Welcome to Upset Watch
Every week we look through the NFL's schedule and give you the best data-led picks that generate the most consistent profit in the industry.
As it's Super Bowl week, that schedule is of course, very simple. There's one game to pick, and we obviously want to get it right, just as we did in 5 of the last 6 seasons.
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Season singles Profit: +$3,395 ($100 on each money line pick)
Season doubles profit: ($10 on every parlay of 2 from our money line picks): +$1,550
Season trebles profit: ($10 on every parlay of 3 from our money line picks): +$1,825
Total profit of all 2x and 3x parlays: +$3,375
We're going to finish up with a +$3,000 profit, which is of course amazing, and more than doubles last season's total. The combination parlays have paid off for me personally, generating a big profit with less outlay, and I encourage you all to consider reading my mid-season explainer on how to use them to your advantage!
I want to finish the season with a reminder about why this column is so important to me.
I have seen people throw money, bad after good, on favorites and 'can't miss' teams. I have seen them lose a lot more than they win, because often, once a crowd starts to believe in a team, you just can't picture them losing.
I know the opposite is true. That underdogs win 33%+ of NFL games, and that if you have an open mind, then you don't need 80% of your picks to win to make a profit. If you're betting on underdogs, anything over 50% is a guaranteed profit, and if you can get a few big ones in there, as we did this season, then you will realize that there's nothing sweeter than an underdog victory.
Now, on with the analysis of the two teams...
The Bengals are one of the more underrated defenses in the NFL. As we saw in Kansas City, they have a habit of starting slowly, but being able to react well to what their opponents show them.
The Bengals gave up an average of 12.4 points in the first half of games (25th in the NFL), but allowed just 8.9 points in the second half of games (3rd in the NFL).
The defensive line in particular is a threat to Matthew Stafford, averaging 2.5 sacks per game (11th), but having 4 against the Chiefs in the AFC title game to seal a huge come-from-behind victory that was largely built on how well the defense stopped Patrick Mahomes and stopped the Chiefs closing the game out with run and short pass plays.
Opposing unit: The Rams offensive line is one of the best in football, ranking 5th in sacks allowed per game.
Joe Burrow has transformed the Bengals, but it's been an evolution of sorts, and we shouldn't mistake this strength for purely being about high-volume. A lot of times, whenever people discuss passing offense, it's easy to look at yards, and decide that he's had a bad or good game, but what is most important is that Burrow knows how to win close games.
The Bengals QB is at his best in the 4th quarter with the game on the line. Burrow has 5 game winning drives this season, and his passer rating is 119.1 in the 4th quarter when the game is within 7 points (vs 108.3 over the whole season).
You've already seen twice in the playoffs that Burrow has a Tom Brady-esque ability to turn it on when it counts. Two of those drives won games against the Titans and Chiefs in the postseason, and while he does have the huge statistical games in him, Burrow's real strength is in managing the passing game to match opponents.
Opposing Unit: The Rams defense is susceptible to the pass and ranks 21st in passing yards allowed. They do have 2.8 sacks per game, good for 7th in the NFL,
I think this is a key intangible that the Bengals are better at than any other team in the league, and follows on from the final remarks about Joe Burrow.
Some teams get dragged down by opponents, and others play up and match other teams. The Bengals are very much the latter. Cincinnati score 3.3 more points against playoff opponents than they do against non-playoff opponents, and those opponents score 4.8 less points than their season average when they face the Bengals.
Why does this happen? Because the Bengals are exceptionally well coached during games and rarely allow their opponents to dictate the terms of engagement.
Only once in the nine games that the '21 Bengals played against a playoff team, have they scored less points than their opponents' average across the season, and in that game (Tennessee 1 weeks ago, by just -1.7 points. As mentioned above, the Bengals can turn games around rapidly, and are never out of contention, even when down multiple scores early.
This means that the Rams will lose a significant psychological advantage that could come from taking the lead early, as the Bengals are unlikely to simply wilt under the pressure.
Opposing unit: The Rams are not great at imposing their gameplan on other teams. 8 times this season, they have been held to 24 points or less, and they are 3-4 in those games.
The Rams average just 23 points per game against teams with top 10 run defenses who drag them down into close games, with 4 of their last 5 games being decided by a field goal or less, all against teams who rank 10th or higher in run defense.
