Just two teams are left standing as the stage is set for Super Bowl 56, the culmination of the NFLs first-ever 17-game regualr season.

While many fans and experts alike expected to see Patrick Mahomes, Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, or Josh Allen lead their team to the Super Bowl, the ultimate matchup was a bit unexpected but exciting and juicy nonetheless.

The Los Angeles Rams were definitely in the Super Bowl conversation at least after trading out Jared Goff for Matthew Stafford with an already loaded roster. Still, with Rodgers’ Green Bay Packers and Brady’s defending champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the way, the Rams were anything but a shoo-in to make it this far. Los Angeles overcame two NFC West rivals, the Arizona Cardinals and San Francisco 49ers, as well as Brady and the Buccaneers in order to reach Super Bowl 56.

But who could have seen Joe Burrow and the Cincinnati Bengals bursting on to the scene after a 4-11-1 record last season? Fifth overall pick Ja’Marr Chase as well as young standouts Joe Mixon and Tee Higgins combine with Burrow for an electric offense, and the Bengals heated up in the final stretch of the season to win the AFC North. The Bengals then knocked off the Las Vegas Raiders in the Wildcard Round, earning their first playoff win in 31 years, the Tennessee Titans, the AFC’s #1 seed, and the Kansas City Chiefs, heavily favored behind the usually stellar play of Patrick Mahomes.

Each team took a unique path to get here, and either ending could be sweet in its own way. But ultimately, only one of these two teams will hoist the Lombardi Trophy on Sunday night.

Read on for my Super Bowl 56 Prediction, and if you’d like to debate or discuss, join the conversation with @SakSports on Twitter.

Picks Record

2021-22 NFL Regular Season: 178-93-1

2021-22 NFL Playoffs: 8-4

2021-22 NFL Season Total: 186-97-1 (66%)

I went 5-1 in the Wildcard Round, but just 3-3 since then. I predicted the Bengals would beat the Titans in the Divisional Round, but was shocked they were able to beat the Chiefs to advance to the Super Bowl. I was also blindsided by the 49ers upset over the Packers in the Divisional Round, and fell just short picking the Bills to beat the Chiefs.

Previous Super Bowl Predictions

Super Bowl 53: Predicted the Los Angeles Rams would beat the New England Patriots 36-30 in overtime. Was wrong on the Rams, and the game was ultimately a low-scoring snooze with New England winning 13-3.

Super Bowl 54: Predicted the Kansas City Chiefs would overcome the San Francisco 49ers 37-30, and in reality the Chiefs won 31-20 after a fourth quarter comeback.

Super Bowl 55: Predicted an epic shootout and last-minute game-winning drive from Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs, projecting a 37-36 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The real outcome was much less exciting, with Tom Brady and the Buccaneers prevailing 31-9.

Super Bowl 56: Setting the Stage

Photo: Seahawks Wire/USA Today

If you asked 100 NFL fans who they thought would play in Super Bowl 56 heading in to the 2021-22 NFL season, most of the responses probably would have included the Kansas City Chiefs, Buffalo Bills, Green Bay Packers, and Tampa Bay Buccaneers (not so coincidentally the four teams that made it to the Conference Championship Round last season.) You definitely would have gotten some answers involving the Los Angeles Rams, an already-strong team that swapped out Jared Goff for Matthew Stafford at quarterback. CBS Sports’ Peter King boldly picked both the Rams to win Super Bowl 56 and Stafford to win NFL MVP in his preseason prediction.

But almost undoubtedly, not a single person, not even the most diehard fan of the team, would have predicted the Cincinnati Bengals would make it to Super Bowl 56 if they were giving their honest prediction. The Bengals finished last in the AFC North last season, quarterback Joe Burrow was coming off a torn ACL, and even halfway through this season, Cincinnati may have only been the third or fourth-best team in their own division.

But Burrow and the Bengals got hot at the right time, closing out the regular season strong to win the AFC North, and then coming into the playoffs and winning three straight games over the Las Vegas Raiders, Tennessee Titans (#1 seed,) and Kansas City Chiefs (human cheat code Patrick Mahomes.) The Bengals are tired of the underdog narrative, but their ascension not just from worst-to-first in their division, but from a 4-11-1 team to the AFC Super Bowl representative is quite impressive.

While their second trip to the Super Bowl in the last four seasons didn’t come as a complete surprise, that’s not to say the Rams didn’t overcome adversity to get to the game’s biggest stage. Los Angeles lost wide receiver Robert Woods, Stafford’s second-leading option after Cooper Kupp, halfway through the season, and his loss was felt immediately. Even as the Rams added Odell Beckham Jr. to the mix to compensate, Los Angeles dropped three straight games to the Titans, 49ers, and Packers, seemingly fading away to start the second half of the season.

But since that three-game losing streak, the Rams have gone 8-1 in the regular and postseason, losing just one Week 18 matchup to the San Francisco 49ers. The Rams might not be dominating their competition, as five of the eight wins came by just a score or less, but Los Angeles is winning when it matters and picking up steam.

