This is the Super Bowl match-up no one predicted. The Rams were well regarded in the pre-season, especially with the addition of Matt Stafford at quarterback. But they faced a tough fight to get out of a very strong NFC West division. Tampa and Green Bay, and maybe the Cowboys, were more fancied to get through the playoffs ahead of the Rams.
The Bengals were written off in the AFC North and were then underdogs in every playoff game. They remind me of the 2001 Patriots, when Tom Brady took over from Drew Bledsoe at quarterback, and they squeezed through some improbable playoff wins (Tuck Rule against Oakland, anyone?) before upsetting the Rams Greatest Show On Turf as 14 point dogs in the Super Bowl.
Joe Burrow may not be Tom Brady, and these Bengals may not be the Belichick Pats, but it is a comparison I have had to fight getting carried away with. So let's bring this back to earth.
Why the Rams will win the Super Bowl
The Rams are four point favourites, and honestly I thought the line would open around six, which means I should be making the Rams the bet automatically. They are a team built to win this year, even more so than last year's Bucs who built a team of great weapons around Tom Brady. Stafford gives them more downfield options against pass rush than Jared Goff did and they mortgaged even more of their future when they traded for him than they had when they traded for Jalen Ramsey to play corner.
They'd built with other big-name free agents: Andrew Whitworth (from the Bengals!) at tackle and Leonard Floyd as an edge rusher, but what was impressive this year was how they moved to fill crucial gaps during the season. Running back Cam Akers was injured in camp (he's back for the big game) and they traded for Sony Michel.
After a 7-1 start to the season, receiver Robert Woods was injured, so they signed Odell Beckham when the Browns gave up on him. And they gave up more of the few draft picks they had left to trade for Von Miller, giving them a pair of pass rushers who could, like Tampa's Shaq Barrett and Jason Pierre-Paul last year, make the difference. Joe Burrow was sacked 51 times during the season; he was sacked nine times against Tennessee in the playoffs (but still won the game).
The pit is where games are won and lost. With Aaron Donald, the league's best defensive lineman inside with big Greg Gaines, and Miller and Floyd outside, the Rams can both stuff the run, which the Bengals want to establish, and rush the passer. Ramsey is arguably the league's best corner, which gives them options against the Bengals' three-wide receiver package, and they get hard-hitting safety Taylor Rapp back from his inevitable concussion absence.
Then we get to the offense. Cooper Kupp stepped up big time after Woods' injury and had one of the best WR seasons in history (though only the second best for a Ram receiver, see Crazylegs Hirsch in 1951!) and once Beckham settled into the offense he became, in the playoffs, the Rams' best weapon as defenses concentrated on Kupp.
The Bengals' D has not been great at stopping the run, especially with Larry Ojunjobi out injured, so Michel and Akers could be key, except that coach Sean McVay tends to abandon the run when the pressure is put on. Tight end Tyler Higbee is the secret weapon to watch, especially near the goal line.
It's a potent mix of talent which will be hard for the Bengals to overcome.
Why the Bengals will win the Super Bowl
The Benglans can win, partly because they have overcome teams who are, on paper, better. Just look at their win over the Chiefs in the conference championship: overcoming a 21-3 halftime deficit which the Chiefs failed to extend in the final minute of the half. The Bengals adjusted defensively at half time and held the Chiefs to a single field goal, while not abandoning Joe Mixon and the run, and won in overtime as Burrow picked them apart and secret weapon Evan McPherson kicked yet another come-from-behind game winner.
How do they overcome the perceived imbalance of their O line vs the Rams' D. Coach Zac Taylor, who worked under McVay, is not averse to leaving Burrow unprotected in the pocket. But when he uses five receivers he will likely find a Rams' D rushing only four, meaning he'll have to look quickly for options.
The Rams will double Ja'Marr Chase, Burrows' college teammate when they won the national championship at LSU, and let Ramsey deal with Tee Higgins, the big wideout who is the second option. But the Bengals need to let Mixon set the tone: challenge the Rams' run D, let the line run block (which is easier than pass blocking) and try to set up better moments for their passing attack.
If tight end CJ Uzomah can be ready after his injury (this will be a late decision) he and third wideout Tyler Boyd are weapons; the one thing I look for is Samaje Perrine to be an option coming out of the backfield, with Taylor trying to scheme him into mismatches when the Rams have two linebackers in the game.
Defensively the Rams may get pressured by Trey Hendrickson, who was Cncinnati's big money free agency signing, or Sam Hubbard, who was a key against KC by "spying" Patrick Mahomes, something he will not have to do against Stafford.
Linebacker Logan Wilson is very good in pass coverage, and the secondary may be up to the challenge of Kupp and Beckham: Chidobe Awuzie (from Dallas) and Mike Hilton (from division rivals Pittsburgh) were two other free agent signings--out of character for the notoriously tight-fisted Bengals--who will play a big part.
Vonn Bell and Jesse Bates are an excellent pair of safeties, and Tre Flowers, picked up when Seattle cut him, may be a key when the Rams try to get Kupp as free release from the slot. If Eli Apple decides to have a boom game, not a bust game, this to me is the Bengals' strength, provided Henrickson and Hubbard deliver pressure on Stafford.
And of course in McPherson they have a game-winning kicker, which is not what anyone says about Rams' kicker Matt Gay.
The Bengals won't hesitate to let him kick from beyond the 50: he was nine for 11 in the season, and if the game stays close, he would be a weapon.
Betting Verdict - Back the Bengals +4
As you can see, I can almost talk us into a Bengals' win, especially if they stay close to the Rams to prepare for a fourth quarter comeback. If it's a close game that four points Cincy are getting will be tempting, and in a close scenario the over/under seems pretty well weighted at (48.5), though I could see something like a 27-24 finish which goes over.
So I would go Bengals (+4) at 9/10 and under 48.5 also at 9/10.
But my real best bets will come from the multitude of prop bets, or specials, available for this game, which I will cover in tomorrow's column.