in rhythm.
Above: Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford post-victory against the 49ers
Analysis. While this is a Super Bowl matchup few would have predicted, it is nonetheless an exciting battle of two excellent offenses with solid, complementary defenses. The Bengals had the more difficult path to the Super Bowl, having to play three games, including the last two on the road, where they had to beat the top two seeds in Tennessee and Kansas City. However, the difference in this matchup is twofold. First, the Rams have the benefit of playing at home in SoFi Stadium. Tampa Bay won the Super Bowl last year in their home stadium- the first time a team had hosted the Super Bowl. This home field advantage is critical, as Rams do not have to travel and are certainly comfortable at SoFi. Second, the Rams have the advantage of experience- they lost Super Bowl 53 to the New England Patriots in 2019. In that game, most experts felt that Rams Head Coach Sean McVay did not coach his team well, playing too conservative. McVay will have learned from that game and will be ready for the moment this time. While Stafford is new to the Rams, many of the key players on the Rams roster played in that game. Experience matters. The Bengals will likely just be happy to be there.
The game itself will feature these high-flying offenses, where both teams have the ability to score in only a handful of plays. Both Stafford and Burrow have proven that they can make every throw necessary under pressure, and both will be on top of their games. This game will come down to which team's defense can make more stops. With the game on the line, experience will come through. Aaron Donald will have a monster game up the middle, and Ramsey will have a big interception. The Rams take this game by a score of 28-21.