The Los Angeles Rams and Cincinnati Bengals are just days away from competing on the NFL’s biggest stage, and for many Detroit Lions fans in the corner of a certain quarterback, it’s the closest they’ve ever been to experiencing their team in the Super Bowl. Some call it sad, some call it pathetic. For me, someone else’s happiness is a silly thing to get upset about. Let people take pleasure in whatever they want, as long as they aren’t hurting anybody.
Anyway, for all of you Pride of Detroiters out there, it’s time for our final On Paper preview of the year. As always, I bring my stats-heavy preview we use for every Detroit Lions game and drag it to Super Bowl week for one last number crunch.
If you have happened upon this preview with no prior knowledge of how this thing works, here’s a quick tutorial:
So On Paper is split up into four sections: one team’s passing offense vs. the other team’s pass defense, and the same with the run game. Then flip offense and defense for both teams.
For each team’s unit, I use a chart to compare their weekly performance to season averages. For example, if Jared Goff throws for 310 yards and a 98.0 passer rating, that seems like a pretty good day. But in On Paper, we put it in its proper context. So if that performance comes against the best defense in the league that is allowing just 220 yards and an 85.0 passer rating on the season, it’s a fantastic performance. Each weekly performance is charted, compared to season averages, and color coded. Beating weekly averages earns a green cell. Performing below averages earns a red cell. And if the performance is within 5 percent of averages the cell is yellow.
At the end of each section, I award an advantage on a scale from 1-5 for a team based on how lopsided the matchup is and how likely it is to contribute to the final outcome. After all matchups have been broken down, I add up those advantages and declare a winner.
It’s not as confusing as it sounds. So let’s get into it.
Note: DVOA and averages listed are from the regular season, unless otherwise stated.
Rams pass offense (7th in DVOA) vs. Bengals pass defense (24th)
Perhaps you’ve heard of a player named Matthew Stafford. Turns out he’s in the midst of a career season with Los Angeles. He completed 67.2 percent of his passes, tying a career high, and averaged 8.1 yards per attempt, the second highest mark of his 13-year career.
His 41 passing touchdowns also set a career high, but Stafford also threw a league-leading 17 interceptions, the most he’s thrown in eight seasons.
That being said, as you can see from the charts above, Stafford was only held below defensive averages significantly three times when it comes to passer rating.
Stafford has been helped by a fantastic offensive line. The Rams quarterback has only been sacked 30 times this season, which is the fewest sacks he’s endured in a full season since 2013. Additionally, the Rams have the best team pass blocking grade according to PFF and the highest team pass block win rate per ESPN.
The Rams’ receiving corps have done their fair share of the heavy lifting, as well. Cooper Kupp won the receiving triple crown and nearly set the regular season record for receiving yards. Odell Beckham Jr., as a midseason addition, has been a weapon in the red zone (six touchdowns) and has elevated his game in the postseason (236 yards in three games).
It’s a pretty stacked passing offense.
During the regular season, the Bengals pass defense was pretty inconsistent, bordering on bad. They only held six of 17 opponents below their passer rating averages and gave up ratings of over 100 eight times.
Over the season, the Bengals ranked just 18th in passer rating allowed (93.1), 22nd in yards per attempt (7.2) and 26th in completion percentage (67.1). The one positive is that they got to the quarterback at an acceptable rank. They ranked t-11th in sacks (42) and 12th in quarterback hits (99).
That being said, the Bengals have been a completely different defense in the postseason. They’ve allowed five touchdowns, but nabbed six interceptions in the three-game span. They’re still giving up a lot of yards, and big yards per attempt numbers, but their secondary has been bawl-hawking, and that could be big against a mistake-prone Stafford.
Advantage: Rams +1.5. The Rams have the pretty clear advantage here, but the Bengals are playing well right now. The AFC Championship provides a confusing datapoint. The Chiefs threw all over the Bengals in the first half, but were completely stymied in the second.
Rams run offense (12th) vs. Bengals run defense (13th)
Did Stafford finally get a running game? Eh.... kinda. Los Angeles’ rushing attack was just good enough to keep defenses honest. They don’t have the ability to take over a game—they’ve rushed for 150+ yards just twice all year—but they’ve finished a game with 4.0 yards per carry or more in over half of the games this season.
The playoffs have been another story, though. The Rams haven’t been able to get much going, putting the pressure on the passing game and defense to carry them through the postseason. Cam Akers has provided an inspirational story after returning from a torn Achilles, but his production this postseason has not been good (54 carries, 151 yards, 2.8 YPC, 2 fumbles). It isn’t just Akers, though, as Sony Michel—who improved as the season went on—has been similarly inefficient (11 carries, 20 yards) in the playoffs.
It’s almost the exact same story with the Bengals run defense. In the regular season, they were pretty darn good, but for whatever reason, they’ve been awful in the postseason. Just three teams rushed for over 5.0 yards per carry against Cincy during the regular season, and all three opponents in the playoffs have done so.
During the season, the Bengals ranked 16th in yards per carry allowed (4.3), but 26th in percentage of runs that earned first downs (26.3).
One key matchup here is in short-yardage situations. The Rams ranked 29th in short yardage success percentage (54%), while the Bengals defense ranks 23rd in those same situations (allowing 71% conversion rates).
