Super Bowl LVI Prediction

I have to admit that I am somewhat dragging my feet with this article. It's hard to get amped up for the Super Bowl when the team you have followed religiously since you were 11 years old was so close to making it to the big game only to get denied in the final minutes of the conference championship. If you don't know that I am a 49ers fan, either you are reading my work for the first time or you don't really know me! As a diehard 49ers fan, I have experienced SEVEN NFC Championship game losses with the 49ers: 1990, 1992, 1993, 1997, 2011, 2013, and 2021. The first one was brutal when Roger Craig fumbled late in the game which then led to a NY Giants field goal sealing the 49ers chance to 3-peat as Super Bowl champions. Prior to that loss, I felt the 49ers were invincible with my first vivid memory of football being Joe Montana's TD drive in Super Bowl XXIII against the Bengals (Cincinnati's last time in the Super Bowl) that put the 49ers up 20-16 with less than a minute left in the game. Then the following season, the 49ers went 14-2 and demolished the competition in the postseason. That was followed by another 14-2 season and the shock I felt afterwards is a feeling I still remember.

The other NFC Conference championship losses were equally tough pills to swallow and ultimately I never got excited for the Super Bowl that followed two weeks later. That doesn't mean I won't watch the Super Bowl this Sunday. That doesn't mean I won't have some action on the game. That doesn't mean I won't BBQ chicken wings and devour most of them all by myself. That doesn't mean I won't drink more beer than I usually do on a Sunday. It's the Super Bowl which is like Christmas to this rabid football fan. Sometimes Christmas is wonderful just like a great matchup between two teams with contrasting styles. Other years, Christmas is magical just like the times the 49ers made it to the Super Bowl. The anticipation leading up to kickoff for the Super Bowls that featured the 49ers is no different than Christmas morning when there are a plethora of presents to open.

In general, Christmas rarely sucks unless you are battling an illness and/or can't be with family members which may have been the case for some people during the pandemic. Super Bowls rarely suck unless we get a lopsided affair (and you are not a fan of the winning team) or a game with very little scoring (like Rams - Patriots for the 2018 season). There is a halftime show that can be the equivalent of a marquee concert condensed into 12 - 15 minutes. There are commericials featuring A-list actors that can be memorable. And then there is the food/drinks that can rival the calories one would consume on other festive occasions as well as being in the company of family and friends. It's the Super Bowl people which should be treated as a national holiday!

OK, maybe I will get a bit more excited for the Rams-Bengals in Super Bowl LVI. I will be making chicken wings and drinking beer! I will be with family and friends! I will gamble on the game! And of course I will watch it in addition to the halftime show and commercials! Now, that I have self-motivated myself to have an ounce of excitement for Super Bowl LVI, what do I think will happen. I will tell you what I would like to happen. I would love to see the city of Cincinnati finally experience the thrill of winning a Super Bowl. I spent a week in Cincinnati on a business tip about 13 years ago and it was a town hit hard by the 2008 recession. Most of the metro area felt like a ghost town. It's a "smaller" big city with just two major sports teams but Cincinnati loves them both. Unlike LA which has so much to do, all Cincinnati really has besides chili and close proximity to the horse racing capital of the world in Lexington, Kentucky are its sports teams.

The Bengals have struggled mightily since their last trip to the Super Bowl including a 14 year playoff drought from 1991 - 2004 (and 9 double digit loss seasons thrown into that mix). Once the Bengals started to string together some winnings seasons with head coach Marvin Lewis, they would go on to lose in the wild card round SEVEN times from 2005 to 2015. Maybe I shouldn't feel so bad about the 49ers losing seven NFC Conference Championship games but I was spoiled as a kid when it comes to NFL fandom! After 2015, the Bengals returned to their cellar dweller status and continued to whiff on their high draft picks until Joe Burrow came to town. He truly is Cincinnati's white knight. I can't think of any other QBs who won the Heisman award, won the national championship, and was the 1st overall pick in the NFL draft in a span of 5 months. Interestingly enough, he played high school football in Ohio and attended Ohio State for two years before transferring to LSU. Like LeBron James, Burrow has returned home and if there is anyone who can help Cincinnati win its first Super Bowl trophy, it's Burrow. He has the resume of a winner and exudes leadership.

