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Super Bowl LVI (56) Prediction and Preview: Los Angeles Rams vs. Cincinnati Bengals

Super Bowl LVI (56) Prediction and Preview: Los Angeles Rams vs. Cincinnati Bengals

Two Hollywood stories play out their final act as the NFL's big game descends on L.A.

Super Bowl LVI between the Los Angeles Rams and the Cincinnati Bengals is a quarterback story. It's as simple as that.

Last January, Matthew Stafford was a Detroit Lion, facing a new coach and an uncertain future after missing the playoffs a fourth straight season. Joe Burrow had been sidelined since Thanksgiving, suffering a torn ACL that derailed his rookie year and left the Cincinnati Bengals a disastrous 4-11-1. Two former No. 1 overall picks facing each other in Super Bowl LVI, with Stafford a member of the Rams, seemed like nothing more than a pipe dream.

Turns out even the craziest of fantasies can still come true.

The Hollywood script for both quarterbacks writes its final act on Sunday night as the Lombardi Trophy is contested at SoFi Stadium. But after riding the roller coaster of playoff momentum, only one of these two QBs can have the happy ending that launches them into the rarified air labeled Super Bowl champion.

For Stafford, it's been a long road, suffering through a 74-90-1 record in a dozen seasons with Detroit before a trade to the Rams breathed new life into his career at age 34. Suddenly, a man who actively avoided the spotlight, toiling in obscurity, was thrust into the second-largest media market in the country, his new team giving away two first-round picks and its former first-round quarterback to risk it all.

"He had so much pressure on him," Stafford's wife Kelly said this week on "Good Morning America." "That team had so much pressure on them. And if they didn't make it to the Super Bowl they were a bust, you know?"

But when it counted, Stafford delivered. The fourth-seeded Rams came from behind to win the NFC West, destroyed rival Arizona in the Wild Card Round, and weathered the storm against Tampa Bay and San Francisco to advance. With 905 yards, six touchdowns, and just one interception, Stafford kept the ship afloat to earn the Rams a chance to win the Super Bowl at home. (Weird NFL rules still make them the visiting team out of the NFC.)

That's left them a 3.5-point favorite over Burrow and the Bengals. They're used to it. The AFC champion, also a four seed, got here through nail-biting wins over the two top teams in their conference on the road. Burrow survived nine sacks and no touchdown passes in a 19-16 squeaker over Tennessee, then outgunned Patrick Mahomes in a 27-24 overtime thriller for the ages. Along the way, he's relished in the underdog label, stealing the spotlight Stafford shuns in becoming the fastest No. 1 pick in history to reach the Super Bowl.

Just don't expect the AP Comeback Player of the Year to get intimidated, his wardrobe choices and diamond chain alone projecting comfort and confidence.

“When I played in the state championship in high school, it feels like the Super Bowl does now," he said earlier this week. "Everything feels the same — I've just had more reps in those pressure situations. I'm a little calmer now."

Can Burrow keep the Bengals cool, collected, and crushing their competition out in L.A.? Or is Sunday the time for Stafford to make a gamble pay off for the Rams and head coach Sean McVay?

Super Bowl LVI: Los Angeles Rams vs. Cincinnati Bengals

Kickoff: Sunday, Feb. 13 at 6:30 p.m.
Where: SoFi Stadium (Inglewood, Calif.)
TV: NBC
Spread: Rams -3.5

Three Things to Watch

1. Can the Rams' defensive line have its way against the Bengals?
Stafford wasn't the only piece the Rams picked up in their quest for Super Bowl glory. A midseason trade paired pass rusher Von Miller with three-time Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald, a 1-2 punch combining for 3.5 sacks, a forced fumble and nine quarterback hits during these playoffs. 

"Adding [Von] to the mix with this defense with the players we had already was huge for us," Donald said, crediting Miller with making him more vocal. "I think he helped us a lot. He's a great guy on the field, off the field … definitely a great leader."

Related: 5 Reasons Why the Los Angeles Rams Will Win Super Bowl LVI

Now, these two must combine to get Burrow down on the turf after he had his way with the Chiefs defense in the AFC Championship Game. For the Rams, their film study needs to focus on Tennessee the week before. Burrow somehow emerged victorious with nine sacks, but wasn't exactly comfortable, facing constant pressure. In that game, it was the Bengals' defense leading the way, picking off Ryan Tannehill three times while the offense did just enough to sneak by.

The Rams' defense needs to recapture a little rhythm of their own. They started off the postseason strong, sacking Arizona's Kyler Murray twice and forcing him into two interceptions. Tom Brady was sacked three times, threw a pick, and looked generally out of sorts for most of the first half of that NFC Divisional Round game.

But Brady led a furious second-half comeback, falling just short, and the Rams edge rushers were the ones on their heels last week against the 49ers. While Jimmy Garoppolo was pressured into a late fourth-quarter interception that sealed the game, the Rams failed to sack him even once.

In fact, the Bengals have recorded more sacks than the Rams during this postseason, 8-5. That's not going to cut it from this Miller-Donald combo who needs to bring it against Burrow on every play, especially if Leonard Floyd, who had 7.5 sacks through Week 9 but just three in his last 11 games, remains quiet.

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2. The undercard to Burrow-Stafford: Kupp vs. Chase
Cooper Kupp has saved the Rams not once, but twice during these playoffs. His 44-yard catch, breaking free late against Tampa Bay led to the game-winning field goal in the NFC Divisional Round. Then, against San Francisco, he racked up 11 catches, 142 yards, and two touchdowns, including an 11-yard catch in the end zone that jumpstarted a fourth-quarter comeback with the Rams down 17-7.

