Super Bowl Observations

by Team Del Genio

Team Del Genio ended the NFL season on a high note by winning all three of their plays, including their NFL Total of the Year and their NFL 1st Half Play of the Year. 

Our first decision for the matchup between the Los Angeles Rams and the Cincinnati Bengals was to endorse the Rams to cover the first half line (-2.5 in many locations, with -3s elsewhere). The Rams had gotten off to plenty of fast starts in the first half this season with Matthew Stafford at quarterback. We identified that Los Angeles had two initial edges in the game that would help them get off to a good start: home field and Super Bowl experience. Many of the players on both sides of the ball along with head coach Sean McVay were part of the Rams’ Super Bowl team three years ago. McVay admitted after that game that he attempted to accomplish too much in the lead-up to that game. Nerves were likely to be less of an issue this time around for the players who put on a Rams uniform in that game. The home crowd should energize the Los Angeles players in the opening moments of the game as well. McVay usually has his team start well. The Rams averaged 13.3 points in the first half going into the Super Bowl while allowing only 9.4 points in the first half. In their three previous playoff games, Los Angeles had averaged 16.0 points in the first half to give them an average halftime lead of 11.7 points per game against three playoff opponents who have averaged only 4.3 points in the opening 30 minutes. The only game where the Rams did not have a halftime lead was in the NFC championship game against San Francisco when the 49ers took a 10-7 halftime lead. Kyle Shanahan and his team were determined to get off to a better start than they did in the final week of the regular season when they let Los Angeles go into halftime with a 17-3 lead. The Rams blew that lead in the second half yet responded by scoring three first-half touchdowns the next week to take a 21-0 half-time lead against Arizona in the wildcard round of the playoffs. The next week in Tampa Bay, Los Angeles went into halftime with a 20-3 lead against the defending Super Bowl champions. 

Cincinnati had been the comeback kids with Joe Burrow as their quarterback. They rallied from a 28-17 halftime deficit in Week 17 of the regular season to upset Kansas City. They pulled off a second comeback win in four weeks in the AFC championship game against the Chiefs by overcoming a 21-10 halftime score to upset them, 27-24, in Arrowhead Stadium. Head coach Zac Taylor would probably not feel any urgency to take chances in the opening half. He knew his team is playing on the road, and his players may have nerves. The Bengals wanted to run the ball to establish the pass. Their continued commitment to run on first down to Tony Romo and many observers frustration represented a philosophy to not put Burrow in harm’s way with second-and-long and third-and-long situations. The Cincinnati offensive line was an obvious weakness, and the Bengals were fortunate to survive their game against Tennessee in the divisional round when Burrow got sacked nine times. What Taylor learned from the previous season when Burrow got sacked 32 times before his season-ending injury (with 13 sacks coming from empty backfield sets) is that he needs to do more to limit the punishment his franchise quarterback takes. Running the ball has a second advantage of putting his two big wide receivers, Ja’Marr Chase and Tee Higgins, in run blocking responsibilities with an opportunity to perhaps soften up Rams’ cornerback Jalen Ramsey, and that could pay off in the second half. The Bengals just wanted to stay competitive going into the second half when their confidence should rise. Cincinnati averaged 12.6 points in the first half this season yet allowed 12.4 points in the opening 30 minutes. Their scoring dropped to 9.6 points in the first half when playing on the road. In their three playoff games, the Bengals averaged 13.0 points in the first half but were outscored by 0.3 points in the first half in those games. Sure enough, the Rams went into the locker room with a 13-10 lead.

We then decided to endorse the Bengals plus the points for the final score. Several reasons made the Bengals' showdown with the Rams a unique Super Bowl. For starters, Los Angeles will be playing in their home SoFi Stadium for this game, yet it did not feel appropriate to assign them the full weight of the home field edge. The Rams organization did not control the ticket allocation the way they do during their other home games. Even when they do, the Los Angeles market often buys and re-sells these tickets as fans from San Francisco certainly took advantage of twice in the second half of the season. The Rams will have their share of fans in the stadium, yet Cincinnati fans will have a significant foothold in the seats as well. Neutral observers may quickly decide to have a rooting interest with the underdog. The Los Angeles players got to stay at home to prepare for this game, yet it was unclear if staying at home, in a city like Los Angeles, is as advantageous for the two weeks before the Super Bowl as it would otherwise be during the regular season. Tampa Bay took advantage of the home field last year to win the Super Bowl while being the first team to ever play the Big Game in their stadium. However, there is a sizable difference in playing in Tampa Bay during a pandemic when crowds had just been allowed back in Florida then it is playing a Super Bowl in Los Angeles a year later when travel has become normalized. It is unusual for the Super Bowl to not have at least one number one or two seed coming from the AFC or NFC representing their conference. Both the Bengals and the Rams were four seeds going into the playoffs. Neither of these teams lacks significant weaknesses. Sure enough, it was the third quarter where Cincinnati made their move as they scored ten unanswered points to take a 20-13 lead. The Rams ended their scoring drought with a field goal to make pull within four points where the score stayed until Matthew Stafford engineered the final touchdown scoring drive to give Los Angeles a 23-20 lead. The Bengals' ensuing drive stalled, yet we successfully threaded the needle by winning the Rams' first half bet before winning the Bengals plus the points final score wager.

We correctly anticipated a lower-scoring game than the 49.5 point total from the oddsmakers suggested. You had to be living under a rock to have not heard someone in the national media commenting that the biggest mismatch in the Big Game will be the Bengals’ offensive line versus Aaron Donald and the Rams’ defensive line. Certainly, Zac Taylor and Sean McVay would be game-planning around this game within the game. Taylor would not want this to be a high-scoring game since that puts more pressure on his star quarterback Joe Burrow to encounter more pass rushes from Donald and company. Taylor wanted to game plan to give Burrow an opportunity to win this game in the fourth quarter, and he needs to still be standing upright for that to happen. Cincinnati won all three of their playoff games despite only averaging 24 points per game and not scoring more than 27 ppg. All three of those games finished under the number.

The Bengals did a fine job in neutralizing the Rams’ pass rush in the first half. Yet defensive coordinator Raheem Morris’ halftime adjustment to put a fifth player on the defensive line was the tactical move that allowed Donald to thrive. Los Angeles would end the game with seven sacks and completing overwhelming Burrow and the Cincinnati offense in the fourth quarter. Those of us with under tickets had some nervous moments at the end of the game since a Bengals touchdown drive or even overtime could have put the final score into the 50s. Yet the Los Angeles pass rush was too much for Cincinnati to overcome, and the game finished under the number. 

It was a satisfying and rewarding end to the football season for the Team. Good luck - TDG.

All photographic images used for editorial content have been licensed from the Associated Press.

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