Cincinnati's offense is loaded with talent, especially rookie WR Ja'Marr Chase. For those who don't follow college football closely, both Burrow and Chase dominated Clemson in the national title game 2 years ago with Burrow passing for 463 yards and 5 TDs and connecting with Chase for 9 receptions, 221 yards, and 2 TDs. Chase literally was on the other end of Burrow's passes about half the time! Same could happen this Sunday since those two have amazing chemistry together. Here is the problem (now you can tell who I think will win). That game was played in New Orleans, pretty much LSU's backyard. This time the Bengals are no longer in Kansas and I am not just throwing out a Wizard of Oz reference for fun. They are really no longer in Kansas where they won the AFC title two weeks ago in an impressive comeback against the Chiefs who have dominated the AFC since 2018. There is no place like home (sorry for another Wizard of Oz reference) and now the Bengals will need to travel to Hollywood to face the Rams who get to play in their home stadium. Funny how no team had ever played in its home stadium for the first 54 Super Bowls and now this has happened two years in a row. I suppose we should expect the Arizona Cardinals to play in the Super Bowl next year and the Las Vegas Raiders the year after.

Of course Bengals fans will travel for the big game and why shouldn't they! You get to escape the cold winter of the midwest for the sunny beaches on the California coast. And you get to see your team in the big game for the first time in 33 years. I suspected the Bengals would make it back to the Super Bowl given how good they looked this season but I didn't think it would happen so soon. But again, Burrow is not someone you easily bet against. He was an instant success at LSU after his transfer there and he has been an instant success in Cincinnati except for the torn ACL as a rookie in 2020.

The more I break this game down, the more I realize how evenly matched the Rams and Bengals are. I explored how both the offenses and defenses perform in 3rd down situations, man vs zone coverage, and trips to the red zone and each time I cannot come away with anything conclusive. There are no major injuries to key players and both teams played in equally competitive divisions. They also had some tough losses throughout the season but learned how to bounce back from them. No doubt these are two very resilient teams and we are blessed to get to see them battle on the gridiron this Sunday. The spread of 3.5 points seems about right. I expect this game to be close for every second and should come down to the wire like we have seen with most of the NFL postseason games.

Still, I think the Rams WILL win Super Bowl LVI for three reasons. Here are those reasons.

Reason #1: Pass Rush

All super heroes have their kryptonite and as much as the national media wants to put Burrow on a pedestal, he is also the most sacked QB in the league. There were 5 regular season games in 2021 when Burrow was sacked at least five times and his record in those games was 1-4. The only win was an OT victory against Minnesota in Week 1. In the NFC divisional round against Tennessee, Burrow was sacked NINE times and Tennessee should have won that game. The Titans didn't attempt a field goal on Cincinnati's 35 yard line with less than 8 minutes left in the game but instead decided to go for it on 4th and 1 only to turn the ball over on downs. Then the Titans milked the clock down on their next possession only to turn it over when midfield. The Titan's lack of urgency meant the Bengals were able to kick a game winning field goal as time expired. I highly doubt the Rams will blow scoring opportunities or mismanage the clock like Tennessee. What the Rams have in common with Tennessee and unlike Kansas City, who applied almost no pressure on Burrow, is a strong pass rush.

Keep in mind that the Titans ranked in the top 10 in both total sacks and adjusted sack rate according to Football Outsiders. Also, keep in mind that the Bears and 49ers were in the top 5 in those categories and they beat Cincinnati being one of those four opponents this regular season to sack Burrow at least 5 times and come away victorious. Kansas City ranked in the bottom 5 with those stats. As for the Rams, they finished 3rd in the NFL with 50 sacks and an adjusted sack rate of 7.6% good for 7th best. Aaron Donald and Von Miller are both superb pass rushers with Donald being a Pro Bowler every time during this 7 year career and 1st Team All Pro every year as well except for his rookie season and Miller accumulating the same accolades at a similar frequency as well as winning Super Bowl MVP honors six years ago. Applying pressure on the QB is especially easier to do at home with the crowd noise on your side. Again, Bengals fans will travel for this game but with SoFi Stadium expanding its seating from 70,000 to 100,000 for the Super Bowl, there is a good chance that SoFi Stadium will be filled with more people pulling for LA than Cincinnati making it feel like a home game for the Rams (except when the Rams host the 49ers!).

Donald and Miller will put Burrow under duress often throughout the game. After all Donald has won the defensive player of the year three times during his illustrious career and has finished 2nd, 3rd, 4th, or 5th in four other seasons. Don't forget about All Pro cornerback Jalen Ramsey who will most likely shadow Chase, Burrow's favorite target, for most of the game. That will mean that Burrow might find himself holding onto the ball much longer than usual and also meaning that he might find himself on the ground often once Donald and Miller make their way past the line of scrimmage. Burrow won't feel at home under the bright lights of Hollywood.

Reason #2: Experience

We can go back and forth as to whether it's more important to field a younger team with more athleticism or a veteran team that has had to deal with more adversity. I would lean towards the more seasoned team. There are several data tables and visuals you can find that explore the peak age of NFL players for various positions. What I have found is that an average age of 28 years old is when most professional athletes are in the prime of their careers. Think about it. They most likely started playing their sport seriously by the time they started high school and then played collegiately for 3 - 4 years. It then takes another 3 - 4 years before you become the best at your craft at the professional level. You are also hungrier since that is right around the time you are playing for a big contract. By that time, you have been playing your sport for 14 years or half your life.

