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Our Guide To The Super Bowl No One Saw Coming

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Super Bowl LVI is finally here, and it offers a truly interesting — if not exactly expected — pair of combatants. Do you like star power and ferocious defense? The Los Angeles Rams could be the team for you. Or would you prefer a youthful underdog with explosive offensive talent? We might suggest rooting for the Cincinnati Bengals. 

In this unconventional matchup, let’s dive into what our Elo forecast model sees in store on Super Bowl Sunday, as well as the numbers behind why either team could engineer a championship victory.

NFC No. 4 L.A. Rams vs. AFC No. 4 Cincinnati

6:30 p.m. ET Sunday, NBC

Elo favorite: Los Angeles -5½ (68 percent)
Consensus Vegas line: Los Angeles -4½

Why the Rams are favorites: By established names and experience, this is one of the biggest mismatches in Super Bowl history. Collectively, the Rams have earned 38 total Pro Bowl selections and 20 first-team All-Pro nods; the Bengals have seven and zero, respectively. (Those 20 career All-Pro selections for the Rams make them just the fifth Super Bowl team with at least that many on their roster through the season in question since 1980.) While the Rams are in their prime — their average Approximate Value-weighted age of 27.6 is roughly the same as that of the typical Super Bowl team (27.4) since 1980 — the Bengals (25.8) are the youngest Super Bowl team in that span, one of just three teams to make the big game with an average age under 26.0. Beyond the advantage in veteran talent and know-how, the Rams have produced a better point differential against a tougher schedule this season, which explains why Los Angeles is solidly ahead of the Bengals in most of the predictive power rating systems. Across those seven linked ratings, L.A. has an average leaguewide ranking of 3.3, while Cincinnati’s is 11.0.

And in perhaps the most pertinent X’s-and-O’s factor of the Super Bowl, quarterback Joe Burrow and the Bengals’ aerial attack will have a difficult matchup in the form of Los Angeles’s passing defense. Against the pass, the Rams rank sixth in schedule-adjusted expected points added (EPA) per game, after finishing fourth in adjusted net yards per attempt allowed and fifth in sack rate during the regular season. According to ESPN’s pass-blocking and pass-rushing metrics, the Rams were the league’s No. 1 pass-rushing team, and the Bengals were the league’s third-worst pass-blocking team. So Burrow, the NFL’s most-sacked QB this year, might be in for a long night against Aaron Donald, Von Miller, Leonard Floyd and the rest of L.A.’s fearsome front seven. 

The inverse probably won’t be true for Matthew Stafford on the other side of the ball — L.A. ranked No. 1 in pass-blocking and Cincy ranked just 25th in pass-rushing. And the more time Stafford has to survey the field for the receiving duo of Cooper Kupp and Odell Beckham Jr. (who combined for 255 yards in the air in the NFC championship game and are averaging over 200 combined receiving yards per game this postseason), the more likely it is that Cincinnati’s Super Bowl dream turns into a nightmare.

Why the Bengals can pull the upset: For all their youth and inexperience, the Bengals still have electric talent. Burrow, running back Joe Mixon and wide receivers Ja’Marr Chase and Tee Higgins became the first quartet of offensive teammates aged 25 or younger to all produce 10 or more AV for a Super Bowl team since the 1984 Miami Dolphins, and just the third ever. And despite some of the starker differences between the two teams’ resumes, many of Cincinnati’s regular-season stats barely differed from L.A.’s. The teams scored exactly the same number of points (460), and the Rams allowed only 4 fewer (372 versus 376). Burrow and Stafford had almost identical adjusted net yards per attempt rates, to go with extremely similar rates of touchdown passes and interceptions per attempt. All of which points to this matchup not being as lopsided as the names involved may suggest. Cincinnati has already pulled upsets of two teams favored by at least 4 points over them (the Titans and Chiefs), so a third is hardly out of the question.

There are valid concerns about Burrow being under pressure all game long. However, he might be able to turn the Rams’ defensive tactics against them. In generating all that pressure, L.A. has blitzed 32.3 percent of the time in the playoffs, forcing opposing passers into an 18.1 raw Total Quarterback Rating overall and a miniscule 8.9 raw QBR against the extra rusher(s). But Burrow has an 82.5 QBR against the blitz this year (including playoffs), which ranks fourth among all passers, and he has the fourth-largest gap in QBR (+26.8 points) when blitzed versus not blitzed. 

On the other side of the ball, the Rams have often relied on Stafford’s heroics late in games to pull out the win — he has an 83.4 QBR in the fourth quarter this season, tops among all NFL QBs (and about 19 points higher than his overall adjusted QBR) — but the Bengals have shown an ability to adapt and shut down opposing passers as games go on this postseason. In the playoffs, Cincinnati has gone from allowing a QBR of 69 in the first halves of games to just 9 in the second halves (or overtime), often by employing fewer pass-rushers and more defenders in coverage. If the Bengals can use that tendency to short-circuit Stafford’s clutch play, don’t be shocked if Cincy’s huge edge in special teams (they’re No. 3 in EPA, versus No. 28 for L.A.) makes a difference in a close game. With 12 field goals on 12 attempts in these playoffs — including two game-winners — kicker Evan McPherson is chasing Adam Vinatieri’s 2006 record for the most made kicks (14) in a single postseason.

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