After beating the Arizona Cardinals in the Wildcard Round, everything almost fell apart in the Divisional Round against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, with the Rams squandering a 27-3 lead. The Rams scored a late touchdown and held on though, and in the NFC Championship Game, Los Angeles completed a fourth quarter comeback against the 49ers to reach Super Bowl 56.

Super Bowl 56: Prediction

Photo: via The Comeback

Line: Los Angeles Rams (-4.5)

Time: 6:30 PM ET/3:30 PM PT

TV: NBC

Location: SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, California

As the Los Angeles Rams and Cincinnati Bengals clash in Super Bowl 56, I think the outcome will largely be determined by which team can control the pace of the game, and which defense can make second half defensive adjustments to clamp down on their opponent. Both teams are capable of scoring in bunches, but I don’t necessarily see that leading to a shootout. The Rams and Bengals actually finished the regular season with the same mark of 27.1 points per game, seventh in the NFL. Los Angeles’ defense was a hair better than Cincinnati’s statistically, allowing 21.9 points per game to the Bengals 22.1 points per game, but defense can be a game of which team is playing better right now.

The Rams defense is star-studded and super talented, from the ferocious defensive line to the tight coverage secondary. Los Angeles stifled Kyler Murray and the Cardinals in the Wildcard Round, winning 34-11, but alarmingly gave up a 27-3 lead against the Buccaneers the following week. Tampa Bay’s comeback was a result of many things, such as the offense’s struggles and a pick thrown by Stafford, but the blown lead is still something Sean McVay will have to make sure doesn’t happen again.

Burrow and the Bengals beat the Chiefs in the AFC Championship for their second victory over Kansas City this season, coming from behind in both instances which wouldn’t have been possible without defensive players stepping up. The Bengals defense made Mahomes look like a backup New York Jets quarterback in the second half of the AFC Championship, shocking the NFL world and earning Cincinnati a rare trip to the Super Bowl.

If the Bengals win Super Bowl 56, it will likely come as a result of stellar defensive play as well as the Rams choking away a lead like they did against the Buccaneers. Another path to victory for the Bengals could be taking an early lead and pounding the ball with the efficient Joe Mixon.

But Cincinnati’s defense isn’t without flaws. Though he came up big in the fourth quarter and overtime, cornerback Eli Apple was a liability at times against the Chiefs. With Cooper Kupp, Van Jefferson, and Odell Beckham Jr. headlining an explosive offense, Cincinnati can’t afford blown coverage from their cornerbacks, or else Stafford could absolutely burn them.

The Rams are favored for a few reasons. While both offenses can score and move the ball in a variety of ways behind their solid quarterbacks, Los Angeles’ offense is just more complete at this moment in time. Stafford easily outpaces Burrow in experience, as well as Kupp and Beckham Jr. do over Ja’Marr Chase and Tee Higgins. While youth isn’t an inherent disadvantage, veteran experience on the Rams offensive side of the ball is definitely a plus. The same goes for the defenses: while Los Angeles was only marginally better at stopping their opponents from scoring this season, Aaron Donald, Jalen Ramsey, Von Miler, and Eric Weddle bring a wealth of experience and leadership that can’t go understated.

Finally, for the second time in two seasons after never occurring in the previous 54 seasons, the Rams will play Super Bowl 56 on their home turf, in SoFi Stadium. Even with all the jokes about how the Rams were hardly a home team against the 49ers, and even with a slightly better road record (7-2) than home record (5-3) in the regular season, playing at SoFi Stadium is an undeniable advantage for the Rams. Already possessing much more playoff experience, with many players and coaches appearing in Super Bowl 53 just a few years ago, the comfort of not having to travel for the Super Bowl can be very beneficial for the Rams. While its possible the moment could overwhelm any player from either side, the Rams will enjoy some additional comfort that can allow them to focus more on the game than the fact they’re on the NFL’s biggest stage. While there’s very little precedent, the Buccaneers did blow out the Chiefs in their “home Super Bowl” last season despite what many expected would be a close matchup.

As I build towards my pick, I just want to be clear that I could see this matchup going either way. If the Bengals can beat Mahomes and the Chiefs in Kansas City, well, that pretty much means they can beat anyone. The Rams are very talented, but not quite a juggernaut, especially as they struggled to beat the 49ers in the NFC Championship.

But with all the factors laid out on the table, Stafford, McVay, and the Rams seem like the safe and sensible pick. Talent and experience on both sides of the ball will shine through, even though the teams have been playing at similar levels lately, and even though the argument could be made the Bengals are a hotter team at this moment in time.

I predict the Bengals will strike first and perhaps lead at halftime, before Stafford tosses a pair of touchdowns in the third quarter to put Los Angeles in control. Burrow and the Bengals will have a chance early in the fourth quarter to make things interesting again, but Los Angeles’ defense will shut that down, either by pressuring Burrow in the pocket or playing lock-down defense in the secondary.

Cooper Kupp is definitely a rare candidate for a non-quarterback Super Bowl MVP, but that will depend on his production on Super Bowl Sunday. Even without doing anything super over-the-top, a couple touchdown passes and a win would likely be enough for Stafford to take home Super Bowl MVP honors.

Sak Sports Blog Prediction: Rams win 27-22, Stafford wins MVP

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Header Photo: The Draftwire/USA Today

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