The Rams were pulling a Falcons. After taking a 27-3 lead midway through the third quarter in a divisional-round game against the Buccaneers, L.A. had just allowed Tampa Bay to score 24 straight points—and less than a minute remained until the Rams would enter overtime against Tom Brady.
It was perhaps the biggest minute of Matthew Stafford’s career to that point. The QB was traded to L.A. last January in exchange for two first-round picks, a third-round pick, and former no. 1 pick Jared Goff, and the Rams had acquired him specifically for moments like this. Now, it was Stafford’s turn to hold up his end of the bargain.
Stafford brought the Rams to midfield with less than 30 seconds left, but he needed 20ish more yards to get into field goal range, and the Rams had no timeouts. On first down, the Buccaneers sent seven defenders after Stafford, leaving all of his wide receivers in one-on-one coverage. So Stafford hung in the pocket (even with two Bucs in his face) and launched a pass to Cooper Kupp that went for a 44-yard gain. Considering the stakes, the literal and figurative pressure involved, and where Kupp was on the field, it was the kind of throw few quarterbacks would even attempt, never mind pull off. The play effectively won the game and indirectly sent Brady into retirement.
Then a week later, Stafford did it again. The Rams and 49ers were tied with less than four minutes left in the NFC championship game. L.A. faced a third-and-3 at midfield, and the 49ers sent six defenders at Stafford. One of his blockers got shoved into him as he threw, but Stafford lasered another ball to Kupp, who ran 25 yards to set up the game-winning field goal and send the Rams to the Super Bowl. Two weeks in a row, opposing defenses blitzed Stafford in key moments, and two weeks in a row, he aced the tests. Considering that the latter game ended with confetti falling, you could even say Stafford literally passed with flying colors.
Joe Burrow, Stafford’s opposing quarterback this week, is also stout in the face of danger. Late in a tie game in Week 4, Jacksonville sent an all-out blitz at Burrow, leaving every receiver in single coverage (a similar move to what the Bucs would later try against Stafford). That kind of all-out blitz is called “Cover Zero” because there are zero defenders left to help in coverage. Right as Burrow was about to get T-bone smashed by 264-pound defensive lineman Dawuane Smoot, though, he delivered a pass to tight end C.J. Uzomah that set up the game-winning field goal. And as Burrow dusted himself off, he yelled toward the defense, “Can’t zero me!”
Between what the Rams gave up in the Stafford trade and Burrow’s already mythical status in Cincinnati, both quarterbacks are under tremendous pressure to perform in this year’s Super Bowl. And how well they handle that pressure might be best measured by, well, how they handle pressure.
When the defense is bearing down and pass rushers are about to deliver monstrous hits, Burrow and Stafford are two of the best quarterbacks in the world. They make the biggest throws in the biggest moments, and often take the biggest hits because of it. Their toughness has earned them the trust of their teammates, won them games in crucial moments, and led their teams to the Super Bowl. And whoever handles the pressure better on Sunday will likely earn their team the Lombardi Trophy.
“There’s very few ways to display toughness from a quarterback,” Tom Brady said on his podcast last week as he introduced Burrow as a guest. “The way that [quarterbacks] can show our toughness is you can stand in the pocket and make throws. And sometimes you get the shit knocked out of you, and you gotta get up and just go on to the next play.”
Burrow gets the shit knocked out of him … a lot. He took nine sacks in the divisional round against Tennessee, tied for the most sacks allowed in a win in playoff history. He is the first quarterback in NFL history to be sacked 50-plus times in the regular season and make the Super Bowl. And last season, as a rookie, Burrow was tied for the second-most sacks in the league when he tore his ACL in November. (Despite missing the rest of the campaign, Burrow still finished the year in the top 10 in sacks.) Yet even after taking all that punishment, he still thrives under pressure. He ranked in the top five against the blitz this season by expected points added per play, which is perhaps the most all-encompassing football statistic available. And he was the single highest-graded quarterback against the blitz by Pro Football Focus. Nobody needs stats to tell them that Joe Burrow doesn’t rattle under pressure—but it’s nice to have mathematical confirmation of what is so evident from watching him play.
Somehow, though, Stafford might be even better. This postseason, Stafford has completed 94 percent (!!!) of his passes against the blitz. When he was blitzed during the regular season, he had 13 touchdown passes versus just one interception. As The Athletic’s Sheil Kapadia and Ted Nguyen noted, Stafford ended up as the no. 1 quarterback against the blitz in expected points added per play this year (0.6), which, in extremely simplistic terms, means that blitzing the Rams basically meant handing them half of a point. That mark led the league, and it was also the best of any quarterback over the past three years.
That doesn’t happen without Stafford being completely unafraid to get obliterated.
