Updated Feb 11, 2022 - Sports

Looking ahead to Super Bowl LVI

Illustration of a football on a red carpet.

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Super Bowl LVI is a homecoming of sorts, as the NFL's marquee event returns to La La Land 55 years after its birth.

The backdrop: The first Super Bowl was played at the L.A. Memorial Coliseum in 1967, a 35-10 win for the Packers over the Chiefs. It was last there in 1993, when the Cowboys beat the Bills, 52-17, at the Rose Bowl.

  • This will be the eighth Super Bowl played in the Los Angeles area, which trails only Miami and New Orleans.
  • A lot has changed since '93 — the Rams moved to St. Louis and back again, SoFi Stadium was built — but the synergy between football and Hollywood has only gotten stronger.

The matchup: The Bengals and Rams took radically different paths to get here, with the former bottoming out and building through the draft, while the latter has famously eschewed high draft picks.

  • The Rams had sky-high expectations this season after landing Matthew Stafford in a blockbuster trade. They're a veteran-led squad with a combined 58 Pro Bowl and All-Pro nods.
  • The Bengals had a 1% chance to make the Super Bowl in preseason and are the youngest team to ever get here (25.8 average age). Their total Pro Bowl and All-Pro nods? Seven.

The big picture: The Super Bowl is a cultural event, bringing roughly 100 million Americans together in a way few other things can — and doing so amid a pandemic for the second straight year.

  • Last year's game was a reflection of the times: Viewership was down, large gatherings were discouraged, and there were more cardboard cutouts than fans in Tampa's Raymond James Stadium.
  • What will this year's game look like? Well, no cardboard cutouts for starters. And while masks are still required at the game, parties are back and viewership is projected to rebound.

The favorite

*Higbee (knee) is questionable. Table: Jacque Schrag/Axios

The Rams are the clear Goliath, and that's before accounting for their home-field advantage.

  • Offense: 27.1 points scored (7th); 273.1 pass yards (5th); 99 rush yards (25th)
  • Defense: 21.9 points allowed (15th); 241.7 pass yards (22nd); 103.2 rush yards (6th)

Who to watch:

  • Matthew Stafford's marriage to a competent franchise has been mutually beneficial, to say the least. If the game is close late, watch out: his 83.4 fourth-quarter QBR led the NFL this year.
  • Aaron Donald is one of two players in history with three DPOYs (J.J. Watt), and he's treated accordingly. Not that it matters — his win rate against double teams (23.1%) led the league.
  • Cooper Kupp nearly broke two records during the regular season en route to winning OPOY. Now, he's seven catches and 161 yards shy of breaking two postseason records.
  • Andrew Whitworth, 40, is the NFL's oldest active player now that Tom Brady is retired. Any guesses where the two-time All-Pro left tackle spent his first 11 seasons? Yep, it's Cincy.
  • Sean McVay already holds the title as youngest head coach in Super Bowl history (33). Now he's back at age 36, hoping to pass Mike Tomlin as the youngest to win it.

The underdog

Table with the Bengals starters.
Note: *Uzomah (knee) is questionable. Table: Jacque Schrag/Axios

The Bengals, one of 12 NFL franchises that have never won a Super Bowl, are this season's team of destiny.

  • Offense: 27.1 points scored (7th); 259 pass yards (7th); 102.5 rush yards (23rd)
  • Defense: 22.1 points allowed (17th); 248.4 pass yards (26th); 102.5 rush yards (5th)

Who to watch:

  • Joe Burrow, the Comeback Player of the Year, could lift "Team Joe" to the top of the Super Bowl-winning QBs list. Only Tom Brady (7) has as many rings as the Joes: Montana (4x), Namath, Theismann and Flacco.
  • Ja'Marr Chase beat just about everybody in a rookie campaign for the ages. If he can beat one more person, he might just have a ring to show for it.
  • Evan McPherson is as clutch as they come. The rookie is a perfect 12-12 on field goals in the playoffs and his 12 makes from 50+ yards this season set an NFL record.
  • Trey Hendrickson's 27.5 sacks in the past two years trail only T.J. Watt (37.5) and Myles Garrett (28). Taking down QBs is more than a job for the converted tight end — it's a passion.
  • Coach Zac Taylor, 38, spent two seasons working under McVay, and was the QB coach when they lost Super Bowl LII. Now he's running the show in Cincy, where has a chance to become a legend.

The venue

SoFi Stadium
Photo: Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

SoFi Stadium — which features a bowl sitting under a canopy — is the most expensive sports venue ever built ($5 billion). The indoor-outdoor facility is cashless and built on a single network, a technological marvel.

  • The 70,000-square-foot Infinity Screen is made up of more than 80 million pixels that can be uniquely or congruently programmed with content, creating in-game visuals you won't see anywhere else.
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