And finally, a stat that reflects how different these two teams are in crunch time: The Rams are 5-5 against other playoff teams, and were 2-5 during the regular season against opponents who then made the postseason.
The Offensive Line
There is no disguising the weakness of Cincinnati's offensive line. They did well - crucially - to hold the Chiefs to a single sack in the AFC title game, but that was their first game without multiple sacks of Burrow since week 7. The Bengals are 3-4 in games where Burrow is sacked 4 or more times.
The Bengals rank 30th in the league with 3.4 sacks allowed per game, and allowed the 4th most hits on Burrow (110) during the regular season. They're also struggling to run the ball, albeit they do manage to scrape their way to 100 yards rushing per game on average (21st).
Opposing unit: The Rams defensive line is one of the best in the league, and has incredible depth. Not only do they have the best defensive player in the NFL, DT/DE Aaron Donald, but they've added Von Miller, and he lines up opposite Leonard Floyd on the edge. Their interior pass-rush is complimented by the underrated duo of Greg Gaines and A'Shawn Robinson.
All told, that's a lot of high-value draft picks, and the Rams rank 7th in the league in sacks per game.
This is going to be absolutely critical. The Bengals rank 26th in the league in passing yards allowed.
Let me add a caveat, however, in that they're not especially bad against the pass in the red zone. Within 15 yards, the Bengals allow completions on just under 50% of throws. They have, however, allowed 23 red zone TD's despite that ability to tighten up, and that is a potential issue on Sunday.
Opposing unit: Matt Stafford is an interesting case, and we'll come to him later. He has improved his performance in the Red Zone through the post season however, going 13-17 for 5 touchdowns and a single interception, adding one more TD outside of the Red Zone. Stafford averages over 300 yards per game in the playoffs so far.
When you have a defensive line like the Rams, it's unsurprising that you're going to rank highly against the run. The Rams obliged, as they have done for much of the last decade, ranking 2nd overall with just 95.6 rushing yards allowed so far this season.
It all starts with that interior line. Aaron Donald, A'Shawn Robinson and Greg Gaines are premier DT's who can stuff the run and between them account for 239 tackles this season. The Rams have also turned it on in the postseason, allowing none of their three opponents to notch more than 61 yards on the ground, including the run-heavy 49ers who managed just 50 yards rushing in the NFC title game.
Opposing unit: The Bengals aren't the worst run offense, but their 116 yards against the Chiefs were their first 100 yard game in their last 6. The Bengals run game haven't outgained an opponent's average yards allowed since week 12.
A lot of the time any discussion of the passing game revolves solely around the Quarterback. That's because ultimately, even the best receiver can't do much without a good QB, but in this case, the WR can make life substantially easier for their signal-caller.
Cooper Kupp is the best in the business at getting open. If you need 10-15 yards on a long 3rd down, Kupp can get open. He makes Matt Stafford look incredibly good, and it's no coincidence that Stafford averages the 5th most yards per game through the air in the NFL.
Without any doubt, however, it's those critical, drive-saving plays that set this team apart. Kupp averages 14.2 yards per catch on 3rd down in the 4th quarter, and the stats only get more impressive from there. Of the 17 balls Stafford has thrown to him in those critical situations this season, only 1 was incomplete, and 14 resulted in first downs.
Opposing unit: The Bengals pass defense is, as mentioned, a tale of two halves. Their 26th ranking, giving up 248 yards per game against the pass tells it's own story, but the Bengals have been better in the second halves of games, allowing just 124 yards passing. It's also worth noting that Cincinnati has 5 interceptions in the second halves of their playoff games, and all 3 have effectively been decided by decisive interceptions of opponents with the game on the line.
The Rams are light years from the Bengals on their line. Andrew Whitworth and co. give up the 5th least sacks per game in the NFL (1.8) and have protected Stafford well.
They're not perfect, and their performance hasn't been great since Whitworth was injured at the end of the season, but they have allowed more than 2 sacks of Stafford just once in their last 6 games, and to illustrate Whitworth's influence on the game, they allowed 2 sacks vs the 49ers with him active in the NFC title game, and 5 sacks without him in the week 18 regular season finale.
Opposing unit: The Bengals D-line is formidable, and perhaps only slightly worse than the Rams, which is high praise indeed. The Bengals have won up front all season, and rank 11th in sacks per game with 2.5, and have stuffed the run too, allowing the 8th fewest yards on the ground in the NFL.
