The unpredictable 2021 NFL season will reach its conclusion following Sunday's Super Bowl battle between the surging Cincinnati Bengals and Los Angeles Rams. The Bengals have defied the odds while shocking the football world by earning a right to play on the biggest stage in all of professional sports. The four-seed Bengals defeated the Las Vegas Raiders, Tennessee Titans, and Kansas City Chiefs while embarking on their Super Bowl-bound competitive journey. It represents a heartwarming turnaround for the Bengals, who won just six games combined across the previous two years. Head coach Zac Taylor was viewed as being on the hot seat prior to this season's kick-off and could end the year as a Super Bowl champion. The Bengals have largely built their roster via the draft. The development of Joe Burrow, Tee Higgins, Ja'Marr Chase, and Jessie Bates III have powered the Bengals to this point. The Rams traveled down a totally different path in a matchup that beautifully represents the different avenues one can take to achieving success. General manager Les Snead and head coach Sean McVay have mostly assembled the top half of their roster via splash trades and midseason acquisitions that include Matthew Stafford, Jalen Ramsey, Von Miller, and Odell Beckham Jr. Several of the players mentioned will leave a profound impact on Sunday's historic result. We've identified three player-vs-player matchups that could make the difference.
COOPER KUPP VS. MIKE HILTONThe league's most productive receiver in 2021 is rightfully playing for a Super Bowl title on Sunday. Los Angeles' Cooper Kupp led all receivers in receptions (145), yards (1,947), and touchdowns (16) while experiencing a career breakout partially thanks to a newfound connection formed with Stafford in McVay's well-designed passing offense. Super Bowl MVP honors are typically reserved for quarterbacks, but it wouldn't qualify as a totally shocking development to witness Kupp take home the individual award should the Rams reign victorious at SoFi Stadium on Sunday. Kupp has consistently embarrassed defensive backs all season long en route to various historical performances throughout 2021. On Sunday, he'll typically line up across from Cincinnati's Mike Hilton. Hilton is one of the better performing nickel cornerbacks in the NFL and his impending battle with Kupp is must-watch television. The 27-year-old Hilton has recorded a league-leading 24 pass break-ups from the slot over the past three campaigns, via Pro Football Focus. Hilton's crucial interception against the Tennessee Titans in the divisional round served as a crucial moment in Cincinnati's second of three playoff victories. It's an example of his ability to flip a game on its head at a moment's notice. Kupp represents the most difficult opponent imaginable, but Hilton is more than ready for the big stage.
AARON DONALD VS. CINCINNATI’S INTERIOR OFFENSIVE LINEIf these surging Bengals have a known weakness on offense, it's undeniably across their offensive line, where the pass protection has produced less than desirable results all year long. Burrow has been sacked on a shocking 12 occasions throughout Cincinnati's three postseason victories, including a record-setting nine times by the Titans in the divisional round. Cincinnati's struggles in pass protection have largely occurred within the interior of their offensive line, where Tennessee's Jeffery Simmons recorded three sacks against them. The Bengals' difficulties in the trenches represent bad news based on Sunday's opponent and matchup. Cincinnati's starting guards and center will be tasked with slowing down Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald, who is arguably the best defensive tackle to ever play the game. Donald is a three-time Defensive Player of the Year winner that will be plenty motivated to power the Rams toward their first Super Bowl title in two-plus decades. An eight-time Pro Bowler and seven-time first-team All-Pro, Donald has racked up several achievements while embarking on a Canton-bound career, including a historic 20.5-sack season. Donald is the ultimate difference-maker as an interior defender and has totaled an astounding 98 sacks in eight professional campaigns. Several players on both sides deserve to win a Super Bowl on Sunday, but no player is more deserving than Donald.
ANDREW WHITWORTH VS. TREY HENDRICKSONRams left tackle Andrew Whitworth may be playing in his final professional contest on Sunday. The 40-year-old Whitworth has defied logic en route to defeating father time throughout an extremely illustrious career. Whitworth is still at the top of his game and has been an excellent performer throughout his 16th season. A former second-round selection out of LSU way back in 2006, Whitworth spent the first 11 years of his career playing for the Cincinnati Bengals before joining the Rams in 2017. It's incredibly ironic that Whitworth will now square off against the Bengals in what's quite possibly his last professional appearance in Super Bowl LVI. A four-time Pro Bowler and two-time first-team All-Pro, Whitworth's exceptional legacy absolutely deserves to enjoy a special moment on Sunday. The Bengals' best edge rusher, Trey Hendrickson, will attempt to make Whitworth's life difficult. Hendrickson has completely transformed Cincinnati's defense in 2021. Many analysts questioned Cincinnati's chief decision-maker Duke Tobin's willingness to sign Hendrickson to a lucrative four-year, $60 million contract following Hendrickson's breakout performance in 2020. Hendrickson accumulated just 6.5 sacks throughout the first three seasons of his career, and his 2020 campaign was viewed as an anomaly. Tobin now looks like the smartest guy in the room because Hendrickson has been outstanding for the Bengals this season while posting a career-high 14 sacks in 16 regular-season appearances. Hendrickson has added 2.5 sacks to his totals in three playoff games. He's playing at the highest level imaginable and possesses an excellent opportunity to make a sizable impact on Sunday's outcome.
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