“It’s incredible to be in Cincinnati and see so many people happy,” Hopkins said this week. “It literally impacts people’s lives, whether it’s the guy who bags my groceries or the guy who watches my dog. The city is alive. The fire has a spark. It’s something I haven’t seen.”
The Bengals will be making their third appearance in the NFL’s championship game but first one since 1989, when they play the L.A. Rams on Sunday in Super Bowl LVI at SoFi Stadium. Although the Rams are playing the “neutral site game” in their home stadium, Cincinnati is the home team. It’s the second straight year the Super Bowl is being played in the facility of one of the final two teams.
Here are five storylines to watch going into Super Bowl LVI.
1. Two No. 1 draft picks face off
Matthew Stafford was the Detroit Lions’ No. 1 overall pick in 2009 and spent the first 12 years of his career there before he was traded to the Rams last offseason. Joe Burrow was the Bengals’ No. 1 overall pick in 2020. Both are seeking their first Super Bowl ring and will be the focal point of the offenses. Stafford was 0-3 in playoff appearances with Detroit, and Burrow is 3-0 his first postseason.
Bengals coach Zac Taylor said Stafford should be getting more attention than he is, as a quality veteran who has enjoyed one of the best years in his career. He had more passing yards (4,886), more touchdown passes (41) and more wins (15) than the seemingly more-hyped Burrow, so his arm is a concern for Cincinnati’s defense.
Burrow’s teammates consider him capable of anything. Does he have one more big game in him this season? If he does, he could become the first quarterback to win a Heisman Trophy, a college national championship and a Super Bowl title.
2. Red-zone efficiency
The two teams were equal in redzone efficiency during the regular season, scoring around 85-86 percent of the time they moved inside the 20-yard line and getting touchdowns on about 60 percent of their trips (the Rams had 53 redzone trips and the Bengals 52).
However, the Bengals have struggled in that area in the playoffs and could use more consistency in that regard Sunday. In the last three games they have only scored touchdowns on 36 percent of red-zone opportunities. The Rams have scored touchdowns on 46.7 percent of their red-zone trips in the playoffs.
Cincinnati spent much of their final practice Friday specifically working on red-zone situations, which is typical for a Friday practice but something that has been emphasized even more lately.
“Just trying to follow our routine the best we can in the season,” Taylor told the pool reporter after practice. “That’s the routine our guys know. We finish with red zone and then we have about 50 hours until kickoff and it’s mental from here.”
There is one specific portion of games where the Bengals have been consistently good at scoring. During the last two minutes of the first half this year, they are outscoring their opponent 80-49, and in that span, Burrow is passing 50-for-67 for 654 yards. In other words, they’re most unstoppable when they embrace their no-huddle offense.
3. Injury concerns
Taylor said C.J. Uzomah is on track to play Sunday, though he is listed as questionable on the game status report published Friday. Uzomah suffered an MCL sprain in the AFC Championship and did not practice the entire week after that but was a full participant Friday after being limited Thursday and not practicing Wednesday.
The Rams will be without their top tight end, though, as Tyler Higbee has been ruled out and placed on injured reserve after suffering a knee injury in the NFC Championship. They also will be missing backup left tackle Joseph Noteboom because of a chest injury.
Bengals right guard Jackson Carman was a full participant Thursday and Friday and was not listed on the game status report, so he is good to go. Asked if the plan is to start him Sunday, Taylor gave a sly “we’ll see” response with a smile. Carman rotated with Hakeem Adeniji in the AFC Championship.
4. The stars come out
Both teams have explosive wide receivers, some notable pass rushers and a stout run defense, as the Bengals rank fifth in that last area and the Rams are sixth.
The Bengals feature the offensive rookie of the year in Ja’Marr Chase and a second 1,000-yard receiver in Tee Higgins, as well as a consistent Tyler Boyd. Chase could face a much-anticipated matchup with one of the best cornerbacks in the league in Jalen Ramsey.
For the Rams, receivers Cooper Kupp and Odell Beckham have been big playmakers for Stafford. Kupp especially has been dominant, leading the league in receiving yards, and he likely will match up with slot corner Mike Hilton.
The Bengals were preparing for Beckham during the regular season when he was with the Browns, but that week was when he ended up released. Hilton limited Kupp to no catches on four targets when he faced him while with the Steelers in 2019, but Kupp has made a huge jump since then.
“He’s just deceptive,” Hilton said. “He’s a guy that knows how to switch tempos in the middle of his routes to slow DBs’ feet down and make them hesitate for half a second. … [Quarterback Matthew] Stafford trusts him. That’s his go-to guy. He expects him to win his one-on-one. But I’m confident in what I can do. I know it’s going to be a big matchup between us both. Personally, I feel like we’re probably the best two slots in the game. What bigger stage [is there] to go out there and prove it? Me against him in the Super Bowl, can’t be a bigger moment.”
Cincinnati, which allowed 51 sacks in the regular season, should be most concerned about how to avoid the Rams’ pass rush, which produced 55 sacks this season. That includes 12.5 from Aaron Donald and 5.0 from Von Miller after he was traded from Denver midseason. The Bengals pass rush has picked up this season and been especially effective late in games with Sam Hubbard and Trey Hendrickson leading the way.
5. Bengals-Rams connections
Taylor downplays the significance of him facing his former mentor, Rams coach Sean McVay, because he says it’s been four years since he coached with him, but he couldn’t avoid the storyline this week.
McVay was hired by the Rams in 2017 at age 30 and took them to a Super Bowl to end the 2018 season with Taylor serving as an offensive assistant. Taylor got his first head coaching job with the Bengals because of that success and has credited McVay for helping put him on that path. This won’t be their first time facing one another but it is unique for the two to be meeting in the Super Bowl so quickly after they coached in one together.
Rams left tackle Andrew Whitworth also has a big connection to the Bengals. Drafted by the Bengals in 2006, Whitworth spent the first 11 years of his career in Cincinnati before leaving in free agency to join the Rams in 2017.
“I can’t even come up with the words of really how cool and how special it is for me,” Whitworth said of facing his old team in the Super Bowl. “My hearts with both organizations. I put my heart and soul into both places. I couldn’t believe in the people in both places more. … So just to be in this moment, be exactly where my feet are, just enjoying and taking it all in, it’s one of those things, it’s almost like a storybook just to have this opportunity, which could possibly be my last game, to be at two places that you’ve accomplished what you have and been such a significant part of it couldn’t be more special to me.”