By Rohit Vakkalagadda ’24
With the addition of a 17th game in the regular season and the sheer amount of upsets and last-minute, heart-stopping wins in the postseason, some have called this year’s iteration of the NFL playoffs the best playoffs ever. But all of this drama and hard work will culminate in a battle of unexpected foes: the Los Angeles Rams and Cincinnati Bengals. Whether it be Cincy’s meteoric rise to the top, or LA’s savvy and aggressive trading, this matchup deserves a detailed preview.
We’ll first start with the favorites: the Rams. With the acquisition of Matthew Stafford this offseason, the former starting quarterback for the unlucky Detroit Lions, many expected the Rams to make it to the divisional round or the NFC Championship (if luck went their way). Whether it be the reemergence of offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth, who provided excellent pass protection for Stafford, or the increased efficiency of wide receivers Van Jefferson and Robert Woods (800 and 500 yard seasons respectively), the Rams roster was geared to look more revitalized and powerful than before. And of course, the sheer power of reigning Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald, who amassed 12.5 sacks and continued to terrorize offensive lines across the league, was undeniable. But no one on that Rams roster or the league came close to the explosion of wide receiver Cooper Kupp, who blasted onto the scene with close to 2,000 receiving yards, 40 touchdowns, and 150 receptions, winning the receiver’s Triple Crown (first in yards, receptions, and touchdowns). Stafford and Kupp are by far the league’s best receiver and quarterback duo.
However, while this Rams roster looked to be primed for success, through 10 weeks they were only second in their division, the competitive NFC West, slightly ahead of the 49ers and one game behind the surging Cardinals. This is where the Rams campaign went all-in, putting their future on the line and aggressively taking multiple players, starting with former Super Bowl MVP linebacker Von Miller.
Their finishing masterstroke during the season was the signing of wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. Beckham Jr., also known as OBJ, known for his adeptness with catching the ball with one hand or in impossible conditions, just left a crumbling situation in Cleveland and looked to re energize his season and potentially his stagnating career. With the NFL’s leading passer in Stafford, OBJ amassed 300 yards and 25 receptions in 8 games, proving yet again to be a reliable outlet for Stafford and a solid pressure releaser for Kupp and other receivers. These two moves came with a steep cost, as the Rams now don’t have a first-round draft pick till 2024. The time for the Rams to win is right now.
Cincinnati couldn’t be further from the Rams. It wasn’t a heavily favored team earlier this season, having the same Super Bowl odds as the notoriously bad New York Jets and Detroit Lions. It had little to no established veterans at the beginning of the season and made no blockbuster trades during the season.
On defense, Cincinnati’s success came with under-the-radar trades and the emergence of incumbent players on their roster. 2020 third-round pick Logan Wilson has been dominant at linebacker, even securing the game-saving interception against Tennessee in the divisional round. He has increased his production by 200 percent from the last year, and is now the leading tackler in the playoffs. But the best has come from a seemingly small trade with the Saints. With their trade for Trey Hendrickson, a defensive end from the Saints who recorded 12.5 sacks in the 2020 season, they found a monster on the defensive line who has 34 tackles and 14 sacks. And with complementary production from 2020 trade product DJ Reader and former draft bust cornerback Chidobe Awuzie, the Cincinnati defense is something to be reckoned with.
But the real intrigue comes on offense, and it starts with the new superstar at the helm, Joe Burrow. A superstar in college, Burrow injured his ACL and missed the most of his rookie season. In his sophomore campaign, he was ranked the 4th best quarterback in the league, ahead of hard-hitters like Patrick Mahomes of the Chiefs and Josh Allen of the Bills. What makes him so special is his composure under pressure, which has led to nicknames like “Joe Cool” and “Joe Brrr” because of his cold-blooded daggers. Even if the Bengals lose this game, Burrow is something of a cultural phenomenon, and isn’t leaving anytime soon. But joining the 25-year-old Burrow is 21-year-old Ja’Marr Chase, the best rookie in the 2021 class by far. He’s revolutionized the Bengals offense with his shifty running and solid catching and his connection with Burrow is undeniable. While the best QB-WR duo is the Ram’s Stafford and Kupp, Chase and Burrow are right on their heels at second place, which poses an interesting matchup for the defenses in the Super Bowl. But while defenses will be glued to Chase, Cincy has a litany of other weapons, like 23-year-old wideout Tee Higgins, and 25-year-old running back Joe Mixon, who has also established himself as a top-5 running back. Football in Cincy is looking bright for years to come, with their explosive offensive core all under the age of 26.
Path to the Big Game and Keys to Winning
Cincy’s path to the Super Bowl was against all odds, as they beat the number-1 seed Tenneesee Titans with a last second field goal, before coming back from 18 points down against the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC Championship. As for the Rams, they cruised past their division rivals Arizona Cardinals before almost fumbling the game away against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. In a thrilling NFC Championship, they broke the hearts of San Francisco 49ers with a last-minute stop.
For Cincy to win, they need to neutralize the powerful defensive line of the Rams by throwing it quickly out to receivers other than Chase in order to get the Rams defense on their heels. As for the Rams, they need to give their defensive line a chance to get to Burrow by playing good pass defense. On offense, the Rams need to play it safe, since Stafford is sometimes known for throwing away the game for his teams in the clutch. They need to heavily use the run game to open up receivers like Kupp and OBJ.
As for me, although the Rams look better on paper, I can’t ignore Joe Cool’s powerful presence. I’m predicting a 23-20 victory for the Bengals.
Let us know who you think will win the match!