The biggest day in American sports is only a day away.
On Sunday, Feb. 13, the AFC champion Cincinnati Bengals take on the NFC champion Los Angeles Rams in Super Bowl LVI.
On the road to this stage, the Bengals ended their 31-year long playoff win drought. The Rams, led by Miami University alumni Sean McVay, had to defeat the legendary Tom Brady, who beat them in Super Bowl LIII.
Both teams possess some of the brightest stars on both sides of the ball. So, the victor of this contest needs to win the most matchups. Here are three key battles to keep an eye on during the game.
Joe Burrow vs. Matthew Stafford
Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford spent 13 years with the Detroit Lions before suiting up for Los Angeles this season. In Detroit, Stafford took the Lions to only three postseason trips and failed to record any postseason wins.
Many believe Stafford is a tremendous talent, but the guys around him were never good enough. Now, with a stacked deck, he has the weapons to accomplish what he never could as a Lion.
He has the career stats to rival many Hall of Famers, but a Super Bowl win would cement his legacy forever.
This is no easy feat for Stafford. Across the sideline from him is Bengals QB Joe Burrow. In his second season, Burrow is already in the elite quarterback conversation. The bright lights do not phase the 2019 College Football National Champion. In Cincinnati's playoff run, he put together many clutch drives, including setting up a game-winning field goal within 20 seconds. He is nothing but cool in the pocket.
Fortunately for Stafford, he has delivered on his fair share of big-time throws. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers would’ve most likely rode their momentum to a victory in the Divisional Round if he did not drop two dimes to wide receiver Cooper Kupp.
With this epic duel seeming even, the loser of this matchup will be the one who makes the most mistakes. Stafford led the league with 17 interceptions. However, Burrow was only three INTs behind him. Both have lost games this season due to turnovers. Although they have cleaned their issue in the postseason, you never know when they could throw the ball to the wrong team.
Bengals Offensive Line vs. Rams Front Seven
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Although this matchup is between the least glamorous positions, it will be Sunday’s number one deciding factor. The Bengals’ offensive line is the worst in protecting their quarterback, allowing a league-leading 51 sacks in the regular season. In the playoffs, the line let every defender through. Burrow was thrown down nine times at Tennessee.
If a defensive line like the Titans can create enormous pressure, then the Rams’ front seven should have no problem. Three-time Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald will do everything he can to hit Burrow. The Bengals need to make sure Donald is double-teamed.
Alongside Donald is former Super Bowl MVP Von Miller. Although not in his prime, Miller was acquired by the Rams midseason for matchups like these. This postseason, opposing quarterbacks have felt the veteran’s presence off the edge via two sacks and a forced fumble. Burrow needs to be away from these players, or it would be a long night for him.
Ja’Marr Chase vs. Jalen Ramsey
It will be interesting to see how the Rams game plan around Bengals wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase. Will cornerback Jalen Ramsey take him on 1-on-1? How often will Chase be double-teamed? The Los Angeles corner is arguably the best at his position. No matter the game plan, I expect Ramsey to have some reps by himself against the young star.
Chase is having a historic rookie season, including breaking the record for most receiving yards by a rookie (1,455). Chase finished second in the league in yards per reception (18.0). His chemistry as a teammate with Burrow at LSU is stronger than ever.
Nothing highlighted the duo’s connection better than crunch time. Burrow looks for Chase whenever the team needs a big play. Ramsey needs to take these away. When the game is tight late, whoever of the two wins the matchup has a good chance of victory.
The Rams are a 4-point favorite due to their slightly better roster and home-field advantage. However, the Bengals have the offensive pieces to keep up with their opponent’s all-star cast. The game ultimately will come down to who wins the key matchups.