“This is what they paid for. This is what they want.” Those were the famous words of Jimmy Connors at the 1991 US Open. A different sport in a different time, yet somehow still very applicable to the 2021 Los Angeles Rams. On Sunday, the Rams will play the Cincinnati Bengals in Super Bowl LVI in their home stadium. With the pressure of a home Super Bowl and having a window, the Rams paid a lot to get to this point.
This is a team that traded for quarterback Matthew Stafford. They paid two first round picks, a third round pick, and Jared Goff to get him. At the trade deadline, the Rams sent a second-round pick and a fourth round pick to Denver for edge rusher Von Miller. Going back all the way to 2019, the Rams also send two first round picks to Jacksonville for cornerback Jalen Ramsey.
The Los Angeles Rams have been planning for this moment ever since it was announced that they would host the Super Bowl at SoFi Stadium. Now, the moment is here. They’ve arrived at the Super Bowl and become the second team to play the Super Bowl in their home stadium.
General manager Les Snead paid big time to build this team. The Rams wanted the pressure of playing a Super Bowl in their home stadium.
“This is what they paid for. This is what they want.”
It’s been over 20 years since the Rams last won a Super Bowl. In that Super Bowl, they were the St. Louis Rams. 16 years later, the Rams would leave St. Louis and head to Los Angeles in hopes of becoming a more lucrative franchise. However, doing so would likely alienate half of their fanbase as they returned to a fanbase they abandoned 20 years earlier.
Winning that fanbase back over wouldn’t be easy. It would be even more difficult after a 4-12 inaugural season. For four seasons, the team wouldn’t even be playing in their new five billion dollar stadium.
Now? They just achieved their fifth straight winning season and are in their second Super Bowl in four years. They’ll be playing their second Super Bowl in their home stadium.
“This is what they paid for. This is what they want.”
To throw another tennis reference in here, Billie Jean King says, “Pressure is a privilege.” The Los Angeles Rams have been under more pressure than any team in the NFL this season. That’s what happens when you make the bold moves that no other team will make.
Matthew Stafford has a chance to change the narrative on his legacy. Sean McVay has the chance to become the youngest coach to win the Super Bowl. Andrew Whitworth can ride into the sunset with a Super Bowl ring on what should be a Hall of Fame career.
The Rams wanted this. Everything that they’ve done this season has built up to this moment. All of the trades, the free agent signings, and bold moves have led to this. A lot of pressure has come with that. However, “this is what they paid for. This is what they want.”
Five Los Angeles Rams Players to Watch
1. QB Matthew Stafford
We’ve been watching Matthew Stafford all season. From his first touchdown pass to Van Jefferson all the way in Week 1 to his game-winning drives against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and San Francisco 49ers. Stafford has gone from the quarterback who could’t win big games, to the quarterback who couldn’t beat teams with winning records, to the quarterback who couldn’t win in the playoffs. He’s smashed through every single glass narrative this season.
Now, we’re in the Super Bowl and that hasn’t changed. Joe Burrow is a “proven winner”. Meanwhile Stafford is undefeated in championship games in his career. All eyes will be on Matthew Stafford as he looks to complete what has been a very good season. Everyone will be watching for him to make the mistake, but Stafford has been one of the best quarterbacks in the postseason and has yet to make that anticipated mistake.
2. DL Aaron Donald
If there’s one offensive line that Aaron Donald can feast against, it’s this one. The Bengals offensive line gave up the most sacks this season. According to Pro Football Focus, the Bengals ranked 25th in pass blocking this season. Their 9.1% adjusted sack rate was the second-highest in the NFL behind the Chicago Bears.
Donald has a lot riding on this game. You can tell how much this game means to him and how much he wants it. Aaron Donald knows that the only thing missing from his legacy is a Super Bowl ring. With a win on Sunday, he could put himself in the same conversation as Lawrence Taylor and Reggie White.
3. CB Jalen Ramsey
Jalen Ramsey has had to hear all week how Ja’Marr Chase is obviously going to win the matchup on the outside. He gave up a big touchdown to Mike Evans and dropped an interception against the 49ers. That’s not going to happen in the Super Bowl. Ramsey’s going to be as motivated as ever to come out and have the best game of his career.
