Coming into Game No. 285 of the longest season in NFL history, I am tired. The conference championship outcomes and multiple Tom Brady retirement announcements feel like eons ago. The groundhog has seen its shadow, it’s almost Valentine’s Day, and I’ve spent the week losing at least nine NBA parlays on one leg (usually one stat). I’m streaming an episode of Doom Patrol on my phone and have Pulp Fiction on TV in the other room for the millionth time as I try to compile this, relax, and start the countdown to kickoff on Sunday evening.
Cause despite it being mid-February, there is still one more NFL game to be played. I have already written 10,000 words on this game at Bookmakers Review, which I will link and recap below. But first, allow me to vent about the potential this game could have on the future of the league.
Super Bowl LVI: The End of One Era Begins Anew?
It is unusual for me to not have such a vested interest in a Super Bowl. There’s no obvious villain for me to root against (Tom Brady, Ray Lewis, John Elway, Jerry Jones). While I would love to see Aaron Donald (Pitt) and Cooper Kupp (incredible season) get a Super Bowl ring, there’s no significant rooting interest like I’ve had with the Steelers, Peyton Manning, and Patrick Mahomes.
Eighteen of the last 20 Super Bowls gave me a chance to root for Steelers/Manning/Mahomes or root against Brady and the Patriots. Let that sink in. With 2002 Raiders-Buccaneers, I hated both teams. Ditto for the 2000 Giants-Ravens bore that put me to sleep. You’d probably have to go back to 1991 Bills-Redskins to find the last time I was this disinterested in who wins the Super Bowl, and I wasn’t even watching the NFL at the time. I was coming home every day and watching Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze. Cowabunga.
Of course, I say all this with a February 2022 mindset. For all we know, this could be a major butterfly effect game in NFL history. One that either kicks off a new dynasty in Cincinnati with Joe Burrow taking his crack at being the new LOAT, or a Los Angeles win could be the impetus for contending teams to start ditching draft picks and long-term success plans for the thrill of going all in by acquiring big-name free agents to “buy” a championship.
Just like the 2007-08 Boston Celtics weren’t the first super team in NBA history, the 2021 Rams aren’t the first attempt at a super team in the NFL. Hell, this is basically 2020 Tampa Bay on repeat, even including the part where they get to play the Super Bowl in their home stadium. Unlike these Rams, the Buccaneers had plenty of high draft picks they drafted, but it is true that all three players to score a touchdown in Super Bowl LV were brought in last year to help the key acquisition of Tom Brady (Rob Gronkowski, Antonio Brown, and Leonard Fournette). These Rams do however have some drafted studs in Aaron Donald and Cooper Kupp. But their attempt at going all in was based on bringing in Matthew Stafford, Von Miller, and Odell Beckham Jr. The Beckham trade even happened a day before wide receiver Robert Woods tore his ACL in practice. Donald and Kupp withstanding, the Rams largely outsourced their roster. The Bengals are mostly home grown on offense and spent peanuts to revamp their defense, which is playing over its head right now to get to this point.
If you’re a team-building purist, you’re definitely going to favor the Bengals’ traditional approach to the Rams taking a team that’s been winning for four years, but needed a few upgrades to get over the hump and win it all. Maybe setting a path to go seven years without drafting a player with a first-round pick is never going to be the standard plan of the future, but if the Rams pull this off, don’t be surprised if quarterbacks like Aaron Rodgers and Russell Wilson start to leverage their talent and force their way onto the next super team. If the 49ers didn’t spend so many resources to get Trey Lance, I would say Rodgers to San Francisco in 2022 was a mortal lock.
Those 2008 Celtics had a profound impact on the NBA, showing LeBron James that he needed to leave Cleveland and form his own super team in Miami if he wanted to win a ring. He did, and then he left for Cleveland to do the same thing with new players. But after coming back from a 3-1 deficit against the Warriors, LeBron saw that two can play this game. Kevin Durant took his talents to Golden State, and this would have been an even stronger dynasty if not for injuries. Now everyone wants a “big three” in the NBA, and superstar team-ups are as common as ever.
