Super Bowl LVI is upon us with several makings of a classic, starting with the clash of two elite quarterbacks in Matthew Stafford and Joe Burrow. Stafford has brought the Rams to the brink of completing the job Jared Goff couldn't quite finish three years ago in SB LIII. The Bengals' Burrow is riding a spectacular crest in just his second pro season, completing an NFL-high 70.4% of his passes, and can take the franchise to unprecedented glory with a win. The Bengals are one of 12 franchises to never win a Super Bowl title. Neither team has had an easy road -- the Rams and Bengals both nipped their Divisional Round opponents by a three-point margin, then slipped past conference championship foes by three points, as well. It’s been more about survival than dominance.
Here are four things to watch in Super Bowl LVI:
- Is Stafford fit for a crown? How does one go from being saddled with questions about an 0-for-the-playoffs track record to the brink of a Super Bowl ring? A move from the Lions to the Rams will apparently do the trick. Thanks to a run to the Super Bowl, Stafford will probably never again have to hear about his 0-3 playoff record with the Lions. Now, he’s got a chance to do a lot more than shed a label. He’s an ideal case study in what a difference the right fit can make for a quarterback. If Stafford leads a Rams win with a big performance, he will have completely transformed perceptions of his postseason mettle in the space of five short weeks. Super Bowl rings tend to do that.
- The shadow we all want. Jalen Ramsey wants Ja’Marr Chase. Please, Raheem Morris, let it happen. The Rams defensive coordinator hasn’t made a habit of shadowing his star cornerback, Ramsey, on the opposing team's best receiver this season. The ultra-confident Ramsey, of course, is asking for all the reps he can get against Chase, the Bengals’ lightning strike of a rookie receiver. From the outset of his rookie year, Chase proved to be one of the NFL’s elite deep threats, giving Burrow a dangerous target in the vertical passing game. His 512 receiving yards on deep balls thrown outside the numbers are the most in the NFL since at least 2016, per Next Gen Stats. If anyone can take that away defensively, it’s Ramsey. Whether it’s for 10 snaps or 50, there won’t be a more fun head-to-head matchup on the field than Chase versus Ramsey.
- Bengals guard spot in flux. The Bengals’ pass protection against the Rams’ pass rush is a daunting matchup for Cincinnati. Focus in a little tighter, and the right guard position on the Bengals’ offensive line offers even more intrigue. Will it be Hakeem Adeniji, rookie Jackson Carman, or a rotation of the two? Adeniji struggled mightily in the Divisional Round against the Titans, and the two shared playing time in the Bengals’ AFC title win over the Chiefs. Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald posted yet another All-Pro season this year and could collapse Burrow’s pocket with frightening frequency. Donald moves around quite a bit on the Rams’ front, but when he’s lined up over right guard, Bengals fans should watch with one eye closed.
- Can the Rams contain Joe Mixon? Keeping the aforementioned Rams pass rush off of Burrow will depend a lot on Mixon’s effectiveness. The Bengals can do a lot with the versatile former Oklahoma star -- he’s a tough runner inside, athletic enough to turn the corner on the perimeter, and highly capable receiver. The Bengals offensive line can keep itself out of dreaded third-and-long pass protection situations by getting Mixon good yardage on early downs. Burrow can also beat the pass rush with screens and quick dump-offs to Mixon, who caught 42 passes on the regular season. His 1,815 scrimmage yards (including playoffs) is a franchise record. That’s about 90 yards per game, and Cincinnati needs at least that much from him, probably more, to keep pace with the Rams.
NFL Research: Stafford has the NFL’s best completion percentage (72.0), yards per attempt (8.7) and passer rating (125.9) in the fourth quarter this year, including playoffs.
Next Gen Stat of the matchup: The Rams’ pass rush has intensified in the postseason, improving from a regular-season pressure rate of 26.6 to 31.7 in the playoffs. Von Miller (14 postseason pressures) has been a big part of that surge.