The first thing that happens after a Super Bowl matchup is set is that everyone considers all the possible storylines for that Super Bowl to gauge how interesting it will be. Not to get meta about media, but with a two-week wait after conference championship Sunday, there often tends to be too much hype to the point of oversaturation.
With the Bengals and Rams meeting in a surprise Super Bowl 56, there will be no shortage of that, given it’s not the affair involving Patrick Mahomes, Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers or Josh Allen that anyone expected.
Here’s help cutting through the early narratives and sticking to what really matters in breaking down what may go down between Cincinnati and Los Angeles, in Sporting News’ annual session of Super Bowl myth-busting.
Super Bowl 56 myths: Fiction vs. facts
Myth 1: The Rams have a home-field advantage
First, the Rams are playing in SoFi Stadium but they are the designated the road team because of how the conferences alternate years with that status. Second, the Rams have won twice in Los Angeles during the playoffs but they were only 5-3 there in the regular season, losing to quality opponents in the Cardinals, 49ers and Titans. The Bengals beat the Titans in the divisional round.
The Super Bowl will have plenty of local Rams fans in the seats, but expect SoFi Stadium to be packed with Bengals fans, who have waited 33 years for this moment to come again. Some will pull out all the stops to go from Cincinnati to Los Angeles. The Rams were just in Super Bowl 53 and turned in a blah performance against the Patriots. As much as the NFL sells the Rams as a super big-market team, they don’t draw the same emotional investment. Heck, even NBC’s team of Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth will have secret sentimental feelings for their time in Cincinnati.
The Rams are favorites on paper, but the Bengals will be the beloved underdogs for many who don’t have a dog in the fight, unless they are associated with the Dawg Pound in Cleveland, and even then, they probably prefer that Odell Beckham Jr. doesn’t get a ring.
Myth 2: The Rams’ defense will bury Joe Burrow
Please don’t make a drinking game of how many times some pundit talks about how the Bengals’ offensive line vs. Aaron Donald will give Burrow no chance to win Super Bowl 56, because you don’t want to go through so many bottles of tequila before gameday guacamole. Donald is a terrific defensive player, the best in the game and the most feared interior disruptor. He now has a Defensive Player of the Year tag-team partner in the front seven, Super Bowl 50 MVP Von Miller.
Burrow was the most-sacked QB in the league (51 times!) during the regular season. He was dropped nine times (nine times!) in the divisional round against the Titans. He has overcome that as an MVP-caliber passer who keeps getting better with every game at age 25. Defenses can still win championships, but Burrow has proved that not much fazes him. He’ll hang in there and deliver in another field day for Cincinnati’s passing game. He also will smartly avoid Jalen Ramsey as well as he deftly defies pressure.
Myth 3: Cooper Kupp and Ja’Marr Chase are the game’s key wide receivers
Kupp won the receiving triple crown (receptions, yards and touchdowns) as a 100-yard and scoring machine. Chase put up the most impressive rookie season at the position; he was a playmaker both stretching the field and shooting downfield after the catch. The defenses will do their best to contain these two with various coverage looks, but in the end, Kupp and Chase will be schemed open and have a big impact because of their talent.
But Kupp has a dangerous new No. 2 in Odell Beckham Jr., who has taken over for the injured Robert Woods. Chase can be considered a co-go-to guy with Tee Higgins. The team that can get the most out of the “other” starter will win the game. Both OBJ and Higgins went for centuries in the conference championships; the one who has the bigger game likely will be on the winning side.
Myth 4: Sean McVay will badly outcoach Zac Taylor
McVay’s coaching tree no longer carries the joke about how everyone’s obsessed with finding the next coaching wunderkind like him. That’s now serious business with Taylor, his former wide receivers and quarterbacks coach, coaching against him in the Super Bowl.
McVay is 36, two years younger than Taylor. Taylor is known for his time with McVay, which got him the job with the Bengals, but the former Nebraska QB’s NFL coaching experience goes back a decade to his time with the Dolphins.