“I do think the trademark of guys who’ve made their mark in this league playing quarterback are guys that can demonstrate toughness,” says Bengals offensive coordinator Brian Callahan. “The ability to stand in there and make a really big throw when the moment requires it, knowing they’re going to get hit.”
Callahan has a unique perspective on this Super Bowl. He’s worked with Burrow for two years as his offensive coordinator, and he also spent two years as the quarterbacks coach in Detroit with Stafford. He says both are as tough as any player he’s been around—at any position.
“They’re both warriors,” Callahan says.
That willingness to stand in no matter what has inspired these QBs’ teammates to rally behind them—and Stafford and Burrow say that trust goes both ways. Stafford can only whip a throw within a single second of the snap if he trusts that Kupp knows where to be and when. The QB-WR connection requires a step-by-step choreography akin to Olympic ice dancing—a strict choreography practiced countless times, but also the mind meld to improvise together when something unexpected happens.
Bengals receiver Tyler Boyd is the oldest of Cincy’s monstrous receiver trio of Boyd, rookie sensation Ja’Marr Chase, and second-year wideout Tee Higgins. He’s also Burrow’s security blanket when the defense is closing in. “Tyler really understands what we’re trying to do on each play,” Burrow says. “He’s always where I expect him to be. And he never drops the ball. So he’s a guy I can rely on in critical moments to go and make plays for me.”
Boyd takes pride in that. “I’m the hot read guy,” Boyd says. “When things get hectic for Joe Burrow, and I’m able to utilize my athletic ability against mismatches, I win every time.”
Stafford relies even more on Kupp, whose 636 receiving yards against the blitz during the regular season were the most by any wide receiver in at least the past 15 years. And Stafford says it takes the entire offense being on the same page for him to be the highest-rated quarterback in so many areas.
“Our offensive line has done such an unbelievable job,” Stafford says of the unit that’s graded highest in the NFL in pass blocking. “Our backs do a great job picking up those blitzes. And then I might throw a 5-yard pass to Cooper, Odell [Beckham Jr.], Van [Jefferson], [Tyler] Higbee, whoever it is, and those guys run for 15 more and I’m getting a 20-yard completion. So I give credit to all my teammates.”
While it takes a village for a quarterback to be successful, teams still need a passer who can do their job in the most stressful possible conditions. In Burrow and Stafford, the Bengals and Rams have found guys who thrive in those roles. This Super Bowl will likely be determined by whether Rams defensive coordinator Raheem Morris and Bengals defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo can create enough chaos to shake Stafford and Burrow’s preternatural calm—but that’s been next to impossible to do this season.
Blitzing these quarterbacks is a bad idea (remember the whole “Stafford’s completed 94 percent of his passes against the blitz in these playoffs” thing?). So defenses want to generate pressure with a four-man rush and have a seventh defender in coverage. That’s supposed to make the quarterback’s job harder. But neither of these passers has many weak spots.
Going by EPA per play this season, Stafford was the NFL’s best quarterback against man coverage, single-high safeties, and the blitz. Burrow was also top five in all three categories. And while their numbers drop against zone coverage and two-high safeties, they’re still average or better against both.
The Rams do have an advantage in the trenches, though. Their front four features two future Hall of Fame defensive linemen: three-time Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald and former Super Bowl MVP pass rusher Von Miller. And that group is going up against a Cincy offensive line that has been akin to a subway turnstile this season (it ranks 25th in pass blocking grade, according to PFF). As PFF noted, Burrow took a sack on more than a quarter of the plays in which he was pressured this season—the third-highest rate in the league, after Browns QB Baker Mayfield and Jets QB Zach Wilson.
But the Bengals will still have a chance as long as those sacks don’t become turnovers. Burrow threw 14 picks in his first 12 games this season. Through early December, no team in the NFL had lost more expected points from turnovers than the Bengals. But from Week 15 through the playoffs, the Bengals have turned the ball over just twice—tied for the second-lowest mark in the NFL (even though they’ve played three more games than most teams in that span). Meanwhile, the team with the most turnovers in that same time frame is … the Rams.
The Bengals are aware that the turnover margin has helped fuel their Super Bowl run, but not just because of how Burrow has protected the ball. This defense has surprised many this season—including the Chiefs in the AFC championship game. In the second half of that game, the Bengals used a three-man rush 12 times. They sacked Patrick Mahomes on four of those plays, and they forced the Chiefs into their worst offensive second half/overtime performance (by EPA per drive) of Andy Reid’s nine seasons as Kansas City head coach. Cincinnati is unlikely to use a three-man rush as much against the Rams as it did against Kansas City, but the Bengals have shown they have tricks up their sleeve.
Pressure creates diamonds, and Burrow knows he makes too much money for fake jewelry. But Stafford and the Rams have a saying, too: “Pressure is a privilege.” We’ll see who passes with flying colors this Sunday.