The Rams may look like a complete team, and in many respects they are a very worthy Super Bowl team, but they are lacking on defense when teams can get their QB protected.
Of note, the way that Tom Brady came back in the Divisional round, and the way that Jimmy Garoppolo generally was able to move the ball with ease for long stretches of their 3 matchups this season, stand out as being indicators that this team isn't great.
Of course, whenever you're signing 37yr old guys off the street like Eric Weddle, you know things aren't looking too good.
Opposing unit: The Bengals offense is officially 'pass first', and why wouldn't it be? JaMarr Chase, Tyler Boyd, Tee Higgins, C.J. Uzomah, even Joe Mixon catches balls out of the backfield. I'd be cautious about the way the Bengals get the ball out quickly, with Burrow having a better passer rating vs the blitz (108.3) than when teams rush just their defensive linemen.
3 matchups that will decide the Super Bowl
We've assessed the strengths and weaknesses of both teams, but where are the key battles, and where will the game be won and lost?
1: Matthew Stafford vs Ball Security
This isn't a joke.
Stafford nearly cost the Rams a win twice in the playoffs, and he got away with both mistakes that otherwise mean the Rams are almost certainly watching this from home.
The first was against the Buccaneers in the Divisional round, when Stafford fumbled at the end of the game while being sacked on a scramble. He dropped the ball but managed to recover it, avoiding the Bucs taking over with 40 seconds left in Rams territory, needing just a Field Goal to win.
In the NFC title game, Stafford threw a deep bomb intended for Kupp way downfield, but it fell way short and landed in the chest of Jaquiski Tartt. Tartt, as history will forever remember, dropped the easiest interception of his career, and the Rams avoided the Niners taking over with good field position, the lead and just 9 minutes remaining.
The point is this: Stafford has critical, game-changing mistakes in him. Ball security has been his kryptonite all throughout the season, and he finished 28th in that category. Can he avoid the big mistake?
2: Joe Burrow vs the Rams pass rush
This one, of course, is on the O-line, but Burrow has an unnerving habit of falling into big sacks.
Against Tennessee, that 9 sack game included a few that could have been critical to the outcome of the contest, even with the ice-cold Evan McPherson kicking. For example, facing 3rd and 14 on the 24 yard line of the Titans, in a tie game, Burrow wildly thrashed around for a play, and ended up taking a 12 yard loss, meaning that McPherson was forced to kick a long 54yd Field Goal instead of a 42 yarder.
Perhaps most crucial in that game was a 4th quarter sack by Bud Dupree that actually did push the Bengals out of kicking range - in a tie game.
These types of moment are critical for a QB. Can Burrow adapt to the formidable Rams pass rush, even if his O-line isn't having a good game? That battle could decide the game.
3: Jamarr Chase vs Jalen Ramsey
In all of our strengths and weaknesses, Chase and Ramsey were classed as part of units, but when they take the field on Sunday, there's a strong likelihood that they'll spend long periods battling 1v1.
Ramsey was the #2 ranked CB in 2021 according to PFF, and he'll have his work cut out against the clear offensive rookie of the year in Chase. The Bengals receiver has been quiet on the scoring front in the postseason, with just 1 TD, but he has 20 receptions in those 3 games for an average of 93 yards per game.
As Ollie Connolly pointed out, Chase's mere presence can open up a lot of possibilities for a talented Bengals receiving corps, but the decisive element may not be Chase distracting the Rams defense, but whether he can get a couple of big plays on Ramsey at critical moments.
Upset Watch Super Bowl Pick
The main reason I'm cautious here is that the dynamic of this game is likely to be more intriguing than all-action.
The Bengals, as I noted, just play their better games against the best opponents. They're now 7-2 against playoff teams, while the Rams are 5-5, finishing the regular season with a losing record (3-4) against teams that made the postseason.
That said, the Rams have complicated that further by pulling out some of their best games of the season in the last 3 weeks. They've had narrow wins against the Niners and Bucs, and they did so using their tried and tested formula of passing 60% of the time, with the run an afterthought. They didn't adapt a ton, even though they were sloppy at times.
I'm actually of the opinion that Burrow is already better than Stafford from a mental perspective, however it is definitely the case that Stafford has improved remarkably throughout January, and after getting 3 playoff wins, no longer looks as likely to blow the game with a huge mistake while under pressure.