Taylor’s staff, including offensive coordinator Brian Callahan and defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo, has been outstanding in its own right. Those top assistants have been every bit as important to him as offensive coordinator Kevin O’Connell and defensive coordinator Raheem Morris have been for McVay. The Bengals are well-coached; it’s evident in their savvy, mistake-free play. Their young core, starting with Burrow, is wise beyond its years. The Rams have more veterans on the marquee, but on the sideline, McVay and Taylor will be nearly even as they operate on the same high plane.
Myth 5: The Bengals’ defense has no one to stop the Rams
The Bengals’ defense got some needed attention in the playoffs with how it slowed down the Raiders, Titans and Chiefs. Defensive end Trey Hendrickson has proved to be an elite free-agent pickup who has changed the course of their pass rush. He was the finishing touch to a front four that was already a strength, joining end Sam Hubbard and tackles D.J. Reader and B.J. Hill. On the second level, Logan Wilson and Germaine Pratt have been revelations at linebacker. Cornerbacks Chidobe Awuzie, Mike Hilton and Eli Apple — even though the latter is much maligned — have had their moments in coverage. Safeties Vonn Bell and Jessie Bates have been responsible for massive takeaways in the playoffs.
When Donald, Miller and Ramsey are on the other side, there’s no way the Bengals’ defense will get top billing. On paper and by the numbers, they might not seem to be as good, but they are sound all-around and Anarumo has schemed them well to adjust from week to week, half to half. They might give up numbers to Kupp and Beckham, but they can slow down the run and get pressure on Stafford to change the game at key moments.
Myth 6: The running games won’t matter with Burrow and Stafford
The best way to keep pass rushers off the quarterback is by not needing to pass all the time to get chunk yards. The Bengals will be willing to stick with Mixon’s rushing against the Rams. They also know when to dial up the “extension of the run” with screen plays to Mixon and Samaje Perine. Cincinnati was only 14th in pass-play frequency in 2021, while Los Angeles was only 16th.
Mixon can find good running lanes when the Bengals spread the field with 11 or 10 personnel. Calling his number for power between the tackles will allow the Bengals’ interior line to push around Donald and try to wear him down.
The Rams’ running game so far in the playoffs has been an afterthought. They haven’t had an individual runner crack 60 yards between Cam Akers and Sony Michel. But they were effective down the stretch in the regular season with Michel featured. They run well enough to keep defenses honest and facilitate downfield passing shots for Stafford.
Both teams can also apply the old-school “Pass to score, run to win” adage when working with a lead in the second half.
Myth 7: Bengals vs. Rams is a disappointing matchup
Coming full circle, this isn’t Brady playing in a final Super Bowl before he retires. This isn’t Mahomes making the big game for the third time in three years and looking to double his ring total again. This isn’t Rodgers, love him or hate him, finally appearing in a second, and possible last, Super Bowl for the Packers. Josh Allen seemed ready to light up the biggest stage.
But don’t discount the fact Burrow belongs at the front of the next wave of elite quarterbacks in the AFC with Mahomes and Allen, or that he channels some of the Super Bowl-winning style of Brady, Joe Montana and many other classic Super Bowl QBs.
And don’t forget that Stafford has a good redemption story as a fellow one-time No. 1 overall pick. It’s not a small feat that he can suddenly match Rodgers, Russell Wilson and, yes, Drew Brees in Super Bowl rings. That, along with his entire 2021 season, can change his narrative from disappointing in Detroit to Canton consideration in Los Angeles, a la Kurt Warner with the Rams (and Cardinals), with a smaller window of excellence.
Donald is back in a Super Bowl. So is Miller. Ramsey is playing in his first after just missing out with the Jaguars. Andrew Whitworth gets another crack at age 40. Between Kupp, Chase, Higgins and Beckham, there will be so much fun receiving talent on the field.
This is also the final game of an amazing NFL playoffs. You can feel good that something spectacular will happen. Don’t knock it until you see it. One shouldn’t be surprised if Bengals vs. Rams becomes the latest “greatest Super Bowl of all time,” because when it’s the next one, it is.