Evans has the most yards in a game against Ramsey this season. Outside of that, only DK Metcalf has more than 50 yards in a game when Ramsey was covering him. My guess is we’ll get the best version of Ramsey on Sunday and that’s a scary thing for opposing wide receivers.
4. LT Andrew Whitworth
This could very well be Andrew Whitworth’s last game as a pro. He’ll likely go down as the best free agent signing in Los Angeles Rams history. Whitworth is a big reason that the Rams turned it around in 2017 and he deserves to ride off into the sunset with his former team on the other side.
On Thursday, Whitworth won the Walter Payton Man of the Year Award. With a Super Bowl ring to close out his career, it should put an exclamation point on a Hall of Fame career.
5. EDGE Von Miller
The last time Von Miller played in a Super Bowl, he walked away with a MVP Award. He may not win Super Bowl MVP this time around, but Miller has been playing at another level during the postseason. Miller is tied for the most quarterback pressures in the postseason with Aaron Donald. He’s simply playing at an elite level.
The Los Angeles Rams traded for Miller in the middle of the season for this moment. They traded for Miller to give them another presence on the edge and get them over the hump. So far he’s done just that. However, it all comes down to one more game on Sunday.
Five Keys to Victory for the Los Angeles Rams
1. Avoid Turnovers on Offense
This goes without saying, but the Los Angeles Rams can’t turn the ball over and give the Cincinnati Bengals a chance in this game. They’ve been able to overcome these errors over the last few weeks. Against the Buccaneers, they managed to overcome four second half fumbles. In the regular season, they overcame three Stafford interceptions against Minnesota and a pick-six against Baltimore.
They can’t do that this week. The opportunistic Bengals defense intercepted Ryan Tannehill three times in the divisional round. The Titans lost by three points. Patrick Mahomes had two interceptions in the AFC Championship game. The second interception led to the game-winning field goal. The Rams must protect the football.
2. Run The Football
Running backs Cam Akers and Sony Michel should be in for a good game on Sunday. If the Rams stick to a similar gameplan that they had against the Arizona Cardinals, that might be enough against the Bengals. The Bengals are allowing 5.7 yards per carry to running backs in the postseason and have allowed a total of 312 yards for 104 yards per game.
There’s been some speculation that the Bengals could drop eight into coverage against the Rams. As I detailed here, the key will be running the football and force Cincinnati to get out of lighter defensive sets. Cincinnati’s -0.001 Rush EPA on defense and 49.2% success rate ranks 13th out of the 14 postseason teams.
3. Get to Joe Burrow
Joe Burrow has played with this same offensive line all year. He knows what to expect out of them. Still, as we saw last year in Super Bowl LV, even Patrick Mahomes needs protection and can’t do it all on his own. Burrow was the most-sacked quarterback in the NFL this season and was sacked nine times against the Titans in the divisional round.
This season, Burrow has been sacked five or more times in six games. The Bengals are 2-4 in those games. The Bengals gave up a combined 11 sacks to the Chicago Bears and Los Angeles Chargers. Both teams play similar defenses as the Rams. The Bengals lost both games. The Rams need to get to Burrow. If they can do that, it will make Tee Higgins and Ja’Marr Chase irrelevant.
4. Tackle on Defense
In three of the five losses that the Rams have suffered this season, they struggled to tackle. This was the case in the first Arizona loss and in both regular season losses to San Francisco. That hasn’t been the case in the postseason, but you would hate for this ugly head to turn up in the biggest game of the season.
The best way for the Bengals to offset the Rams pass rush is in the screen game. That requires the Rams secondary to recognize it and sniff it out. Joe Mixon has 29 receptions over the last five weeks. The Rams need to be ready for him to get involved in the passing game.
5. Play Within Themselves
Playing in a game like the Super Bowl can cause players sometimes to do something that they wouldn’t normally do. It may cause them to try to do more than they’re capable of. This goes the same for coaching. In Super Bowl LIII, McVay has admitted to getting away from what they were doing well. There’s no need for that. If the Rams stick to what they’ve done this season, they should win.
Stafford has been extremely efficient in the passing game this postseason, simply taking what’s available if the big play is covered. There’s no need to force anything or try to do too much.
