A look at the biggest storylines from Super Bowl LVI

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The Cincinnati Bengals’ magical run — which included the Super Bowl journey of a lifetime after downing the AFC’s top two seeds and overcoming the largest of preseason odds — finally came to an end on Sunday in sunny Los Angeles.

There, the Rams hoisted their first Lombardi Trophy since moving to L.A. after a nail-biting 23-20 victory at SoFi Stadium that featured a late-game, penalty-filled comeback that solidified individual legacies, rewarded the team’s “all-in” mentality and cemented the Rams as the second-ever team to win the sport’s biggest game on their home turf.

Last week, the two of us — Sports Editor Victor Hensley, who picked the Bengals to win, and intern Max Baker, who correctly picked the Rams — shared game previews.

Now, here’s our in-depth look at the biggest storylines from Super Bowl LVI.

The Bengals couldn’t stop the Rams’ top receivers

MAX: Before going down with a knee injury, Odell Beckham Jr. was the story. He hurt the Bengals’ secondary twice before leaving the game in the second quarter. In less than a half, he had two catches for 52 yards and a touchdown as Matthew Stafford’s top target. But when he left with what is now being reported as likely a torn ACL in the second quarter, Cooper Kupp emerged. After one of the most historic seasons by a wide receiver in NFL history, Kupp delivered in the game’s biggest moments. He finished with two touchdowns, including a 1-yard score on the Rams final drive of the game to seal a 23-20 victory.

The Rams struggled all night to run the ball. Running back Cam Akers ran for 21 yards on 13 carries while Darrell Henderson Jr. had just seven yards. After Beckham’s injury, the Rams found a way to get the ball to their best player and that was just enough.

VICTOR: The magnitude of the Beckham injury cannot be overstated. With the Rams already being without tight end Tyler Higbee, then losing their No. 2 guy who was on pace to have a 100-plus-yard game, it visibly hurt their offense, which stalled for most of the third quarter. And, for a moment, when the Bengals were finally starting to move the ball — especially with the controversial 75-yard TD to wide receiver Tee Higgins to start the third quarter — and the Rams weren’t going anywhere, I thought Cincinnati had the game locked down.

But, as people have all season long, I forgot about Kupp. He arguably had the greatest season ever for an NFL wideout … and taking over the Super Bowl in that fashion, on the big stage, just solidifies the fact that we were watching something special. Not to mention that Bengals’ cornerback Eli Apple — who allowed two TDs on his watch on Sunday, including the game-winner — deserved the karma that came his way after stirring the pot on social media all postseason long. That was a pretty sight to see.

Where was Joe Mixon?

VICTOR: Max, I’m not sure where you stand on it, but there have been some baffling decisions by head coaches in this year’s postseason. One of the most notable of which, in my mind, came from the Rams’ decision to throw the ball to Kupp for the game-winning TD on 2nd & GOAL from the 1-yard-line. (Was Sean McVay not old enough to see Pete Carroll and the Seahawks’ blunder in Super Bowl XLIX?)

However, the decision to keep running back Joe Mixon — a top-three rusher this season who averaged 4.8 yards per carry in the Super Bowl — on the sideline for the Bengals’ final plays, instead opting to run with Semaje Perine on 3rd-and-1 (who was stuffed) and use Perine as a potential pass-catcher on 4th-and-1 (a play that was wrecked by the Rams’ Aaron Donald) is the biggest head-scratcher I’ve seen in a long time. In situations like that, you have to use your best players. But Zac Taylor chose to do the opposite, running with a guy who had just 1 carry for 2 yards in the entire season before Sunday night.

What a boneheaded move.

MAX: Yep. The Rams defense struggled to contain Mixon all night. But on the Bengals’ final drive, Taylor didn’t use him. Whether he would have gotten the first down is unknown, but not using your best running back probably came as a relief to the Rams’ defense.

VICTOR: When Perine lined up in the backfield, you already know Donald was licking his chops.

The Rams defense stepped up at the right moment

MAX: The Bengals came out firing on their first drive of the second half. After Tee Higgins burned (and definitely pushed off of) Jalen Ramsey for a 75-yard touchdown to give the Bengals their first lead of the game, the Rams’ defense locked in. They allowed just three more points the rest of the way and the Bengals’ wide receiver corps — which had been dominant all playoffs — was suddenly quieted.

With the game on the line, McVay said that Aaron Donald was going to make a play. And the best player at his position didn’t disappoint. He hit Burrow on fourth down to force an errant pass that fell incomplete. Both Donald and Von Miller finished with two sacks apiece as the Rams defensive front got to Burrow seven times. The Rams’ secondary also wasn’t flagged throughout the entire game. So while a few clips of their struggles circulated online, they had a great day overall.

VICTOR: And had it not been for the missed Higgins’ facemask/push-off on the TD catch, the Rams’ secondary would’ve looked even better.

The Rams’ star-studded defensive line vs. the Bengals’ bottom-ranked offensive line was the matchup we were all waiting to see. And, as expected, the Rams’ dominated. What’s Burrow supposed to do when his O-line allows seven sacks?

The officiating was questionable, but it seemed to go both ways

MAX: The Rams were certainly the beneficiary of a few calls. The referees missed a false start on third-and-goal late in the fourth quarter and the Bengals were flagged on that same play. But for the most part, the missed calls seemed to benefit both teams. Higgins pulled Ramsey’s facemask before escaping for a 75-yard touchdown. Although some plays had more of an impact than others late in the game, it’s really hard to say that the officials awarded one team a Lombardi Trophy.

VICTOR: Despite me picking the Bengals to win, I find it so absurd — and annoying at this point — that some people are suggesting the Rams won because of the officiating. The holding call on the Bengals’ Logan Wilson that gave Matthew Stafford and the Rams a fresh set of downs near the goal line wasn’t great, but it was a bang-bang play that I’m honestly not surprised the refs thought might have been holding. The bottom line is, the officials were a tad inconsistent, but there’s no reason to start an #NFLRigged campaign over it.

Let’s just be happy for Donald, Stafford, tackle Andrew Whitworth and a bunch of other veterans that finally got a ring and move on. (Unless you’re a Bengals fan, then I give you full permission to complain about this until the end of time. You’ve earned that right.)

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