One way or another, it’s going to be a Hollywood ending to an enthralling NFL season with Super Bowl 56 set to provide either the final act of a true underdog story or the completion of an ambitious all-star gamble.
The Los Angeles Rams went all-in in assembling an all-star cast to make sure they played the Super Bowl in their magnificent new home stadium, but nobody was expecting the Cincinnati Bengals, 125-1 outsiders at the start of the season, to be lining up against them.
With another bumper set of all-stars set to make the half-time show a blockbuster too, it’s all set up to be a night like no other in Los Angeles.
The underdogs against the all stars
Absolutely nobody fancied the Bengals, with just six wins in two previous seasons combined, to make it this far – and in fact no team has ever had a worse record in the two years before making the Super Bowl.
But this year it all clicked. With second-year quarterback Joe Burrow reunited with college team-mate Ja’Marr Chase, the Bengals have been an attacking team full of highlight-reel big plays.
Burrow and Chase aside, the Bengals have a squad more in keeping with a low-key franchise that has never won the Super Bowl, and went 31 years without even winning a play-off game until this season.
By contrast, since the Rams moved back to LA from St Louis in 2016 they’ve really taken the Hollywood theme to heart, embarking on an ambitious plan of blockbuster trades to bring in established star players in vital positions.
They have played four Super Bowls in their 86-year history – having started life in Cleveland in 1936, they moved to LA in the 1940s, and to St Louis in the mid-90s, before returning to LA – but have won only one, in 2000.
They have now put down permanent roots in the City of Angels. Owner Stan Kroenke splashed out $5bn to build the stunning SoFi Stadium and bring the Super Bowl back to LA, where it was first staged in 1967 before the game was even known as the Super Bowl – for some reason ‘the AFL-NFL World Championship Game’ did not catch on as a title.
The Rams last had a first-round draft pick in 2016 and are next scheduled one in 2024. Instead they’ve got older players on huge wages pushing the salary cap to the limit, but it’s all part of their win-now mentality.
It’s an interesting approach from Kroenke, who has not exactly demonstrated the same vision at Arsenal, as Gunners fans will tell you. Most fans in north London will be about as happy with Kroenke’s Rams winning on Sunday as Manchester United fans were about the Glazers winning last year’s Super Bowl with Tampa Bay.
Two top picks, two top receivers and two close head coaches
Matthew Stafford and Joe Burrow are only the second pair of quarterbacks both picked number one overall in the draft to meet in the Super Bowl.
A decade with struggling Detroit gave Stafford little chance to shine, but the fact the Rams paid such a high price for a 34-year-old shows just how desperate they were to win a Super Bowl. He simply has to deliver in a game that will define his career.
Burrow is in just his second year but walks and talks like a man destined for the big stage – and his 7-0 record in play-off games in college and the NFL show you he usually delivers when the stakes are highest.
He’s tough – he has recovered from a brutal knee injury and been sacked more times than any other QB in the league this season, but he keeps on getting up to win. His presence on the field is about the closest you can get to that of Tom Brady – who, incidentally, won his first Super Bowl in his second season and as a big underdog.
At wide receiver you have the Rams’ Cooper Kupp – coming off a season when he topped the charts in catches, yards and touchdowns – against Bengals rookie Chase, who has taken the league by storm. Both look unstoppable at times and either could be a game winner.
There is also intrigue on the sidelines, where Rams head coach Sean McVay goes up against a former assistant in Bengals boss Zac Taylor – who was on LA’s staff for their last Super Bowl appearance three years ago. That inside knowledge could potentially give Taylor an edge.
Don’t go to bed too soon – this could go all the way
It’s been a nail-biting season all year, with a record 35 games won on the very last play of the game and all four matches in a crazy divisional round of the play-offs settled by walk-off wins.
The Bengals had two walk-off wins to get to the Super Bowl and are known for their second-half comebacks, with a talent for making tactical changes at the break.
They outscored opponents by a league-best 73 points in the third quarter over the season, and as they showed with a huge wobble against Brady’s defending champions the Buccaneers, the Rams can struggle to kill games off.
With an extra long half-time interval for Taylor to work his tactical magic, do not go switching this one off early.
Speaking of half-time… what a show in store!
As the Super Bowl returns to Los Angeles for the first time in almost 30 years, the NFL has pulled out all the stops with a bumper half-time show that will feature Eminem, Snoop Dogg, Mary J Blige, Kendrick Lamar and Dr Dre.
With 43 Grammys between them it’s another all-star cast for this Hollywood epic, and a homecoming for Lamar, Dre and Snoop Dogg.
Super Bowl stats to impress your friends
- After 54 years with no team playing a Super Bowl at home, the Rams are the second on the bounce after the Buccaneers won in Tampa last year.
- This is just the second time two QBs who were number one overall picks in the draft have met in the Super Bowl – Payton Manning and Cam Newton were the first, at Super Bowl 50.
- The Bengals have played in two previous Super Bowls, losing both to the 49ers, while the Rams have won one of their four previous appearances.
- With Bengals head coach Zac Taylor aged 38 and opposite number Sean McVay 36, this is the youngest head coaching Super Bowl match-up of all time.
- If the Rams win, Sean McVay will be the youngest ever Super Bowl winning head coach, beating the record held by Pittsburgh’s Mike Tomlin who won aged 36 years and 323 days.
- The pre-match betting underdogs have won six of the past 10 Super Bowls.
- This is the first Super Bowl since 1975 not to have a first or second seed taking part. Both teams were seeded four in their conference so there will be a fourth seed as Super Bowl champs for the first time since Baltimore in 2012.
- If the Rams beat the Bengals, they will become the third franchise to win Super Bowls while being located in two cities, after the Colts – Baltimore and Indianapolis – and the Raiders, who have won while in Oakland and Los Angeles.