Welcome to the Unconventional Preview, a serious yet lighthearted, nostalgia-tinted look at the Super Bowl …
This matchup between the Bengals and Rams is arriving with the least amount of anticipation of any recent Super Bowl, and that includes one that involved Rex Grossman as a starting quarterback.
There’s probably a parochial reason for this, given that we’ve grown accustomed to the Patriots and/or Tom Brady playing deep into January, if not early February. Part of it, too, is that the teams weren’t really expected to be here. The Rams and Bengals entered the playoffs as No. 4 seeds, with 12 combined losses during the regular season, the most ever by a pair of Super Bowl opponents.
The Rams, who are playing on their home field, needed to overcome a 10-point fourth-quarter deficit against the 49ers in the NFC Championship game to earn their berth. The Bengals, meanwhile, came back from 18 points down against the pretend-dynasty Chiefs in the AFC title game, and actually had to overcome something greater: the fact that they are the Bengals.
Cincinnati entered this postseason without a playoff win since the 1990 season. That the Bengals made it here still requires some getting used to.
But if this matchup isn’t one that NFL fans look forward to watching, there is at least a decent chance that it ends up being one we look back on fondly, in large part because of the charisma and career paths of the quarterbacks.
Bengals 2020 No. 1 overall pick Joe Burrow is on his way to becoming the Joe Cool of his era, following Joe Namath and Joe Montana (but definitely not Joe Flacco). He chomps victory cigars, dresses as if he’s paying homage to Color Me Badd, and has the uncanny knack the great ones possess for delivering the biggest plays in the biggest moments. A son of Ohio, he will shoot past Ken Anderson as the greatest quarterback in franchise history if he can stay healthy.
Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford is making his first Super Bowl appearance as well, but he’s no upstart. Like Burrow, he was the designated savior of a moribund franchise as the No. 1 overall pick by the Lions in 2009. He became the most statistically accomplished quarterback in Lions history, but he could not elevate the franchise; he never won a playoff game in Detroit.
The January 2021 trade to the Rams predictably rejuvenated him. Stafford threw 41 touchdown passes and built an electrifying connection with receiver Cooper Kupp.
It’s a compelling matchup of quarterbacks. Despite the lack of buzz, it should turn out to be a compelling game, too.
Kick it off, Evan McPherson (or you, Matt Gay), and let’s get this thing started …
Three players I’ll be watching other than the QBs
Ja’Marr Chase: Here’s something I wish I could bet on regarding NBC’s broadcast Sunday: analyst Cris Collinsworth, a former Bengals receiver himself, declaring Chase to be the greatest receiver in franchise lore.
Collinsworth has been saying that to anyone with a microphone/notepad for a few weeks now, and while it may be slightly premature since Chase, the fifth overall pick in the 2021 draft out of Louisiana State, is just a rookie, the only argument against it is his lack of longevity.
Chase’s first season was probably the best season a Bengals receiver has ever had. He finished with 81 catches and 13 touchdowns, and set a franchise record for receiving yards (1,455), breaking the mark set by Chad Johnson (1,440 in 2007).
Such declarations probably should be put on hold until we see how Chase fares in his matchup against Jalen Ramsey, who is on the very short list of the best cornerbacks in the league, and may even top it.
Ramsey isn’t invincible — the Buccaneers’ Mike Evans roasted him for a 55-yard touchdown catch late in their divisional-round matchup — but it will be interesting to see how Chase fares, especially with other receiving weapons (Tee Higgins, Tyler Boyd) at Burrow’s disposal.
Cooper Kupp: Chase had the best rookie season by a receiver in NFL history. Kupp may have had the best season by a receiver ever, period. He won the Triple Crown, leading the NFL in receptions (145), receiving yards (1,947), and touchdown receptions (16).
His reception total was four shy of Michael Thomas’s record for the 2019 Saints, and Kupp finished 17 yards shy of Calvin Johnson’s record for the 2012 Lions, with Stafford as his quarterback. Kupp’s 16 touchdowns are tied for 15th best in an NFL season (raise your hand if you remember Braylon Edwards having 16 for the 2007 Browns).
With the rules and styles of the era taken into consideration, I’d put Randy Moss’s 2007 (98-1,493-23) and Jerry Rice’s 1995 (122-1,848-15) ahead of Kupp’s 2021 achievements, but it’s close.
Kupp, who seems to have invented his own route tree, has continued to excel in the playoffs, with 25 catches for 386 yards and four touchdowns in three games. But the Bengals do have an excellent cornerback in Mike Hilton, who while a member of the Steelers helped hold Kupp without a catch on four targets during a November 2019 game.