But you can’t buy health. After a record number of All-Star players were injured in last season’s NBA playoffs, we got an unexpected Finals between the Suns and Bucks. In a way, this Rams-Bengals matchup feels a little similar to that in that it was so unexpected. With both teams finishing fourth in their conference, this is the first Super Bowl matchup ever without a top-three seed.
It may be the last we see too if the era of super teams is upon us. It also may be the end of an era where quarterbacks stay many years in one place, especially after seeing zero Super Bowl appearances in the last 11 seasons for Drew Brees in New Orleans (2010-20), Ben Roethlisberger in Pittsburgh (2011-21), and Aaron Rodgers in Green Bay (2011-21). When mainstream NFL media is still largely driven by telling quarterbacks their greatness is measured by their ring count, isn’t the next logical move for these quarterbacks to start leaving their teams for places that give them better opportunities to win championships?
While you’d love to pencil in Josh Allen as Buffalo’s quarterback for the next 10 years, what if things go sour with the loss of Brian Daboll? What if the next few Buffalo postseasons are also defined by games where the defense was destroyed or the Buffalo weather was so windy (a la the Patriots game on MNF) that Allen couldn’t get the job done? When Allen is still searching for that first Super Bowl appearance in his seventh or eighth season, wouldn’t a trade to a team with a few studs and maybe a roof on the stadium be an attractive option for him?
Even Mahomes is no lock to be a Chief for life. Within five years, Mahomes will almost surely experience the retirements of Andy Reid and Travis Kelce, and Tyreek Hill should lose a step in his early 30s. If he is still stuck on one ring by that time, is a Kansas City rebuild the best thing for him?
If Matthew Stafford, Mr. 8-68 Against Winning Teams Before 2021, can leave the Lions and instantly win a Super Bowl, why can’t any other top 12 quarterback do the same? It almost makes you want to root for the Bengals just to show that hitting draft picks and giving a coaching staff time to develop can still work. Now not many teams are going to get top five draft picks to land Joe Burrow and Ja’Marr Chase, but the Bengals kept the same head coach — the one I said you couldn’t pick out of a lineup of Costco cashiers — and the same two coordinators from 2019-20 when the team was 6-25-1. They didn’t hire a new Bill Walsh or Bill Belichick by accident. They beat the Chiefs by going to a three-man rush. Not exactly revolutionizing the game.
On the other hand, these Bengals are already confident as hell. A win could only empower them to get even cockier, and the thought of Cincinnati replacing New England as the most annoying fanbase on the internet isn’t something I’m looking forward to even if they deserve a run for enduring decades of bad football.
So, like I said, I don’t have a strong preference for who should win this game, but the long-term effects it has on the league remain to be seen. They could be huge. Remember, a Joe Flacco Super Bowl run made it to where you have to pay at least $1 million per start for your quarterback even if he isn’t that great. It’s more like $2 million per start now.
Of course, after Super Bowl 47, Flacco won one more playoff game and Colin Kaepernick was blackballed out of the league before Sean McVay’s contact list became the most sought after item in the NFL coach hiring process.
This league moves in fast and sometimes mysterious ways, but either way, we are entering a new era in the NFL.
Five-Part Super Bowl Preview (Links)
I have done five companion pieces on BMR to preview this game in great detail already. My general theme has been that the Rams are the more talented team, have been the better team all year, and they should win this game in their home stadium as the Bengals are statistically one of the weakest teams to ever reach a Super Bowl. While both teams boast a No. 1 pick at QB and a superstar wide receiver having a historic year, the defenses causing havoc with pressure and turnovers in the playoffs is the main reason these teams are here. Which defense makes the big splash plays to win this one? Is an upset possible? Hell yes, and it wouldn’t even be the biggest upset of the Rams in the Super Bowl this century.
Why Rams Can Beat Bengals – “If football games are won in the trenches and defense wins championships, then this game should largely be decided by how Cincinnati’s offensive line handles the pass rush of the Rams. The Bengals were 5-3 to start the season, 5-3 in the second half of the season, rested starters in Week 18, and have won three one-score games in the postseason that came down to the final snap. No team in NFL history has won four playoff games by fewer than eight points, and the Rams’ only loss since December was in overtime after blowing a 17-point lead.” I also look at Cooper Kupp’s historic season and how Stafford has had a better season than Burrow.