Five Matchups To Watch
1. Jalen Ramsey vs. Ja’Marr Chase
This is the one that everyone will be watching come Sunday. Jalen Ramsey is undeniably the best cornerback in the NFL. Meanwhile, Ja’Marr Chase likely had the best rookie season ever for a wide receiver. As mentioned, only DK Metcalf has more than 50 yards in a game when Ramsey was covering him this season, removing the playoff game against Evans.
It’ll be interesting to see how much we see this matchup. Ramsey has remained on the outside for the most part during the postseason. Will that continue in the Super Bowl? The Rams have rotated the slot with Jalen Ramsey, Deayon, Rapp, and Long in the regular season. However, it’s been mostly David Long and Travin Howard in the slot during the playoff run.
2. Aaron Donald vs. Hakeem Adeniji
Hakeem Adeniji has given up the second most pressures and the most sacks in the postseason. Aaron Donald meanwhile has the most postseason pressures. This is an insane mismatch that the Rams have to win. The Rams need Donald at his best and to take over this game.
The Rams will likely move Donald around to try to get him in one-on-one situations. He’ll likely find himself against Isaiah Prince and others. However, when he’s lined up inside, this is the matchup that Donald will need to consistently win.
3. Cooper Kupp vs. Mike Hilton
Cooper Kupp has dominated from the slot this season. He leads the NFL in both yards and receptions from strictly the slot. On Sunday, he’ll be going up against one of the better slot cornerbacks in the NFL. It was Hilton who had a pick-six against the Tennessee Titans.
With that said, Hilton has given up the third most yards and receptions in the slot this season. However, Hilton’s 93.3 passer rating allowed ranks 18th. Kupp has won every matchup he’s faced this season. This one should be no different. Still, the Rams need Kupp more than ever in this Super Bowl.
4. Andrew Whitworth vs. Trey Hendrickson
Trey Hendrickson is the only player on the Bengals defense that has double-digit pressures in the postseason. Larry Ogunjobi won’t be playing who was a disruptive force inside for much of the year. With that said, Whitworth will be going up against Hendrickson who led the Bengals with 14.5 sacks after having a good season in New Orleans last year.
It’ll be interesting to see if the Bengals move Hendrickson inside to get some more favorable matchups. When it comes to the Bengals defensive line vs. the Rams offensive line, this is the matchup to watch.
5. Matthew Stafford vs. Jesse Bates III
Jesse Bates only has two interceptions this season, but he’s dangerous in coverage and has very good range. When you talk about ball-hawking safeties that can cover every blade of grass, Bates is in that conversation.
11 of Stafford’s 18 interceptions this season have gone to safeties. Bates is a player that Stafford is going to need to be aware of at all times. He’ll likely try to look him off and manipulate Bates with his eyes, but these are two players that will be battling with each other all afternoon.
Odell Beckham Jr. vs. Chidobe Awuzie will be a matchup to keep an eye on. The Rams have been going to Beckham more as seen last week in the NFC Championship game.
Darious Williams vs. Tee Higgins could be the winning matchup for the Bengals. Darious Williams has had a very rough year in a contract season. The Rams will need him more than ever to contain Higgins.
Brian Allen vs. BJ Hill will be the matchup to watch on the interior of the Rams offensive line. With no Larry Ogunjobi, Hill has been the man in the middle of the Bengals defense. The Rams will need Allen to hold him down to keep Stafford clean.
Five Bold Predictions
1. Odell Beckham Jr. Wins MVP
With Cooper Kupp garnering much of the attention on offense, don’t be surprised to see Stafford look in Odell Beckham Jr.’s direction. Beckham is coming off of his best game as a Ram in the NFC Championship game. It seems as though he and Stafford are finally on the same page. It wouldn’t be surprising to see him score on a deep ball that changes the game.
2. Cam Akers and Sony Michel combine for 150 yards and 2 TDs
It would not be surprising to see the Rams utilize a run-heavy game plan in this game. The Bengals have given up a lot in the run game on defense this postseason. It was four years ago when Michel and Rex Burkhead combined for over 130 yards rushing against the Los Angeles Rams in the big game. I’ll say they both score and combine for over 150.
