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The Road to Super Bowl 56: The statistics behind the Cincinnati Bengals' and Los Angeles Rams' Super Bowl run

Inglewood, California, USA; Los Angeles Rams defensive end Aaron Donald (99) celebrates in the fourth quarter during the NFC Championship Game against the San Francisco 49ers at SoFi Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

The 2021 NFL season was a wild ride, a ride that has left us with two No. 4 seeds for the first time in the league's history.

The Cincinnati Bengals, who were 25/1 to win their own division and 150/1 to win the Super Bowl last February, entered the 2021 season with zero playoff wins since January of 1991 and zero road playoff wins in the history of the franchise. They blossomed into the team that slew the No. 1 seeded Tennessee Titans and the Super Bowl favorite Kansas City Chiefs on the road in back-to-back playoff games.

The Los Angeles Rams, on the other hand, will be playing in their second Super Bowl in four years after hitting the reset button at the quarterback position just over a year ago in a move that sent Jared Goff and multiple draft assets to the Detroit Lions for Matthew Stafford — the same Stafford who had managed only four winning seasons, zero NFC North titles and a 0-3 playoff record in his 12 years in Detroit.

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After fielding the league's best defense in 2020, the Rams lost safeties John Johnson III and Troy Hill and replaced departed defensive coordinator Brandon Staley with Raheem Morris.

A strong start, a mid-season losing streak and an… interesting tweet… preceded the acquisitions of Von Miller and Odell Beckham Jr., and the Rams ultimately caught the Arizona Cardinals from behind to win their first NFC West title since their last Super Bowl appearance. They followed that up by becoming the first team in NFL history to take down two division foes in the playoffs, and they saw off the retiring Tom Brady on the road in the divisional round for good measure.

In this article, I want to look into how the Bengals and Rams got here and what is at stake for the two franchises that went about the process in almost opposite ways but ended up in the same place.

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Imperfect Teams Rise to the Top in an Imperfect League

A characteristic of the 2021 season was that there wasn’t a clear-cut great team. After a 2020 season in which the Chiefs were 14-1 in games that involved starters and +200 to win the Super Bowl, the betting favorite going into the 2021 wild-card weekend was Green Bay at +380. The Titans, the AFC’s top seed, were only +850 to win it all.

As you can see below, the road to the Super Bowl had ups and downs, but ultimately the Bengals and Rams were able to take advantage of the imperfections of those above them to earn a trip to SoFi for the Super Bowl:

Relative PFF Elo values as the 2021 season evolved.

In a year with no elite teams, the Rams’ approach to going all-in had possibly a higher payoff than usual. They were second in the NFL in Wins Above Replacement (PFF WAR) earned, bested only by Tampa Bay, and were a better team than the banged-up Buccaneers team they faced in the playoffs.

Cooper Kupp, Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey were all the most valuable players in the NFL at their respective positions, and Sean McVay's side was always going to be hard to beat with those three at full strength.

At the quarterback position, Matthew Stafford has put together his best season to date, earning the fifth-most WAR in the league in the process:

Matthew Stafford’s career wins above replacement.

Cincinnati, meanwhile, benefited from injuries and ineffective play by the Ravens and Browns and caught the Las Vegas Raiders coming off a short week in the playoffs. Then followed a Titans team that overused Derrick Henry in his return to action, but the Bengals offense still surrendered nine sacks and the defense needed to intercept Ryan Tannehill three times to set up the heroics of rookie kicker Evan McPherson.

In the AFC Championship Game, the Bengals defense rallied from a horrid first-half performance to shut down Patrick Mahomes in the second half. And while Joe Burrow and the offense did not put up the offensive performance they did in the Week 17 matchup against Kansas City, they did just enough to prevent the Chiefs from earning their third straight Super Bowl berth.

Most valuable quarterbacks in the NFL this season, per PFF WAR
Rank Player Team WAR
1 Tom Brady TB 5.22
2 Justin Herbert LAC 4.40
3 Joe Burrow CIN 4.36
4 Josh Allen BUF 3.67
5 Matthew Stafford LAR 3.66

Two Teams that Pass and Stop the Pass

Despite football's very numerous nuances, the game usually boils down to just a few axioms — that you have to be able to pass the ball effectively and stop the pass.

Both of these teams do that pretty well, although the Bengals do it in a much less sustainable way — via Joe Burrow making explosive plays on third down:

Bengals & Rams: Passing success on all downs (rank in the NFL)
Team Passing EPA (rank) Passing success (rank)
L.A. 0.22 (1st) 53.4% (2nd)
CIN 0.11 (10th) 47.7% (16th)
Bengals & Rams: Passing success on first and second downs (rank in the NFL)
Team Passing EPA (rank) Passing success (rank)
L.A. 0.22 (1st) 53.7% (1st)
CIN 0.08 (12th) 48.1% (21st)

On a per-play basis, neither team runs the ball effectively at all. And in many ways, the teams almost lost their conference championship game because they tried too hard to “establish the run,” helping their opponent’s defense with each attempt:

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