By Dalton Brown
As this weekend’s Super Bowl between the CIncinnati Bengals and Los Angeles Rams quickly approaches, we’ve arrived at a time on the sports calendar full of hyperbole, overreaction, and overanalysis. Each team has managed an impressive run of 3 consecutive wins to get here, and with that each team also has its own set of flaws. In many cases, perceptions around players or teams can be skewed by recency bias or hyperbolic imagination - for Super Bowl bettors, it’s important to avoid these pitfalls as well as we can.
Is Joe Burrow the next Tom Brady?
The first thing the casual fan will notice around this year’s Super Bowl is the distinct lack of Tom Brady. The Rams eliminated Brady’s Bucs in the Divisional Round, leading to the GOAT’s retirement soon afterward. To fill that void, many media members have already begun comparing second-year Bengals starter Joe Burrow to Tom Brady, understandably impressed by his exploits on the road in Tennessee and Kansas City. Burrow’s efforts were heroic in those two games, overcoming terrible offensive line play (sacked 9 times against Tennessee and broke several sacks for crucial third down runs against Kansas City). Moments like these will make a player seem impervious to factors working against him, but we tend to assume a little too quickly that they are the exception and not the rule. If I told you the Rams are going to hit Burrow as much as Tennessee did, can you with a straight face tell me you’re expecting the Bengals to win the game? They’re going to need their offensive line to be better, as they’re going against one of the best defensive fronts in the league.
I'm not here to take anything away from Burrow’s meteoric rise as a player and as a brand - he’s an exciting, marketable, talented young quarterback deserving of this moment. Comparing the 25-year old second-year QB to Tom Brady before he ever wins a Super Bowl isn’t reasonable or fair to either party, though. For one, Brady’s first Super Bowl in 2002 (the year everyone is drawing comparisons to) saw the Patriots win as 14.5 point underdogs against the St. Louis Rams - this year’s Bengals, while underdogs, are only getting 4 points against the also-4th-seeded Los Angeles Rams. Even if Joe Burrow were to win this Sunday, he’ll need to turn the Bengals into a team with actual dynasty potential over a long span - not only turning one surprising 10-7 season into a Super Bowl run - to garner those comparisons in any legitimate fashion. I’m not ruling it out, but let’s get real for a second - we’ve seen young quarterbacks lead surprising Super Bowl runs before.
Can the Rams be trusted not to implode?
For the Rams, the mantra has been “Super Bowl or bust” since they began trading away years and years of first round picks to build the closest thing in football to a “super team” of stars. Of course, a salary cap limits the extent to which a sport can actually work that way, and in the Rams case they’ve paid the price with relatively weak roster depth that leaves them exposed when injured. Still, having talent like Matthew Stafford, Odell Beckham Jr., Cooper Kupp, Aaron Donald, Von Miller, and Jalen Ramsey leads to lofty expectations. Much has been made of how the Rams got here, a path that saw them defeat Arizona 34-11 before much closer wins at Tampa Bay and at home against San Francisco. Seemingly more has been made about what their “near collapse” against Tampa Bay after leading 27-3 might mean than the scintillating drive led by Stafford to actually win the game in the final seconds.
While surrendering a lead of that size is always concerning, context is important - the Rams lost 4 fumbles and didn’t recover a single one themselves. Ball security is always an offense’s responsibility, but any seasoned bettor will tell you that fumbles and who recovers them are a much less predictive occurrence than anything else that happens on a football field. Had the Rams simply avoided the terrible luck that befell them, they likely never have to make that final drive to beat the Buccaneers and an impressive win isn’t somehow being spoken about as a stain on their resume. Make what you will of Matthew Stafford’s tendency to throw interceptions, but he’s thrown only 1 over 3 games in the playoffs despite throwing 8 in the final four games of the regular season and finishing tied with Trevor Lawrence with 17 on the year in 18 regular season games.
Why can’t the Rams run the football?
In Tampa, the Rams relied heavily on Matthew Stafford’s arm while only managing 2.4 yards per carry. Against the 49ers, winning credit for the Rams goes to a furious 4th quarter comeback catalyzed by defense while the running game struggled once again, averaging 2.5 yards per carry on 20 attempts. It’s easy to write off the Rams’ run game after these showings, especially in the two most important games of the season - but assuming the Rams won’t be able to get things back on track on Sunday assumes that the Cincinnati front 7 can match the play of 2 of the top 5 run defenses in the league. Los Angeles ran all over Arizona in the Wild Card round, racking up 140 yards on the ground en route to a blowout win. When their offense is at its best, they run the ball a lot more often and more effectively than they have the last two weeks - and against Cincinnati, they’ll likely be able to. The Bengals allowed an alarming 5.8 yards per rush to the Chiefs, and 5.2 to the Titans, in addition to allowing one of the most efficient running games of Josh Jacobs’ season against the Raiders in the wild card round. Don’t be surprised to see the Rams have a lot more success on the ground than they have in quite a while.
What does it all mean for Sunday?
While I believe the Rams are rightfully a moderate favorite, both teams are very capable of winning the Super Bowl on Sunday afternoon. Each quarterback has shown an ability to lead late drives and be at their best when it’s needed, which should make for an exciting, back and forth game. “Back and forth”, though, doesn’t necessarily mean we will see high-scoring fireworks out of the gate. Both teams will look to avoid the costly early mistake, and I’m imagining we will see a lot of running from Los Angeles and conservative throws from Cincinnati as the game gets going. The Bengals run their offense at the 30th fastest situation neutral pace in the NFL, and Los Angeles will gladly oblige with that approach from their opponent. While the scoring may pick up as each team eyes the finish line late and lets their talented QB loose, the first half ought to stay under the number as it has in most Super Bowls in recent memory, including 13 of the last 18 in which the big was lined around the current total of 48/48.5. Because of these reasons, in addition to the points above about Burrow possibly struggling a bit more than most expect and the Rams having more success on the ground than most expect, we should have a clear path to cashing this first half total play.
The Pick: First Half UNDER 24.5 (-130 at SugarHouse)