The Professor’s NFL Super Bowl Preview

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The Professor's NFL Super Bowl Preview

Pro Bowl week has not brought the type of publicity the NFL would like, but as some media outlets deflect attention away from the Brian Flores lawsuit with articles on how an NFL team chooses a new logo, the growth of women’s flag football, and “controversial” selections to the All-Time Tom Brady team, The Professor will direct his attention to the championship matchup between the Cincinnati Bengals and Los Angeles Rams. This article will provide an overview of the matchup and take a look at the odds for Super Bowl MVP candidates; all spreads and totals are provided by DraftKings.

Cincinnati Bengals at Los Angeles Rams (LAR -4.5, Total 48.5)

This is the second consecutive season where the “at” in the Super Bowl matchup means something, as the Los Angeles Rams will play the Super Bowl in their home stadium. While there are benefits to players sleeping in their own beds, particularly during the hectic Super Bowl week, the irony of playing this game in the Los Angeles weather is that the Bengals would have more to lose if the game were played in bad weather, as a balanced attack is Cincinnati’s best chance of overcoming the talent advantage the Rams’ defensive line has over Cincinnati’s offensive line.

There are a variety of potential marquee matchups across the field in this game, highlighted by the possibility that Rams cornerback Jalen Ramsey lines up against Bengals receiver Ja’Marr Chase, but while there are several “best on best” matchups, the area where one team has an obvious advantage is the matchup is in the trenches when Cincinnati has the ball. The Bengals did hold the Chiefs to a single sack in the AFC Championship game, but the Titans sacked quarterback Joe Burrow nine times a week earlier, a performance that was more consistent with Cincinnati’s year-long trends. If Cincinnati’s line holds up for a second straight game, it would swing the odds dramatically in the Bengals’ favor, but blocking Aaron Donald, Von Miller, Leonard Floyd, and the rest of the Rams’ defensive front is easier said than done.

The Chase-Ramsey matchup will attract plenty of attention, and it will be fascinating to see how Bengals defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo elects to handle Rams receiver Cooper Kupp, but the big man matchup between longtime Bengal/current Ram Andrew Whitworth and Bengals defensive end Trey Hendrickson is also worth watching. Even the most optimistic Bengals fans must have harbored doubts that the team’s rebuild would happen quickly enough for Whitworth to contribute to a championship contender, but the 40-year old left tackle has continued to stave off Father Time, and will significantly improve the Rams’ chances against his old team if he can lock down Hendrickson. Hendrickson signed a monster contract with the Bengals in free agency, which had to cause some trepidation given how Cincinnati’s free-agent class had flopped in 2020, but Hendrickson has exceeded all expectations in his first season in the orange and black, dominating against the run and the pass while playing 68% of Cincinnati’s defensive snaps, which was Hendrickson’s career-high.

On the injury front, the major concern for both teams is at tight end, where the Rams’ Tyler Higbee and the Bengals’ C.J. Uzomah suffered injuries in their respective conference championship games. Higbee and Uzomah don’t get the attention of a player like Kansas City’s Travis Kelce, but both are capable blockers as well as legitimate threats in the passing game, and their absence could force their teams to alter their game plans. The two-week window before the Super Bowl gives each staff plenty of time to develop a contingency plan, but it would be a significant boost for either team if they get their lead tight end back for this game.

Super Bowl MVP

There are a few other players worth mentioning for Super Bowl MVP, but the top half of the DraftKings prop board has most of the names worth considering.

Our analysis of these odds needs to start with a review of past Super Bowl MVPs; there is no “right” answer to how far back we should go, but to get a mix of decent sample size and a relative focus on the modern NFL, The Professor will start in 1998, the year after Green Bay’s Desmond Howard won the MVP as a returner. 24 Super Bowl MVPs have been handed out since then; 15 (62.5%) have gone to quarterbacks, one (4.2%) to a running back (Denver’s Terrell Davis, 1998), four (16.7%) to wide receivers, and four to defenders.

Based on those numbers and the makeup of these teams, our list of candidates should include the two quarterbacks, the star receivers on either side and each team’s defensive playmakers. Running backs Joe Mixon (Cincinnati) and Cam Akers (Rams) are both talented players, but given that these offenses run through their quarterbacks, and that no running back has won the Super Bowl MVP since Terrell Davis, The Professor will set their names to the side.

