Super Bowl LVI head-to-heads: Aaron Donald could win the game by himself

It’s the match-up nobody expected but one that everyone can’t wait to see, as the Cincinnati Bengals take on the Los Angeles Rams at SoFi Stadium in Super Bowl LVI.

The Rams are favourites due to playing at home and having splashed out big to bring in a host of star names, but when you look at how the teams have performed then there really is nothing in it.

So, who really does hold the upper hand as we break down the two units? Let's have a look at them in greater depth as we break the two contenders down piece-by-piece.

The head coaches: Sean McVay vs Zac Taylor

Sean McVay is a young, revolutionary head coach who has already taken the Rams to one Super Bowl and now hopes to go one better after they froze on that occasion against the Patriots - as he admitted after the game.

On McVay's staff that day was a certain Zac Taylor, who has now completed a magnificent turnaround with the Bengals. Having won just six games in his first two seasons in charge, he is now leading them all the way to the Super Bowl this year.

Sean McVay

Until the NFC Championship game, Kyle Shanahan, another good friend and former coaching colleague regularly got the better of McVay, so can Taylor also use his insider knowledge to help coach Cincy to victory?

One thing to look out for here is the fantastic adjustments Taylor and his staff manage to do at half time during games as they usually are vastly improved in the second half compared to the first - and have the best third quarter record in the league.

Until recently McVay had a perfect record when his teams were ahead at half time, so that'll be a fascinating storyline - especially as the extended break in the Super Bowl will offer Taylor more time to make those changes.

Verdict: McVay

It's a close one, but McVay has handled huge pressure this season and been the head coach in the big game. You've got to go with experience here although you wouldn't be shocked if Taylor came up trumps at half time again.

The quarterbacks: Matthew Stafford vs Joe Burrow

Stafford was always talented in Detroit, but never had the team around him to do damage in the play-offs - that's all changed in a big way but even now there's that slight worry for a QB that led the league in pick sixes this season.

He had a big wobble in Tampa before leading the winning drive, and had at least one nailed-on interception dropped by the 49ers in the NFC title. He's got a tremendous arm and tremendous link-up with Cooper Kupp, but this will be a test of his nerve more than anything physical.

Burrow had a bad stretch of the season including throwing four interceptions in Chicago, but he put that behind him and he's been ice cool ever since. He makes all the throws he should and now doesn't turn the ball over. He's ice cool under pressure and loves big games, now going 7-0 in play-offs during college and the NFL.

Joe Burrow

He's bounced back from an awful knee injury in his rookie year last season and he's shown some decent wheels as well when evading trouble in the play-offs. He was sacked more than any other QB in the league this season and was dropped nine times against the Titans - but still won!

Most importantly, Burrow has this aura about him that he's a born winner, he lifts his team and they all play with his confidence and his swagger - he could be a very, very special player indeed.

Verdict: Burrow

There are Tom Brady comparisons that will only increase with a win here, but there's no doubt he's a special talent. Attitude, ability and work rate are a great combination - and throw in his unshakable confidence and you have a star. Stafford's a fine player but you won't get many picking him ahead of Burrow.

The receivers: Cooper Kupp vs Ja'Marr Chase

Cooper Kupp topped the charts in catches, yards and TDs for receivers this season, and can become the first 'Triple Crown' winner to land the Super Bowl with a win. He's got pace but his elusiveness is his real strength, and he turns on a dime and has a savage burst off the spot.

Cooper Kupp

Chase just broke the rookie record for receiving and he's also a nightmare for defenders with his pace and big-play ability - as he's scored more 50-plus yard TDs than anyone this season. He's got the edge on Kupp in being able to take a short, flat pass to the house from 50 or 60 yards away.

Both receivers are tough, with Kupp just edging it on blocking as he'll regularly get stuck in like a tight end in helping spring a team-mate free. Both have also shown up big in the big games, which is even more impressive from Chase given it's his first year in the league.

Verdict: Kupp

Chase's TD against the Chiefs and overall display was brilliant, but Kupp just has a bit more consistency over the season and he'll probably get more targets from Stafford too to have a big game. Chase could easily have a huge game and it's close but if you had to pick one, Kupp would just get the nod.

The running backs: Cam Akers vs Joe Mixon

Cam Akers has made a stunning comeback from a torn Achilles to make the play-offs, but he probably wished he hadn't bothered when he fumbled twice against the Bucs to almost let Tom Brady claim another comeback win.

Akers will split time with Darrell Henderson and Sony Michel though, but for the Bengals they have a clear lead running back in Joe Mixon who had over 1,500 total yards and 16 TDs this season, showing speed, strength and versatility when catching passes out of the backfield.

Joe Mixon

McVay really wants to run the ball, and the Rams may get some success if the Bengals play with a lighter defensive front as they did against the Chiefs to try and cut off the pass, but as far as players go, Mixon is your man.

Verdict: Mixon

Akers has the tools to be a fine player, but Mixon has been among the best rushers in the league this season. A rare no-brainer.

The pass rush: Aaron Donald vs Trey Hendrickson

The Rams have probably the best defensive player in the league in Aaron Donald, but what's really scary is the help they've given him by adding Von Miller to Leonard Floyd in an all-star team of terror for opposing QBs.

Miller won a Super Bowl MVP as he led Denver to a dominant win over Carolina, who couldn't protect their QB. Last season, the Bucs battered a Chiefs team who couldn't protect Patrick Mahomes, do you see where this is going?

Trey Hendrickson has had a stellar first year in Cincinnati, and you can get at this Rams offensive line, mainly up the middle, but he'll have to do it almost single-handedly. We do know that Stafford struggles under constant pressure, so maybe the Bengals could have some joy in this battle.

Verdict: Aaron Donald

Hands-down Donald here, as he's the best defensive player around and just causes absolute carnage even if it doesn't always show up on the stat sheet. This genuinely could be an ugly repeat of last year unless the Bengals find a way of keeping Donald away from Burrow.

Donald could win this game by himself.

Overall verdict

The Rams edge it 3-2 here, and you could also throw in Jalen Ramsey as the star cornerback on show, but then the Bengals have a better special teams unit so again it's hard trying to separate the two teams even when going head-to-head on their best players.

The key, of course, is what star players actually show up with big performances, as Joe Burrow could take another game on his shoulders and lead Cincy to glory, but Aaron Donald could easily go home as the Super Bowl MVP after causing more havoc to Burrow and his chums.

You can say the Rams edged it on paper, that's fair enough, but the Super Bowl isn't played on paper and much stranger things have happened. This one should be a spectacular showdown.

Read more: The Cincinnati Bengals - A Hollywood ending for a true underdog story?

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