So far during these playoffs, Kupp has racked up 25 receptions, 386 yards, and four touchdowns. It should be no surprise the 2021 NFL Offensive Player of the Year is crushing the competition; no one else has cracked 300 receiving yards.

"He's just deceptive," says Bengals cornerback Mike Hilton, tasked with covering Kupp this Sunday. "He's a guy that knows how to switch tempos in the middle of his routes to slow DBs feet down and make them hesitate for half a second. … [Quarterback Matthew] Stafford trusts him. That's his go-to guy."

Related: 5 Reasons Why the Cincinnati Bengals Will Win Super Bowl LVI

The re-emergence of Odell Beckham Jr. has made it even easier for Kupp during the postseason, with Beckham posting 236 yards on 19 catches. By comparison, he had just 305 yards on 27 catches during eight regular-season games with the Rams.

But it's Kupp that will be counted on in crunch time, along with Chase on the Bengals' side. The 2021 first-round pick became the AP Offensive Rookie of the Year, breaking out just last month with a 266-yard, three-touchdown performance against Kansas City. But since then, Chase has been relatively quiet (for him), averaging 14.0 yards per catch during the postseason (down from 18.0) with just one touchdown grab.

Kupp has the better track record and the better sidekick overall (Odell's experience trumps Tee Higgins). Chase needs an exceptional performance against the Rams' defense to keep them in the game, going punch-for-punch with Kupp, and it won't be easy against one of the best corners in the game (Jalen Ramsey). With that said, Tampa Bay's Mike Evans showed it can be done: he wound up with 119 yards and a 55-yard TD catch in the Divisional Round.

3. Can Stafford and the Rams take care of the football?
This one is the biggest wild card after an underappreciated Bengals defense stymied Mahomes and the Chiefs, limiting them to just three points in the second half and overtime of the AFC Championship Game. No team has more takeaways than the Bengals during this postseason, racking up seven overall, including six interceptions. No team has more giveaways than the Rams, a total of five including an embarrassing four fumbles against Tampa Bay that allowed the Buccaneers to get back in the game.

Stafford has been pretty good during this stretch, throwing just one interception during the playoffs. However, during the last month of the regular season, he went through an ugly eight-turnover stretch, tying rookie Trevor Lawrence for the NFL lead with 17 interceptions overall.

Coughing up the ball here would be costly, especially against a Bengals team whose offense has seemed to figure itself out as the postseason wears on. Keep in mind just one team, the Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl V, has won the game when committing four turnovers or more.

Related: 5 Under-the-Radar Players to Watch in Super Bowl LVI

X-Factor: Placekicking
It always seems like the kicking game is an x-factor. But in a year where missed extra points and ugly field goal misses were the norm, not the exception, it's a central focus despite two Pro Bowl-caliber kickers on either side of the field.

Rams kicker Matt Gay was the best NFC kicker this season, making the Pro Bowl after hitting 94 percent of his field goal attempts and missing just one extra point. Problem is, the postseason has turned rocky; Gay's already missed more field goals (two) in the last three games than he did during the entire regular season, including one that came short from 47 yards.

Enter Evan McPherson, the confident rookie who predicted his game-winning kick against Tennessee seconds before nailing it through the uprights. McPherson set an NFL rookie record by going 12-for-12 in his first three playoff games, including multiple makes from 50-plus yards. That experience inspires confidence he'll show up to play, perhaps gaining the edge despite Gay kicking in his home stadium Sunday night.

Final Analysis

The Bengals have been riding their underdog label all the way to Los Angeles. On paper, the Rams have the experience, the edge in wide receiver play, and the home-field advantage to finally stop the Cincinnati train dead in its tracks.

So did Tennessee. And Kansas City. Look where they are now; sitting at home watching the Super Bowl with the rest of us. Expect Burrow and head coach Zac Taylor (a former McVay protégé) to find a way in a back-and-forth affair, positioning themselves with strong second-half play to take their first Super Bowl in franchise history.

In a year made for Hollywood, doesn't it seem like the better movie ending to unfold during the closing seconds out in L.A.?

Athlon Editors' Super Bowl LVI Predictions

EditorWinnerScoreMVP

Rob Doster

Rams

31-20

Matthew Stafford

Steven Lassan

Rams

27-24

Aaron Donald

Mark Ross

Rams

30-24

Matthew Stafford

Ben Weinrib

Rams

28-23

Matthew Stafford

AthlonSports.com NFL/Fantasy Contributors' Super Bowl LVI Predictions

ContributorWinnerScoreMVP

Tom Bowles

Bengals

31-24

Joe Burrow

Bryan Fischer

Rams

27-23

Odell Beckham Jr.

Matt Josephs

Rams

27-23

Von Miller

Juan Jose Rodriguez

Rams

34-20

Aaron Donald

John La Fleur

Bengals

30-27

Joe Burrow

Sarah Lewis

Bengals

36-30

Joe Burrow

Rob McVey

Rams

31-20

Matthew Stafford

Jake Rose

Rams

28-20

Aaron Donald

J.P. Scott

Rams

34-24

Odell Beckham Jr.

Eric Sorenson

Rams

35-20

Aaron Donald

Mark Strausberg

Rams

33-17

Matthew Stafford

Aaron Tallent

Rams

24-20

Cooper Kupp

Scott Whittum

Bengals

27-24

Joe Burrow

Aaron Wilson

Rams

27-17

Matthew Stafford

— Preview by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NASCARBowles.