Sports

Hub Arkush’s Super Bowl LVI preview

Rarely have two teams arrived at the Super Bowl off more divergent paths

Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow (9) quarterback Brandon Allen, (8) and running back Joe Mixon (28) warm up during NFL football practice Friday, Feb. 11, 2022, in Los Angeles. The Cincinnati Bengals play the Los Angeles Rams in the Super Bowl Sunday Feb. 13. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

The Los Angeles Rams and Cincinnati Bengals will arrive at kickoff of Super Bowl LVI at So Fi Stadium in Los Angeles on Sunday from opposite ends of the NFL’s developmental spectrum.

The Rams are in their fourth playoff run in the past five seasons, including a losing trip to Super Bowl LIII three years ago, haven’t had a losing season since 2016 and are 55-26 over the past five years.

They feature the brightest young coach in the game, Sean McVay, and a middle-aged, superstar lineup built predominantly through trades and free agency with a disdain for first-round draft choices.

The Bengals haven’t been to the playoffs or had a winning season since 2015, were 25-53-2 in the five seasons before their 10-7 run to the division title this year, and had won only six games over the past two seasons as one of the most dysfunctional organizations in the league.

Their coach, Zac Taylor, arrived as one of the most inexperienced head coaches ever three seasons ago and one of a number of McVay prodigies now claiming head coaching and coordinator jobs around the league. The roster is built almost exclusively through the draft, including four first-, six second- and five third-round picks from the past six drafts in the starting lineup with three key free agents added this season.

NFC: 4th seed L.A. Rams: 15-5; 10-10 against the spread

AFC: 4th seed Cincinnati: 13-7; 13-7 against the spread

VEGAS LINE: Rams -4; Total: 48 ½

All-time Super Bowl Records:

Los Angeles Rams 1-3

Cincinnati Bengals 0-2

All-Time Playoff Records:

Los Angeles Rams 25-27

Cincinnati Bengals 8-14

Current Streaks:

Rams have won 3 straight and 8 of their past 9

Bengals have won 3 straight and 6 of past 7

Each Rams and Bengals player already has earned $150,000 in playoff game winners’ shares.

Super Bowl Winners: Additional $150,000 each

Super Bowl Losers: Additional $75,000 each

Most Recent Meetings

2019: Rams 24, Bengals 10 (London)

2015: Bengals 31, Rams 10 (Cincinnati)

Bengals lead all-time series, 8-6

Rams have won 3 of past 4 dating to 2003

MATCHUPS / KEY PLAYERS TO WATCH

Rams WR Cooper Kupp vs. Bengals CBs Eli Apple, Chidobe Awuzie

Rams OTs Andrew Whitworth, Rob Havenstein vs. Bengals DEs Trey Hendrickson, Sam Hubbard

Bengals WRs Ja’Marr Chase, Tyler Boyd, Tee Higgins vs. Rams CBs Jalen Ramsey, Darious Williams, David Long Jr.

Bengals OGs Quinton Spain, Jackson Carman, C Trey Hopkins vs. Rams DT Aaron Donald

Bengals OTs Jonah Williams, Isaiah Prince vs. Rams ERs Von Miller, Leonard Floyd

COACHING DECISION(S) TO WATCH

How will McVay decide to deal with Ja’Marr Chase?

Chase obviously is Joe Burrow’s favorite target and one of the most dangerous receivers in the game, but if McVay shadows him all afternoon/night long with All-Pro Jalen Ramsey, Boyd and Higgins are more than capable of drilling holes in the rest of the Rams’ secondary.

How will Taylor keep Burrow upright?

Arguably the most surprising thing about the Bengals’ win in Kansas City was Burrow only went down once after the Titans sacked him nine times a week earlier. Donald, Miller and Floyd will get home, so how much of his offense will Taylor have to do without to provide enough help to his beleaguered offensive line?

THE X-FACTORS

Bengals RB Joe Mixon, TE C.J. Uzomah, LB Germaine Pratt, S Jesse Bates III

Rams RBs Cam Akers, Sony Michel, TE Tyler Higbee, ILB Troy Reeder, S Eric Weddle

Mixon, Akers and Michel can take over a game, but Mixon is the most accomplished workhorse of the group both running and catching, and it wouldn’t be shocking if the Bengals saddle him up and rode him to slow the Rams’ pass rush.

If Akers, Michel or both go off, the Bengals are in big trouble.

The tight ends, Higbee and Uzomah, are the only real injury questions – both with knee injuries – with Higbee appearing to be the more concerning. Both are key security blankets for Matthew Stafford and Burrow.

Pratt and Bates III are under-the-radar playmakers on the Bengals’ defense, Reeder is the Rams’ main run stuffer, and Weddle was brought out of retirement as depth at safety but probably will play the whole game.

WILD-CARD PLAYERS WHO COULD SURPRISE

Rams QB Matthew Stafford, TE Kendall Blanton, DT A’Shawn Robinson

Bengals LB Logan Wilson, DT B.J. Hill, PK Evan McPherson

Stafford has been brilliant in the playoffs but needs this one to permanently shelve the big-game doubters and cannot afford to revisit the interception streak he got on with seven interceptions in the final three regular-season games. He’s thrown only one in three preseason games.

Blanton came up big with five receptions for 57 yards in the NFC title game after Higbee went down and may have to again. Robinson has emerged to tie for the team lead with 16 tackles in the playoffs so far.

Wilson and Hill are key contributors to the Bengals’ defense who nobody seems to know or ever talk about, but both are capable of game-changing plays. And McPherson is the rookie kicker who doesn’t seem to get how much pressure he’s supposed to be under and hopefully won’t find out Sunday.

THE FINAL WORD

Rams 30, Bengals 24

Clearly these are two deserving clubs and the two best in the league at this point of this season. But as promising as the Bengals are not just Sunday but for the next few seasons, they just don’t bring the star power or experience of the Rams. I screwed up counting them out vs. the Titans and Chiefs, so I won’t do that here, but everything I look at screams the Rams are the better team.

Hub Arkush is a Shaw Media correspondent.

Hub Arkush

Hub Arkush

Hub Arkush is the Senior Bears Analyst for Shaw Local News Network and ShawLocal.com.