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Rams vs. Bengals: Key matchups, players to watch and predictions for Super Bowl LVI

Los Angeles Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford (9) leads the team onto the field.
Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford (9) leads the team onto the field before a game against the Arizona Cardinals on Dec. 13 in Glendale, Ariz.
(Ralph Freso / Associated Press)
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So you know who is playing in the Super Bowl (the Rams and Cincinnati Bengals), when it is being played (Sunday at 3:30 p.m. PST), and how to watch (NBC, Telemundo and various streaming platforms).

But what about the nitty-gritty parts of the game? Here are some key matchups and players to keep an eye on while you’re watching.

Rams pass offense vs. Bengals pass defense

Quarterback Matthew Stafford is the odds-on favorite to win Super Bowl MVP honors and with good reason: He has committed only one turnover in the playoffs. Stafford faces a 4-3 Bengals defense coordinated by Lou Anarumo that includes play-making safeties Vonn Bell and Jessie Bates III. But no secondary has contained receiver Cooper Kupp, who has been unstoppable creating separation and gaining yards after the catch. And only on the Rams would Odell Beckham Jr. be a second option. Bengals ends Trey Hendrickson and Sam Hubbard lead a pass rush that sacked Patrick Mahomes four times in the AFC championship. EDGE: Rams

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Rams run offense vs. Bengals run defense

Coach Sean McVay has put the ball in Cam Akers’ hands since he returned from an Achilles injury, but he has yet to break out with a big run. The question is how much McVay will utilize Sony Michel, who rushed for 94 yards and scored a touchdown against the Rams in Super Bowl LIII, or possibly Darrell Henderson. The Bengals ranked fifth in the NFL in rushing defense during the regular season but they have given up 127.3 yards rushing per game in the playoffs. The Rams’ offensive line will be challenged by a Bengals front that includes tackles D.J. Reader and B.J. Hill and linebackers Logan Wilson and Germaine Pratt. EDGE: Bengals

Bengals pass offense vs. Rams pass defense

Inglewood, CA, Monday, January 17, 2022 - Los Angeles Rams defensive end Aaron Donald (99) encourages fans.
Rams defensive end Aaron Donald encourages fans to get loud during a defensive stand against the Arizona Cardinals in an NFC wild-card game Jan. 17 at SoFi Stadium.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Quarterback Joe Burrow is poised in the pocket, he can make every throw and also can run in an offense designed by coach Zac Taylor, a former Rams assistant. Ja’Marr Chase and Tee Higgins are 1,000-yard receivers and Tyler Boyd was close. Running back Joe Mixon and tight end C.J. Uzomah also are versatile threats. The Rams lineman Aaron Donald and outside linebackers Von Miller and Leonard Floyd will bring pressure against a Bengals line that is especially spotty on the right side and gave up nine sacks in a playoff victory over the Tennessee Titans. Burrow will complete passes, but he constantly will be under duress. EDGE: Even

Bengals run offense vs. Rams run defense

Mixon, 6-feet-1 and 220 pounds, is among the NFL’s toughest to tackle, a running back exceptional at gaining yards after contact. The fifth-year pro ranked third in the NFL in rushing, with 1,205 yards and 13 touchdowns during the regular season. If Bengals coach Zac Taylor wants to keep the ball out of Stafford’s hands, he could resort to a run-first, run-often game plan that worked well for the Titans and San Francisco 49ers against the Rams. Donald, tackles Greg Gaines and A’Shawn Robinson are stout, and safety Eric Weddle has shown he can still fill gaps only a few games removed from a near two-year retirement. EDGE: Bengals

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Special teams

Rams kicker Matt Gay and Bengals rookie kicker Evan McPherson have been clutch performers, having made game-winning field goals in the playoffs. McPherson has made all 12 postseason attempts. Rams punter Johnny Hekker has Super Bowl experience, and maybe more than he’d like — he punted nine times in Super Bowl LIII. Kevin Huber punts for the Bengals. The Rams’ speedy Brandon Powell returned a punt for a touchdown and handles kickoff returns. EDGE: Rams

Coaching

Rams head coach Sean McVay hugs offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth following the NFC championship game Jan. 20 at SoFi Stadium
Rams head coach Sean McVay hugs offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth following the NFC championship game Jan. 20 at SoFi Stadium.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)
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In Super Bowl LIII, McVay got schooled by Patriots coach Bill Belichick. Taylor was on that Rams staff, but he did not bear the weight that McVay did. So now McVay is the more experienced Super Bowl coach. Rams offensive coordinator Kevin O’Connell will become the Minnesota Vikings head coach after the Super Bowl. Defensive coordinator Raheem Morris can prove again that he should have been hired for one of the most recent coaching openings. EDGE: Rams

