I stopped trying to predict which teams would meet in the Super Bowl about three months ago. The reason was simple: Games were too close and too unpredictable this season.
But now that we know which teams are in, let’s get back in prognostication business and look at five bold predictions.
Bengals halfback Joe Mixon will run for close to 90 yards — and if he doesn’t, the Bengals will struggle to win.
After watching Joe Burrow get battered by the pass rush, Cincinnati Coach Zac Taylor made a major change in the offense. Against the Tennessee Titans in the divisional playoff round, the Bengals had only 18 running plays. Burrow was sacked nine times. One week later, facing the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC conference championship, the Bengals ran the ball 27 times. Burrow was pressured 16 times but sacked only once.
Figure Mixon to get 19 to 21 carries against the Rams. He averages over four yards a carry, and while he could finish close to 90 yards, the Rams are decent against the run. They allowed just two 100-yard rushers this season and none since Week 4.
But if the Bengals concentrate on running the ball, Mixon will do well. They use more two- and three-tight end sets, which helps. He’ll be the game’s leading rusher because the Rams tend to spread their carries.
If Rams running back Cam Akers, who suffered a torn Achilles’ in July, was 100 percent healthy, he would be the game’s top rusher. But after he missed nearly all of the regular season, Akers has tallied 55, 48 and 48 yards in three postseason appearances. My money is on Mixon.
The Rams will get five sacks, and Aaron Donald will have two of them.
Nobody can block Donald. He has been the game’s most dominant defender since he entered the league. He has 1.5 sacks in the Rams’ three playoff games. The Bengals have shown throughout the regular season and in these playoffs an inability to keep great defensive tackles out of the backfield, but Donald is a next-level disrupter.
He can move around, routinely beats double and triple teams, rushes against left and right tackles and destroys pass-blocking schemes. Donald is determined to win his first Super Bowl, so expect to see him at the top of his game.
It will be interesting to see the Bengals’ pass-blocking strategy because they can’t focus entirely on Donald. The Rams also bring pressure from their talented outside linebackers — Von Miller and Leonard Floyd. Cincinnati tackles Riley Reiff and Jonah Williams gave up the most sacks on the team this season, combining for 11.5, and the Rams surely will try to exploit any weakness they see upfront.
Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford will have at least 60 more passing yards than Burrow.
Yards don’t mean the Rams will beat the Bengals, but you can see how the stats will line up. Stafford should get his 300 yards, as he did in the Rams’ past two playoff games. If the game is close, Burrow could finish around 240 yards. That’s because the Bengals’ best chance at protecting Burrow from getting destroyed is running the ball.
The Bengals ranked only 26th in the league in pass coverage this season, giving up 248.3 yards per game. The Rams have Cooper Kupp, who has been unstoppable, and Odell Beckham Jr. has been a great addition.
It will be interesting to see who gets picked on the most. Stafford has excelled against both cover-one and cover-three defenses. Stafford would destroy man-to-man coverage, and he’s one of the best in the league against the blitz. Cover-three would give Cincinnati a chance to get double-coverage on Kupp.
Ja’Marr Chase will get his seven or eight catches, but Tee Higgins will lead the Bengals in receiving.
The reason is Rams cornerback Jalen Ramsey. The sixth-year defensive back probably will be in man coverage against Chase, which will make it tougher for Burrow to find one of his favorite targets deep — or get passes to Chase at all.
Ramsey is the best coverage corner in the league. He only had 49 of 83 pass attempts completed on him this season and deflected about 16 passes during the regular season. The Bengals’ hobbled tight end, C.J. Uzomah, probably doesn’t help matters. Uzomah wants to play, but if he’s not 100 percent, the Rams’ secondary will have more flexibility and limit Chase’s opportunities.
Higgins has been a great No. 2 wide receiver, but the Bengals need to get Tyler Boyd more involved.
Burrow will have a great game, but it will come with heavy pressure.
No quarterback has had to survive more than Burrow. He was sacked 51 times during the regular season. The Titans got to him nine times last month. Still, he’s been able to win three playoff games.
His goal is to smoke another cigar after a win, but it won’t be easy. He’s one of the best quarterbacks under pressure, and Pro Football Focus gives him a 89.6 rating when pressured. What’s amazing is how quickly he gets rid of the ball — 2.69 seconds on average. And somehow he completed 70.4 percent of his passes.
We know this won’t be Burrow’s last Super Bowl, but he needs to put on a show — and survive some hits — to get his cigar.