Joe Burrow vs Matt Stafford: A Preview of the Super Bowl LVI Quarterback Matchup
Joe Burrow vs Matt Stafford: A Preview of the Super Bowl LVI Quarterback Matchup
By Jonah Cole
Super Bowl LVI is going to be a fun one. Both the Cincinnati Bengals and the Los Angeles Rams are fan favorite teams. The positivity that the teams are receiving both through traditional and social media can be attributed to a variety of factors. For one thing, fans are relieved that this year’s Super Bowl will not be featuring a mix of Tom Brady, Patrick Mahomes, or the 49ers. But what seemingly both fans and the media are both swooning over the most are each team’s respective quarterbacks. Matt Stafford and Joe Burrow are two of the best quarterbacks in the NFL, and have done tremendous jobs leading their teams to this year’s Super Bowl. Each has had different paths to get here, but both had incredible regular season and postseason performances. So let’s go ahead and analyze Sunday’s electrifying quarterback matchup.
What do the numbers say?
When diving into the data of the 2021 season to try and determine who is the better quarterback between Stafford and Burrow, a murky picture appears. On one hand, Stafford leads Burrow in significant passing categories. For example, Stafford threw for 260 more yards, and threw 41 passing touchdowns compared to Burrow’s 34. Stafford also led his team to a better record at 12-5, than the Bengals’ record of 10-7. All those surface results seem to paint a clear picture. But a closer examination of the evidence shows a different narrative.
The gap in Burrow’s season statistics compared to Stafford’s is not due to a gap in talent, but a lack of a competent offensive line. Joe Burrow was sacked a league-leading 51 times during the regular season. Matt Stafford was only sacked 30 times. Joe Burrow was hurried in the pocket 46 times. Matt Stafford was hurried 32 times. By the end of the season, the Bengals’ offensive line was ranked 20th in the league by PFF. The Rams were rated 7th in the league. A quarterback can only do so much when an offensive line does a below-average job of protecting them. But Burrow still manages to make it work, and the numbers prove his case.
While Burrow does trail Stafford in certain statistical categories like touchdowns and total passing yards, he actually is better than Stafford in several other ways. In the regular season, Burrow actually had a better passer rating, finishing with a 108.3 compared to Stafford’s 102.9. The Bengals’ young gun also finished with a better completion percentage, and less interceptions. So at the end of the day, do these numbers provide a clear picture as to who is the better quarterback going into Sunday? No. But it does show that Burrow might not even get the chance to go step-for-step with Stafford if his offensive line performs like they have all season.
What does the eye test say?
Statistics are a great tool when analyzing players in any sport. However, in order to truly judge a player correctly, one must look at both the data and the intangibles together. When you look at these two quarterbacks play, the eye test shows two elite quarterbacks whose styles of play are very different, and yet similar at the same time.
When looking at Stafford, his entire career can be summarized by one word: streaky. There are points in a season where he will look like Dan Marino, Aaron Rodgers, and Tom Brady combined into one quarterback. And then a person could watch a game three weeks later, and wonder if the spirit of Mark Sanchez was possessing Stafford’s body. But after being traded to LA this past offseason, Stafford has looked better than he has in his entire tenure in the NFL. And in this year’s playoffs, he has been money. In the NFC Divisional Round when they faced off against the Buccaneers, it seemed that Tom Brady was about to pull off a vintage comeback against LA, when he closed a 25-point deficit to tie the game with 42 seconds left. None of that fazed Matt Stafford. He looked cool and composed as he and Cooper Kupp dissected the Bucs’ defense to set up a game-winning field goal. Going into Sunday, Matt Stafford looks as poised as the league has ever seen him. For the Bengals’ defense, that is the last thing they want to see.
Joe Burrow meanwhile, has become famous for his unwavering composure in the face of pressure, earning the nickname, “Joe Cool.” And when watching him play, it is hard to argue that
the nickname is not well deserved. As mentioned earlier, Burrow has had to deal with a substandard offensive line both in his rookie year, and this season. It seems that on almost every passing play, he has to either throw a quick slant to one of his wide receivers, or extend the play with his legs. Yet none of that matters. Time and again, Burrow shows why the Bengals were right to draft him number one overall in the 2020 NFL Draft. In just his first appearance in the NFL playoffs, “Joe Cool” has led game-winning drives in both the AFC Divisional and Championship Rounds. In the Divisional, he did it against the top-seeded Titans. And in the Championship, he stunned Arrowhead Stadium by sending home the seemingly unbeatable Kansas City Chiefs. Some athletes fold when the lights are brightest. The pressure becomes too much to handle. Joe Burrow elevates his game when the stakes are highest, making the Super Bowl the perfect place for him to show up and show out.
What is it going to take to win?
Both of these talented arms have earned their place in this year’s big game. Neither of these quarterbacks are being carried by an elite defense, (looking at you 2017-2018 Jard Goff), and both of them have the talent and intelligence to be elite quarterbacks for several years. Unfortunately, one of them has to lose on Sunday. So what is each arm going to have to do in order to raise the Lombardi Trophy?
For Stafford, two things are going to be key if he wants to lead the Rams to victory: limiting the turnovers, and getting Cooper Kupp involved as much as possible. If LA wants to have any chance of winning, Stafford cannot be throwing the ball up for grabs. The Rams lost five times during the regular season. In three of those losses, Stafford had at least two interceptions. Additionally, if the Rams are to win this game, Stafford has to involve his All-Pro wideout Cooper Kupp as much as possible. Kupp has not only become the number one target for LA’s offense, but a safety blanket for Stafford to go to. And when Kupp gets the ball, the Rams win. In the Rams’ five losses this season, they lost three times when Kupp did not go over 100 receiving yards for the game. As long as Stafford can accomplish those two things, the Rams will be in a good position to win their franchise’s second Super Bowl.
Joe Burrow’s fate in this game depends solely on whether his offensive line can hold up against Aaron Donald and the Rams’ vaunted pass rush. In the 2021 regular season, in games where Joe Burrow was sacked five times or more, the Bengals were 1-4. When Burrow was sacked four times or less, the Bengals were 9-2. The goal is clear: Keep Joe Burrow’s pocket as clean as possible. However, that task is easier said than done. Because on top of the fact that the Bengals’ offensive line is mediocre at best, the Rams don one of the most fearsome pass rushing defenses in the league. They finished third in the league in total sacks, ranked 1st in team pass rush win rate, and an offensive line has to commit two players to blocking Aaron Donald the majority of plays, if they wish to keep him from wreaking havoc. If Burrow is able to be decently protected, his ability to hit his wide receivers for deep plays is enhanced, and gives the Bengals a good shot at winning their first ever Super Bowl.
It truly is impossible to predict a winner for this game. On one hand, the Rams should be the clear favorites. Stafford is on fire, the defense is electric, and Sean McVay is one of the best head coaches in the NFL. But, Burrow and the Bengals seem to love being the underdog. At the start of the season, Sports Illustrated predicted the Bengals would finish last in the AFC North with a record of 3-14. They went on to win the division with a 10-7 record. Then after beating the Raiders in the AFC Wild Card Game, people dismissed them as an after-thought as they were going into Tennessee to take on the one-seed Titans. And going into Kansas City, people thought the ride was over. There was no way they could go into Arrowhead and defeat the Grim Reaper himself, Patrick Mahomes. Now the league has taken notice. Joe Burrow is the face of an upstart Bengals team with a, “why not us” mentality. Matt Stafford represents a team loaded with talent, and lots of expectations from the media, the fans, and themselves. The pressure is high, and fans should expect both quarterbacks to rise to the occasion.