Gary Klein’s pick

The star-studded Rams were built for this moment, and they have everything working in their favor. They have trained for two weeks at their practice facility and are playing in their home stadium with a mission to win a Super Bowl for Donald, the long-suffering Stafford, 40-year-old left tackle Andrew Whitworth and other veterans. The Bengals are a tough young team with a star quarterback in the poised Burrow. But the Rams have too much experienced talent and motivation, and they will seize the opportunity. Rams 31, Bengals 23

3 Bengals who must come through

Cincinnati Bengals running back Joe Mixon runs against the Kansas City Chiefs during the AFC championship game
Cincinnati Bengals running back Joe Mixon runs against the Kansas City Chiefs during the AFC championship game Jan. 30 in Kansas City, Mo.
(Reed Hoffmann / Associated Press)

TREY HOPKINS, center: He’ll first have to identify where Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald is, then he’ll have to block him. Hopkins’ return from a torn ACL, suffered Jan. 3 of last year, is almost as miraculous as that of quarterback Joe Burrow.

JOE MIXON, running back: You can’t beat the Rams solely by throwing the ball against them. Teams have to be able to run to keep the pass rush at bay. Mixon is extremely versatile, has great hands coming out of the backfield and explosive jump cuts.

D.J. READER, nose tackle: Reader has had a great postseason. He will be essential to stopping the Rams’ running game and making them more one-dimensional. This 347-pound brick wall will be key in getting Matthew Stafford into third-and-long situations.

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3 Bengals you should know

TYLER BOYD, wide receiver: Boyd might be the best slot receiver in the game. He’s a two-time 1,000-yard receiver. He’s very reliable, rarely drops a ball, and makes tough catches. But he plays in the shadow of Ja’Marr Chase and Tee Higgins in terms of attention.

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C.J. UZOMAH, tight end: A big question is whether Uzomah (knee) will be healthy enough to play. In the first two playoff games, against Las Vegas and Tennessee, he had big games and key catches. A good blocker and though not a star, he’s very solid.

CHIDOBE AWUZIE, cornerback: Awuzie quietly has become Cincinnati’s No. 1 cornerback. A free agent from the Dallas Cowboys, he might be playing the position the best for the Bengals since the Leon Hall days. Those DBs will have their hands full against Rams receivers.

3 Rams who must come through

Los Angeles, California January 17, 2022: Rams running back Cam Akers breaks a tackle.
Rams running back Cam Akers breaks a tackle against the Arizona Cardinals during a wild-card game Jan. 17 at SoFi Stadium.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

CAM AKERS, running back: Akers made a remarkable recovery from a torn Achilles tendon suffered just before the start of training camp. Sean McVay has put him ahead of Sony Michel. The big concern with Akers is ball security. He needs to hang on to the football.

ERIC WEDDLE, safety: Even after a two-year layoff, Weddle instantly has become a reliable fixture. He played the whole game against the 49ers. He’s very good against the run. The big test will be Burrow and his lethal receivers.

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JOHNNY HEKKER, punter: Hekker is an incredibly valuable weapon with his ability to pin teams near their goal line. He’s had a somewhat average season by his lofty standards, but he’s been really good in the playoffs and steps up in big games.

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3 Rams you should know

KENDALL BLANTON, tight end: With Tyler Higbee unable to play because of a knee injury, Blanton has ably emerged and made plays. He had a big gain on a flea-flicker dump off from Matthew Stafford in the NFC championship game. Good hands and sturdy.

GREG GAINES, defensive tackle: Gaines moved into the lineup when Sebastian Joseph-Day went down with an injury. He’s going to be the first line of defense against Joe Mixon and has given opposing quarterbacks problems as well. Came up big against the 49ers.

DARIOUS WILLIAMS, cornerback: Williams has been way under the radar this season, after the Rams gave him a first-round tender. He doesn’t have a signature play this season. Everybody will be focused on Jalen Ramsey, but this is an opportunity for Williams to step up.

Sam Farmer’s pick

This game will be determined in the trenches. Cincinnati will keep it close for the first half, but the Rams will pull away in the second as Los Angeles’ defensive line starts to get to quarterback Joe Burrow. Cooper Kupp, who didn’t play in the last Super Bowl for the Rams, makes a big difference this time. RAMS 31, BENGALS 20

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