The Bengals are more than field-goal underdogs against the Rams in Super Bowl 56. But after taking the No. 1 seed Titans and No. 2 seed Chiefs on the road in the AFC playoffs, they will be confident about pulling one more upset to win it all in Super Bowl 56.
Taking down the Rams in Los Angeles will be the toughest task yet for Cincinnati. The stellar play of second-year quarterback Joe Burrow will be a big factor, but like in the previous rounds, he will need to help to win what figures to be another close game.
Here’s a breakdown of the five keys to the Bengals ending its surprise breakout season as one of the most improbable Super Bowl champions ever:
Keys to Bengals upset over Rams in Super Bowl 56
1. Make more big pass plays with Joe Burrow than they give up to Matthew Stafford
The Bengals and Rams are two of the NFL’s premier big-play offenses. That’s a no-brainer given the aggressive passing styles of coaches Zac Taylor and Sean McVay, the big downfield arms of the quarterbacks and having two field-stretching wide receivers in rookie Ja’Marr Chase and “triple crown” winner Cooper Kupp.
Cincinnati does well to contain the deep ball because of safeties Jessie Bates III and Vonn Bell behind a front-four pass rush revved up by relentless ends Trey Hendrickson and Sam Hubbard. The Bengals also have two smart corners, Chidobe Awuzie and Mike Hilton and don’t often give up cheap big gains off pass interference calls.
The Rams will take their shots with Stafford trying to pick the right spots to Kupp, Odell Beckham Jr. and a third wideout of choice. The Bengals have proved that Tee Higgins can hit home runs when teams game-plan to not get burned by Chase.
If the Bengals can get to Stafford off the edge without blitzing, they will be in good shape. Meanwhile, Burrow will need to buy time against the Rams’ best defenders to deliver his typical accurate deep balls vs. coverage breakdowns.
2. Don’t let Aaron Donald or Jalen Ramsey take over the game
Burrow’s football intelligence is off the charts for a QB in his second NFL season. He will be aware that Donald can blow up the passing game plan if he can get to Burrow and get into his face. He also knows Ramsey is lurking to capitalize on any mistake Burrow might make under pressure.
The teams that beat the Rams silence the impact of Donald and Ramsey. The Bengals shouldn’t be afraid to have an interior double-team on Donald and should have more confidence after keeping Chris Jones in check and allowing only one sack in the AFC championship game.
Ramsey is unlikely to be in exclusive shadow coverage against Chase and sometimes he can also provide a sizable cushion on Chase — see vs. the Buccaneers’ Mike Evans in the divisional round — which will be most opportune times for Burrow to target Chase. Darious Williams is a solid No. 2 corner but by no means a shutdown player and the Rams have been weaker at safety and subpackages.
Higgins should see the ball often and slot receiver Tyler Boyd will be a lot more involved than he was against the Chiefs. While the Bengals know Ramsey can’t be everywhere, they also know they need to also attack Donald in a different way, too.
3. Keep the ball in the hands of Joe Mixon
This would be that way. The Bengals have proved to be a strong power running team when they feed Mixon. He gets stronger as the game progress and is a threat for an explosive burst with each touch.
This would allow the Bengals’ offensive lineman to be more assertive and not be stuck back on their heels, inviting the pass rush to bring down Burrow. In addition to Donald, it would be good plan to wear down Greg Gaines and A’Shawn Robinson so they also can’t get Burrow as easily later in the game.
The Bengals are also an exceptional screen passing team throwing to Mixon and Samaje Perine. That’s the way to combat the pressure on Burrow. Putting Mixon in different places as a receiver can also create mismatches against the Rams’ weaknesses in linebacker coverage as another outlet away from Ramsey.
4. Win the battle on the “other” line of scrimmage
The Bengals will still be hoping for a draw against the Donald-led Rams defensive line. They can flip the script by having Hendrickson, Hubbard and tackles B.J. Hill and D.J. Reader using their joint playoff forces to make Stafford uncomfortable.
Because of Hill and Reader eating up space in front of active linebackers Logan Wilson and Germaine Pratt, the Bengals are a top-10 run defense, like the Rams. Whoever runs the ball for the Rams, the Bengals need to make this game as one-dimensional as possible so Hendrickson, Hubbard and Hill get many chances to go after Stafford.
5. Stay patient and cool for four quarters
With Taylor and McVay knowing each other well and two solid defenses, there will be a feeling-out period in the first half. The Bengals and Rams will mix their tried-and-true plays with wrinkles neither team has seen before the Super Bowl. They will figure out where to land with their run-pass balance with the intent of setting up plays for the second half. The Bengals cannot get frustrated with some early offensive struggles. They displayed that patience to a tee against the Chiefs. With Burrow, there should be every expectation they handle the mental and emotional aspects of the Super Bowl well, matching many of the Rams’ experiences of playing in the game just three years ago.
Cincinnati has improved and gotten confident with each playoff game. If it stays the course on what worked against Las Vegas, Tennessee and Kansas City, it should be lifting the Lombardi Trophy in Los Angeles