Advantage: Push. Neither unit has been consistent enough to warrant any confident in this matchup, and both units’ struggles this postseason are downright strange. Ultimately, it seems highly unlikely this matchup will heavily impact the outcome anyway, so we’re just going to call this one a push and move on.
Bengals pass offense (15th) vs. Rams pass defense (6th)
How good has Joe Burrow’s second NFL season been? Among every NFL quarterback’s second season in league history, Burrow’s ranks seventh in passer rating (108.3), first in completion percentage (70.4%), and seventh in yards per attempt (8.9).
Oh, and if we’re just talking about every 2021 quarterback, there isn’t a single one who graded out better (92.3) according to PFF. Not Tom Brady, Josh Allen, Justin Herbert, Aaron Rodgers or Patrick Mahomes.
Like Stafford, Burrow has been helped out by a phenomenal supporting cast. Rookie Ja’Marr Chase is breaking records of his own, while Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd combined for 1,919 yards on their own. But Cincy’s offensive line could certainly be weakness to exploit. The Bengals have given up the third most sacks in the NFL, rank 25th in PFF’s pass blocking grade, and 29th in ESPN’s pass block win rate.
We all remember the Titans’ nine sacks just a few weeks ago.
The Rams pass defense has been downright dominant all season. Just five opposing quarterbacks have eclipsed a 100 passer rating against LA, and no team has significantly outgained their passer rating average against the Rams since Week 10 against the 49ers.
Los Angeles ranks fifth in passer rating allowed (83.8), but just 24th in completion percentage (66.6%) and 23rd in yards per attempt (7.2).
Where they dominate is in disruption numbers. Their 19 interceptions rank t-third in the NFL, and their 50 sacks rank third. They rank first in PFF’s pass rushing grade and ninth in ESPN’s pass rush win rate. That’s not exactly great news for the Bengals’ vulnerable offensive line.
Advantage: Rams +1. Burrow and the Bengals have enough weapons that could overwhelm the Rams’ decent, but somewhat thin, secondary. However, I’m not sure it will matter with Cincinnati having to deal with one of the best defensive fronts in the league.
Bengals run offense (20th) vs. Rams run defense (5th)
Despite having a couple of talented backs in Joe Mixon and Samaje Perine, the Bengals’ rushing attack has not been very good this year. Including the playoffs, the Bengals have only rushed for over 100 yards twice in the past nine games. Over that same course of time, they’ve never rushed for over 4.4 yards per carry and have failed to hit the 4.0 mark six times.
It’s really unclear what the issue is with the Bengals, because their offensive line stats aren’t really that bad when it comes to run blocking. They rank 10th in ESPN’s team run block win rate and 20th in PFF’s team run blocking grade. However, it’s worth noting that the Bengals are one of the worst teams in short-yardage situations, converting just 51 percent of their chances—the second lowest rate in the league.
As expected with a defensive front as feared as the Rams’, they’ve done a great job stifling the run all season. That unit has only gotten better in the postseason, where they’ve held their opponents to just 162 total rushing yards in three games at a rate of just 3.1 yards per carry.
Overall, they rank seventh in yards per carry allowed (4.0) and 19th in percentage of rushes allowed earning first downs (25.1). Oddly enough, they’re also below average when it comes to short-yardage situations, allowing conversions 70% of the time (19th).
That said, they are first overall in PFF’s run defense grade and first in ESPN’s run stop win rate. So good luck, Bengals.
Advantage: Rams +2. The only reason this advantage isn’t larger is because I’m not sure how much it’s going to matter in this ballgame. The Bengals have been doing just fine without a running game all season and especially in the playoffs. I don’t expect Cincinnati to be able to run the ball well on Sunday, but to put frankly, who cares? Obviously, any team would like to be as two-dimensional as possible, but Cincinnati has proven they can get along just fine if they have to put the game on Burrow’s back.
The Rams come out with a pretty decisive +4.5 advantage and an edge in three of the four matchups. For the past two weeks, it seems like everyone is trying to find somewhere in this matchup the Bengals have the advantage. Some point to the Bengals’ short passing game as something that could frustrate the Rams defense:
Good point here by Mina, it looks like a match made in heaven.— Timo Riske (@PFF_Moo) February 9, 2022
I think the Bengals might want to change it up and also let Tee Higgins run some slants from slot. Burrow's elite accuracy and Higgins' large frame would allow for some completions even in tight windows. https://t.co/UsIP53BxbR pic.twitter.com/lUYJo8CeCp
Others point more abstract (ie: not real) things like “momentum” and “underdog mentality.”
But my overall point here is that you have to do some serious nitpicking here to find anywhere the Bengals have the advantage—both on paper and on film—over the Rams. I’m not saying the Bengals don’t belong here or that they have no chance on Sunday. We all know by now that football is not played on paper, and upsets happen all the time.
However, when we look at this game as objectively as possible, the Rams are the clear favorite to win Super Bowl 56 and it’s not particularly close. The only way I see the Bengals winning this game is if their secondary continues this wild run of creating turnovers and “Bad Stafford” shows up. While that’s certainly possible, give me Los Angeles in a fairly decisive game. 27-17 Rams.