On offense, that leaves Matthew Stafford (LAR QB, +100), Joe Burrow (CIN QB, +225), Cooper Kupp (LAR WR, +600), Ja’Marr Chase (CIN WR, +1800), Odell Beckham Jr. (LAR WR, +2800), and Tee Higgins (CIN WR, +4500) as viable candidates; there are scenarios where a player such as Bengals slot receiver Tyler Boyd could end up as Cincinnati’s lead receiver for the game, but if it plays out that way, it is likely that the targets will be spread around, and that the quarterback would end up as the MVP. On defense, the list will include Aaron Donald (LAR DT, +1600), Von Miller (LAR EDGE, +4500), Jalen Ramsey (LAR CB, +10000), Trey Hendrickson (CIN DE, +10000), and Jessie Bates (CIN S, +20000).

Stafford’s +100 odds make sense; he is the quarterback for the favored team, and only one player in NFL history has won the Super Bowl MVP as a member of the losing team (Chuck Howley, DAL, 1971). Given that the Rams money line is currently at -195 (66.1% break-even on DraftKings), betting on Stafford to win the MVP at +100 may be the more profitable way to bet on the Rams to win the game. On the flip side, Cincinnati’s money line is currently at +165, which makes the +225 MVP bet on Burrow reasonable, given the overwhelming likelihood that the second-year quarterback takes home the award if the Bengals prevail.

While the quarterbacks are the prime candidates, each team has a superstar receiver (Rams’ Cooper Kupp, Bengals’ Ja’Marr Chase) capable of dominating a game, as well as a secondary receiver (Rams’ Odell Beckham Jr., Bengals’ Tee Higgins) who can put up monster numbers any given week. Out of the receivers, The Professor would roll the dice on Chase; the rookie has consistently made big plays in clutch moments during Cincinnati’s run to the AFC North Title and through the NFL Playoffs. It is not hard to imagine Chase stealing the spotlight in Los Angeles.

Nobody has won more Super Bowl MVPs than Tom Bray –5

As Rams edge rusher Von Miller, who won the Super Bowl MVP as a member of the Denver Broncos, can attest, winning the MVP as a defensive player is all about making a game-changing play. The Rams have more star power on defense, which is reflected in the shorter DraftKings odds for their most prominent defenders, but the combination of Cincinnati’s status as the underdog and Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford’s significant turnover issues during the regular season, there is an argument that it is more likely a Cincinnati defender would end up in a position to win this award. Defensive end Trey Hendrickson could fit the bill, but Jessie Bates, ball-hawking safety who had the pass breakup on fellow safety Vonn Bell’s overtime interception against the Chiefs, might be in the best position to take advantage should Stafford make a mistake. Any defender is a long-shot between the need for particular game circumstances, not to mention the long odds of making a game-changing play, but at +20000, Bates is an interesting option to roll the dice on.

A final point worth noting is that if a bettor wants to play the long shots for Super Bowl MVP, it makes more sense to target defensive players. Linebacker Malcolm Smith was never a star, but his pick-six against the Broncos allowed Smith to win the award. A defensive touchdown is a rare event in an NFL game, and any defender has a chance to make that type of play, whereas it is exceedingly unlikely that an unheralded offensive skill player would suddenly be thrust into a starring role in the final game of the NFL season. For BeerLife bettors searching for a storybook ending among such defenders, look no further than Rams safety Eric Weddle, who has throttled up to full speed after his two-year retirement ended when the Rams needed safety depth for the playoffs. Weddle, who led the Rams in tackles in the NFC Championship game, is at +30000 to win the Super Bowl MVP; if Weddle makes a game-changing play in a Rams win, his story could put him over the top as the game’s MVP.

Conclusion

This article previewed the NFL Super Bowl and MVP Candidates. For more content from The Professor, check him out on BeerLife Sports!

About the author:

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Steven Clinton, better known as "The Professor", is a former D-1 Quality Control Assistant (Northwestern, Toledo) who holds a B.A. in Economics and M.S. in Predictive Analytics from Northwestern University. He maintains an end-to-end NFL game projection model and is a film junkie who breaks down the tape of every NFL game.