Why Bengals Can Beat Rams – “If Burrow really is the next chosen one, in the first game since Brady’s official retirement no less, then the Bengals are going to get a pick-six off Stafford, and McPherson is going to break a tie with a 48-yard field goal on the final play to beat the Rams just like Brady and the Patriots did 20 years ago to start a dynasty. After all, it’s the Year of the Tiger and everything is a sequel or reboot these days.” The headline after this game very well could be that “sacks hurt less than interceptions” if Burrow is taking sacks and Stafford is throwing crucial picks.
Rams Offense vs. Bengals Defense – “Again, all five teams to beat the Rams this year did three things: scored more than 24 points, held Stafford’s offense under 300 net passing yards, and forced multiple turnovers.” Both of these teams were 1-5 when allowing more than 24 points this season. The Bengals had the No. 1 scoring defense (17.6 PPG) in road games this year and intercepted 3.58% of passes on the road compared to 1.58% at home. Cooper Kupp is going to dominate, but this really is the wild card matchup in this game. If the Bengals can get picks, they should win, and you know Stafford is always going to leave some opportunities out there.
Bengals Offense vs. Rams Defense – “The wild card in this game is what Cincinnati’s opportunistic defense can do against Matthew Stafford and the talented Los Angeles offense. But the biggest mismatch on paper that could easily dictate the outcome is the inadequate Cincinnati offensive line against the Rams’ defensive front, led by future Hall of Famer Aaron Donald.” If the Bengals can hold up, they are arguably the most talented offense the Rams have faced this year. But Burrow has to get rid of the ball quickly or this could get ugly.
Super Bowl Game Pick and Prediction – Cincinnati is 6-1 ATS as a road underdog this season and 6-0 ATS in the last six games Burrow started. In this piece I ask the most pressing question: which defense creates the splash plays to win what should be a close, lower-scoring game? Sacks or interceptions? No quarterbacks had more of them this year than these two. I also look at officiating notes on Ron Torbert, how the Rams had a league-low 4 DPI penalties in 20 games, some comparisons on DVOA for Super Bowl teams, and how Cincinnati’s third-quarter dominance could set up a game script of the Bengals coming back to win another close one.
The moment of truth. The first article I wrote was why the Rams could win, then I did why the Bengals could win. If you compare those reasons, I think it’s obvious that I think the Rams should win. But then I started digging more, and after seeing how the Bengals play their best defense in the third quarter and on the road, and how I know Stafford is a guy who could throw a couple picks in any game, I started feeling the Bengals more.
The last four teams favored by more than 3.5 points lost the Super Bowl outright. I think Rams -2.5 is a lot more attractive line for them than Rams -4, which likely means winning by 7+ if you don’t want a push. But look at these teams’ games this season. They’re rarely blowing anyone out, at least not anyone good. I really believe it’s going to be a close game, like 16 of the last 18 Super Bowls have been in the fourth quarter.
Can Donald and Von turn this game into a rout by blowing up that offensive line? Of course. Football has shown us that many times over. But as I wrote in an old Super Bowl preview about Mahomes and the Chiefs being different, I mentioned Joe Burrow (+Chase) and LSU were different too. I remember Burrow starting shaky in the national championship game against Clemson’s top-ranked defense. Then he destroyed them. I don’t think this is a game where he’s throwing for 450+, but I don’t think he has to either. He just has to avoid the game-changing turnovers and hope (or will if he is the new fvcking Brady) his defense forces Stafford into those.
I think the Bengals are going to win the turnover battle, Kupp is going to play the Ricky Proehl part and score a game-tying touchdown late, and Burrow is going to set Evan McPherson up for a 48-yard game-winning field goal that somehow takes seven seconds off the clock.
It’s Super Bowl 36 (STL-NE) all over again as Burrow joins Brady as the only quarterbacks in NFL history to win four straight playoff games (their first four too) by fewer than eight points.
Okay, I am starting to find my rooting interest after all…
Final: Bengals, 23 Rams 20 (MVP: Joe Burrow even though Mike Hilton will have a pick-six)