One player I'd love to see going for the Bengals - but it looks a long-shot - is Tight End C.J. Uzomah. Uzomah was a key part of the Bengals offense, accounting for almost 12% of the team's targets this season. If Uzomah is out, and it's hard to see how he isn't at least hindered by his MCL sprain, then the Bengals are a different team. I still like their passing game, and they can still win without him, but it's a harder task.
My problem here is that there are really a few reasonable things that can play out in this game in favor of the Rams based on their strengths and the Bengals' weaknesses, whereas we have to believe quite heavily in the intangibles of the Bengals to win. The only matchup imbalances in favor of the Bengals - passing offense, run defense - apply equally to the Rams, and perhaps critically, the Bengals offensive line is up against something formidable on Sunday in Donald, Miller et al.
My take on the game is that the Bengals have played incredibly well at vital moments to get here, and preyed upon opponents who had deep flaws, with the exception of the second half of their game against the Chiefs, where they dominated.
I love their character, I want them to win, but I don't know if they will, because I think the Rams are the first playoff team they've faced who have both a strong pass rush and an offense that can consistently make plays downfield. None of the Raiders, Chiefs or Titans had both sides of the ball the way that LA do.
The thing that is nagging me, however, is that Burrow and the Bengals can beat anyone. They've beaten the Chiefs twice, who are a prototype of the Rams. They've beaten the no.1 seed in the AFC. Are they just misjudged as the Bengals of old? Are we over-stating how good the Rams actually are?
Here is what it comes down to for me: A calculation.
I'm a big fan of assessing a team's performance in each game against the expected performance of their opponent.
For example, if a team scores 30 points against a team that always allows 30 points per game against everyone else, they have done something that was expected of them.
If they put up 30 points against a team that gives up an average of 20 points each game, that's when you can understand that a team achieved something special.
Who does it favor this week?
The most recent data favors the Rams. The further back we go, including Stafford's mid-season slump, the more we see the bad Rams games, and so the more it begins to favor the Bengals. The question is where we cut that off.
Taking the season as a whole, the Bengals have performed better against playoff teams on both sides of the ball. Their offense has scored an average of 4.6 points more than opponents were expected to give up. Their defense has allowed 4.9 points fewer than their opponents scored against everyone else.
The Rams have the opposite. They score a healthy 3.3 points more than playoff opponents normally allow, but on the other side of the ball, they allow opponents to get to within 0.3 points of their average points score.
As mentioned, however, we have to be realistic. The Rams are not a team who regularly loses games the way they did in mid-season.
But there is a massive, overwhelming thing here: They don't have to implode. They can play the same way they did against the Niners and Bucs, and lose to Cinci. We can't ignore that this is who the Bengals are. They drag teams down into a fist-fight, and if a team keeps landing haymakers, they can go for an all out gunslinger duel as an alternative, and they'll still win.
The Bengals raise their game, and critically, the Rams lower theirs. They aren't normally a team who plays their own game and the opponent is overwhelmed, and the Cardinals game is very much an anomaly.
One final thing to consider, is that the Bengals have a kicker with ice in his veins, and if there's a kick to be made, you can bank on Evan McPherson. That's not to say Matt Gay isn't good, he led the entire league in FG%, but he has missed kicks this postseason, whereas McPherson is perfect so far.
I believe this will be a very, very close game, but every time I think that I have the perfect reason for a Bengals win, the Rams have an answer.
The data favors the Bengals? Not recently, it doesn't.
The Bengals win close games? Not as many as the Rams.
The Bengals have a great D-line? The Rams have a great O-line
The Bengals just have it? Well, the Rams just retired the GOAT.
Rams 26 - 23 Bengals (Bengals cover +4.5)
MVP: Matthew Stafford
OVER 48.5 points
In my view, the safest bet you can make in this game is probably the Bengals at +4.5, and you could consider avoiding the Money Line altogether if you don't want to risk it.
I don't particularly love the Rams to win outright, as you can probably tell from my column, and I don't think that they're good value at -200 in a game this tight. Instead, the more things drift away from Cincinnati, the better value I think they are. They are certainly in with a very good chance to win, and I again think that a Field Goal will be decisive.
One final thing: Our March Madness site launches at the end of this month. Keep an eye out for us!