3. Aaron Donald Breaks the Super Bowl Sack Record
The most sacks for one player on the Super Bowl is three. Currently, it’s a tie between Grady Jarrett, Kony Ealy, Darnell Docket, and Reggie White. Donald is going to be locked in for this game and will have a favorable matchup with the Bengals offensive line. I’ll say he breaks that record and cements his place as the greatest defensive player ever.
4. The Rams Defense Forces Three Turnovers
The Los Angeles Rams are going to need to create turnovers to win this game. Joe Mixon has been susceptible to fumbles in his career and has two already this season. Matthew Stafford led the league in interceptions, but Joe Burrow wasn’t far behind with 14. Burrow has an interception in each of his last two games. I’ll say he has two on Sunday.
5. Jalen Ramsey Holds Ja’Marr Chase Under 50 Yards
It’s going to be very difficult to get the ball to Ja’Marr Chase down the field if the Bengals offensive line can’t block. Ramsey has allowed just two receivers to eclipse 50 yards this season. Ramsey shows up for the big-time matchups and this is certainly one of those.
Five Storylines to Follow
1. Andrew Whitworth Going Up Against His Former Team
As mentioned earlier, this could be Andrew Whitworth’s final game. He has the chance for a real storybook ending. Whitworth will have a chance to beat his former team in the final game of his career which just so happens to be the Super Bowl. Big Whit deserves to ride off into the sunset against with a Super Bowl win.
2. Sean McVay vs. Zac Taylor
In 2018, Zac Taylor was on Sean McVay’s staff as the Rams went to the Super Bowl. After the loss to the Patriots, Taylor was hired to Cincinnati and won six games in his first two years. One of his 25 losses came to McVay in London at Wembley Stadium. This teacher vs. apprentice on the game’s biggest stage. Will Taylor handle the situation better than McVay did in 2018? This will be a coaching matchup to watch.
3. Eric Weddle Wearing the Green Dot
What Eric Weddle has done this season, is incredible. The 37-year old safety hadn’t played in almost two years. He went from his coach and playing pick-up basketball to playing in the NFL. Now, in the Super Bowl, Weddle will be wearing the Green Dot to communicate the play calls and coverages to the defense. It just shows how smart Weddle is and how well he is playing to gain that trust of the coaching staff.
4. Joe Burrow vs. Matthew Stafford
These quarterbacks have two similar but vastly different careers. Both wear number nine. They both were selected first overall and took over for hurt franchises. However, one is in the Super Bowl in his second season while Stafford is in his first Super Bowl in season 13. These two quarterbacks have been two of the best this season. They won’t be directly facing off, but the matchup in the passing game should be fun.
5. The ‘All-In’ Narrative
Yes, the Rams made big moves for Matthew Stafford and Von Miller. However, don’t let the media talk you into this all-in narrative around the Rams. Guys like Greg Gaines, Nick Scott, Van Jefferson, Brian Allen, Kendall Blanton, etc. have all played big roles this season. Don’t take credit away from those guys as the Rams likely have eight draft picks come April.
Well, fam…we’ve made it. We’re at the Super Bowl and the Rams are playing on the NFL’s final Sunday. I’m pretty confident going into this game. The Rams have put together very good game plans in the playoffs up to this point and I don’t see that changing heading into the Super Bowl where they’ve had two weeks to prepare.
The Los Angeles Rams simply matchup better. They have the better players and coaches. Yes, the Bengals wide receivers against the Rams secondary outside of Ramsey favors Cincinnati. The Bengals’ opportunistic defense also is something to be worried about.
Still, football is won in the trenches and the Rams matchup better in the trenches on both sides of the football. It’s not particularly close in that aspect. The Bengals are the third-worst team in the DVOA era to make the Super Bowl. The other two teams lost.
I could see very scenario playing out on Sunday. I could see a 28-16 Bengals win. A Rams 41-22 style blowout is also possible. Contrarily, I could see the Bengals winning on a last second Evan McPherson kick or the Rams winning on a final drive from Matthew Stafford.
At the end of the day, I see the Rams leading this game 20-16 heading into the fourth quarter and Burrow gives the Bengals the lead, 23-20 with four minutes left. In 1999 Rams fashion, Stafford leads the Rams back late for his third fourth-quarter comeback of the playoffs to win the Super Bowl.
Prediction: Rams 27, Bengals 23