Super Bowl LVI preview

Crystal Qian

Jan. 30, 2021: In a blockbuster trade, the Los Angeles Rams acquire Matthew Stafford in exchange for two first-round draft picks, one third-round draft pick and Jared Goff.

Exactly one year later: The Rams are heading to the Super Bowl.

Super Bowl LVI kicks off on Sunday, Feb. 13 at 3:30 p.m. on NBC. The big game features the Rams and the Cincinnati Bengals, two teams that entered the postseason as No. 4 seeds in their respective conferences. SoFi Stadium will see the Bengals chase their first Lombardi Trophy as the Rams vie for a championship ending to their Hollywood script.

The ever-rebuilding Detroit Lions are notorious for squandering Stafford’s career, setting the benchmark for losing despite Stafford’s impressive numbers. Following Goff’s backslide, the Rams were one quarterback away from becoming a league-contending team. The missing piece — a veteran gunslinger from an incompetent franchise — allowed the Rams to re-cement their dominance, a sentiment that had grown stale under Goff. The successful coupling of Stafford with offensive mastermind Sean McVay has silenced football analysts who initially criticized Stafford’s exorbitant price tag.

Of course, the Rams’ high-flying offense would be incomplete without Cooper Kupp. A third-round draft pick, Kupp has long been a standout slot receiver, but the introduction of Stafford has powered ​​Kupp’s historic breakout season. As Stafford’s designated safety blanket, Kupp has tortured defenses with his route-running acumen and ability after the catch. By recording the most receptions, yards and touchdowns in the league, he captured the receiving triple crown, a feat not achieved since Steve Smith’s campaign in 2005. Despite finishing 17 yards shy of Calvin Johnson’s single-season receiving record, his statistical splendor of 145 receptions, 1,947 yards and 16 touchdowns is the best statistical season by a receiver in NFL history.

The dynamic pairing of Stafford and Kupp is strengthened by offensive pieces such as Odell Beckham Jr., a timely midseason acquisition accounting for Robert Woods’s season-ending injury. Beckham’s 113 yards on nine receptions in the NFC Championship Game evinced burgeoning chemistry with his quarterback, something that his tenure with the Cleveland Browns lacked.

The Rams are one of the most well-rounded teams in the league with a formidable offensive line and some of the game’s top defensive players, including Aaron Donald, Jalen Ramsey, Von Miller and Leonard Floyd. With a fruitful 12-5 regular season and playoff victories against the Arizona Cardinals, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and San Francisco 49ers, the Rams are just the second team to play the Super Bowl on their home turf.

Positional comparisons between the Rams and Bengals. (Graphic illustration by Crystal Qian)

On the other side of the field stands the Bengals, the unlikely champion of the AFC who entered the season with 100-to-1 Super Bowl odds. This dramatic turnaround can be imputed to Joe Burrow, who has recently garnered the monikers “Joe Shiesty,” “Joe Brrr” and “Joey Franchise” for his electrifying performances. Drafted No. 1 overall, Burrow suffered a torn ACL and MCL that prematurely ended an otherwise encouraging 2020 rookie campaign. Nonetheless, he was named Comeback Player of the Year and has established himself as a rising star quarterback. With Burrow at the helm, the Bengals snapped the NFL’s longest postseason victory drought dating back to 1990.

The hallmarks of the Bengals’ passing offense fixates on rookie phenom Ja’Marr Chase, who, along with Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd, constitutes one of the deepest receiving corps in the league. The Bengals controversially drafted Chase over Penei Sewell to reunite Burrow and Chase, one of the most prolific quarterback-receiver tandems in college football. With Chase being crowned Offensive Rookie of the Year, Chase and Burrow’s connection has revitalized the once-beleaguered Bengals.

Indeed, the hefty criticism associated with the Bengals’ rejection of Sewell is founded. The Bengals’ porous offensive line, which allowed a league-leading 51 sacks on Burrow, is their greatest weakness. The Bengals’ offensive line is a stark mismatch against the Rams’ dominant front four, and their ability to give Burrow sufficient time in the pocket will prove decisive in preserving the team’s explosive offense.

Also notable is rookie Evan McPherson, a fifth-round draft pick who has fueled the Bengals’ playoff success. After setting a franchise record for most 50-yard field goals in a season, he converted all 16 of his postseason kicks, including two walk-off game winners against the Tennessee Titans and Kansas City Chiefs. Though often overlooked, a stalwart kicker could serve as the knockout punch on football’s biggest stage.

As the stars align for Super Bowl LVI, two weeks of buildup will revolve around quarterback play. In a conceivably offensive game, however, the Rams’ defensive front may serve as the antidote to Burrow and the Bengals’ offensive powerhouse.

Final prediction: Rams 30, Bengals 24.