Experience matters but of course you don't want a bunch of players in their mid 30s who may have lost a step. Last year the average age of Tampa Bay's starters was 27.77 years with 28.45 years for offense and 27.09 years for defense. Compare that to Kansas City with an average age of 26.14 years with 26.64 years for offense and 25.64 years for defense. True, Kansas City won the Super Bowl the year before with many of the same key players but there were other key players from the 2019 championship team who were non-factors for the following Super Bowl with Pro Bowl tackle Eric Fisher missing the game (and not providing Mahomes the protection he needed against Tampa Bay's pass rush) and WR #2 Sammy Watkins not seeing the field much. Plus the 49ers were significantly younger than Kansas City in 2019. The point is that a very young team may not be able to handle the pressure that comes with playing on such a big stage as the Super Bowl. The average age for the Rams starters is 27.55 years compared to 25.49 years for the Bengals starters. We see similar disparities in age when you break down those averages for offense and defense. The Rams built their team to win now whereas the Bengals are built for the future. The Rams may never get a chance as good as this one and something tells me (average age that is) that they will seize the opportunity this Sunday to hoist the Lombardi trophy on their home turf.

Reason #3: Overcoming a Major Obstacle

It has been well documented that the 49ers had the Rams number leading up to the NFC Championship game. The 49ers had a six game winning streak against LA dating back to 2019 before it was snapped two weeks ago. The Rams barely missed the playoffs in 2019 when they were defending NFC Champions only to see their in-state rival make it to the big game that season. The Rams playoff positioning was hampered last year thanks to the two losses to SF in 2020 which was kind of strange since the 49ers played terribly that season. Then the Rams missed an opportunity to grab home field advantage with another two regular season losses to the 49ers. The Rams got the monkey off their backs two weeks ago and should feel a sense of vindication now that they have overcome this obstacle.

I like think of that obstacle as the "Pistons" effect. Back in the late 80s and early 90s, the Detroit Pistons had the Chicago Bulls number. Michael Jordan seemed poised to make it to his first NBA Finals in 1988 only to lose to Detroit in the Eastern Conference Championship. The Bulls would then lose to Detroit two more times at that level in 1989 and 1990. It wasn't until 1991 when Jordan and the Bulls figured out how to beat Detroit. Once they did, there was no stopping them as they went on to win the 1991 NBA Finals against the LA Lakers which ended one of the most successful NBA dynasties and spawned another one as the Bulls won 5 more NBA championships over the next seven years.

Even though I am sharing an NBA example, it can be applied to the NFL. In 1994, San Francisco beat Dallas in the NFC Championship game. They had lost at that level to Dallas the prior two seasons (remember I mentioned the heartbreak I have experienced as a 49ers fan!) and 49ers QB Steve Young literally told his teammates to take the monkey off his back when he finally won a Super Bowl. Once the 49ers figured out how to beat Dallas, the San Diego Chargers did not stand a chance in the Super Bowl. Fast forward to the next decade when Peyton Manning lost his first four regular season games to Tom Brady in addition to two playoff games. It wasn't until 2006 when the Colts pulled off an impressive comeback in the AFC Championship game against the Patriots that Manning felt he overcame his obstacle. He then led the Colts to a Super Bowl victory against the Bears two weeks later. Not quite the same but the Tampa Bay Bucs could not win a cold weather game for the life of them when they were coached by Tony Dungy. In fact, it was the Philadelphia Eagles who stood in their way. Once Jon Gruden took over in 2002, the Bucs defense (arguably one of the best defenses in NFL history) took care of business against the Eagles on the road and had all of the confidence in the world as they pulverized the Raiders in the Super Bowl.

The Rams are in the same boat. You can slice and dice all of the stats you want but sometimes sports psychology reigns supreme. The Rams overcame their obstacle by finally beating the 49ers and there won't be anything to stop them now with a healthy roster and a chance to become the 2nd team to win a Super Bowl at its home stadium.

Here is my prediction which uses my model (close to 70% accuracy against the spread in the postseason).

LA Rams 28
Cincinnati Bengals 21
MVP: Matthew Stafford

Sean McVay will become the 2nd youngest head coach to win a Super Bowl denying that honor to his protege Zac Taylor. When you consider the Rams' pass rush/Burrow's high sack rate, Rams' experience, and the Rams overcoming their 49ers obstacle, there is just too much overwhelming evidence that supports the Rams winning their first Super Bowl in LA and second in franchise history. The game will be great as well as the halftime show and commericials. Enjoy the food, libations, and company of family and friends. Happy Super Bowl weekend everyone!