Sony Michel: Michel was instrumental in helping the Patriots beat the Rams in Super Bowl LIII, running for 94 yards and the game’s only touchdown in their 13-3 win. Now he has a chance to help the Rams win a Super Bowl three seasons later.
Coach Sean McVay said he plans to use a running back rotation against the Bengals, with usage depending on how the game is unfolding. After running for 845 yards in the regular season, Michel has seen limited action in the playoffs with Cam Akers returning from an Achilles’ injury. But Akers dealt with a shoulder injury this past week, and Michel’s opportunity could come.
Grievance of the Week
In a moral and just NFL, the Patriots would have had the 29th pick in the 2016 draft. Players that were chosen in the next 20 spots included Derrick Henry, Hunter Henry, Xavien Howard, Chris Jones, and Michael Thomas. But they did not have that pick because commissioner Roger Goodell and his roving pack of Park Avenue toadies, feeling pressure from owners who felt the punishment for Spygate years earlier was too lenient, puffed up Deflategate into the most ridiculous scandal in professional sports history.
The NFL, which Mike Florio reports in his new book later threw out data that would have exonerated Brady, ended up taking away the pick as part of the punishment for something that was a misdemeanor at its worst and may not have existed at all. Goodell doesn’t just owe the Patriots an apology, he owes them a first-round pick.
Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald vs. Bengals offensive line
In the 55 previous Super Bowls, only three defensive linemen have been named the game’s Most Valuable Player.
Cowboys tackle Randy White and end Harvey Martin shared the award after combining for three sacks and helping hold the Broncos to 156 yards of total offense in Super Bowl XII. And end Richard Dent won it for the Bears defense’s public humiliation of the Patriots in Super Bowl XX.
That’s it. Fifty-five Super Bowls. Three defensive linemen named MVP in two games.
The Super Bowl MVP tends to go to the quarterback of the winning team. But there’s a chance Sunday that a certain defensive lineman dominates so thoroughly that there is no other option but to give him the award.
At 30 and in his eighth NFL season, Aaron Donald is long established as one of the best — and perhaps the best — defensive tackles in NFL history. He has made the Pro Bowl all eight seasons, All-Pro the last seven seasons, and has won three Defensive Player of the Year awards. He has hoarded 98 career sacks, including 12.5 in the 2021 regular season, and 1.5 sacks and six QB hits this postseason.
Donald leads a Rams pass rush — which also features Von Miller and Leonard Floyd — that collected 50 sacks in the regular season, third in the league. And they’re going up against a Bengals line that allowed 55 sacks, third-most in the league.
The Bengals haven’t solved how to prevent Burrow from being under constant siege. The Titans sacked him nine times in the divisional round, and while the Chiefs got him just once in the AFC title game, he was pressured 16 times.
Unless the Bengals have figured out how to clone Anthony Munoz in the past two weeks, Burrow is going to be seeing a lot of Donald and his menacing friends Sunday.
Prediction, or remember when Vince Ferragamo was the next big thing?
In a way, the Patriots are responsible for the Rams being here. The masterful game plan of Bill Belichick and Brian Flores in Super Bowl LIII revealed then-Rams quarterback Jared Goff as someone who struggled to read a defense without McVay’s assistance.
More damning, it revealed that he couldn’t make all the necessary throws. That was never more glaring than on a throw late in the third quarter, when, with the Patriots leading, 3-0, Brandin Cooks got wide open in the end zone. Goff threw the ball late and wobbly, giving Jason McCourty time to sprint back and bust up the pass (per Next Gen Stats, McCourty covered 19.5 yards in 2.4 seconds in preventing that TD).
McCourty made an exceptional play. He doesn’t make that play if Stafford is the Rams quarterback then.
I suppose there’s a small chance that Stafford still has a little Lion in him, comes out too amped up, and performs like Drew Bledsoe (four interceptions) against the Packers in Super Bowl XXXI.
But Stafford is no kid. He turned 34 this past week, he’s seen some things, and his poise helped put an end to Brady’s career, at least for now. Against the blitz this season, he threw 16 touchdown passes without an interception. I don’t believe he’ll be rattled.
His counterpart, Burrow, is an extraordinary young quarterback with preternatural poise and the “it” factor that makes you believe silly things like the possibility of the Bengals winning a championship. But Donald and the Rams’ relentless pass rush will overwhelm him Sunday.
Stafford? He’s seen too much to be overwhelmed. After all those years in Detroit, his day in the LA sun has come. Rams 31, Bengals 23.