The Cincinnati Bengals are the most unlikely team ever to reach a Super Bowl. When the season began nobody would have expected them to be lining out at the SoFi Stadium in California against the Los Angeles Rams tonight.
There were sound contemporary and historical reasons for writing off the Bengals. Sports Illustrated ranked them 29th of the league’s 32 teams before the season started. The NFL Top 100 players list contained just one Bengal, safety Jessie Bates in 90th place. In the previous two seasons they’d won six games and lost 26.
The Bengals hadn’t won a playoff game since 1990. This was not just the worst record in the NFL, it was worse than any team in the NBA, NHL and Major League Baseball. They were a by-word for incompetence and underachievement.
Owner Mike Brown had become a hate figure for many fans. Refusing to appoint a general manager so he and his family could call the shots and reluctant to spend big money, the octogenarian who’d inherited the team from his father was regarded as one of the worst owners in American sport.
The only thing the Bengals had going for them was Joe Burrow. Two years ago the quarterback completed perhaps the greatest individual season in college football history by throwing five touchdown passes as LSU beat Clemson in the national title game. He’d thrown seven touchdown passes in the semi-final against Oklahoma and rushed for a touchdown in both games.
Yet a common reaction when the Bengals selected Burrow with the number one draft pick was pity for a young man apparently doomed to professional oblivion. There were even rumours he might follow in the footsteps of John Elway and Eli Manning by refusing to accept the draft selection. You could hardly have blamed him.
Burrow did make the Bengals better last season. They doubled their number of wins from two to four. But he also suffered a cruciate ligament injury which meant at one stage it was doubtful whether he’d even start this season. In the circumstances 29th out of 32 seemed reasonable.
The Bengals surprised everyone by winning three of their first four games, but three losses in their next five left them 5-4 at the halfway stage. Sports Illustrated moved them up to a dizzying 14th place but warned that “they may not be quite ready to compete for the division.”
A heartbreaking overtime loss to the San Francisco 49ers in week 14 seemed to kill off the Bengals’ playoff hopes. To make it through they’d have to overcome the division-leading Baltimore Ravens and a Kansas City Chiefs team regarded as the best in the NFL.
It was time for Burrow to go into overdrive. The 525 yards he threw for as the Bengals beat the Ravens 41-21 on St Stephen’s Day was the fourth highest in NFL history. A week later he threw for 446 yards, and another four touchdowns, as they defeated the Chiefs 34-31. Against all the odds the Bengals won the AFC North and made the playoffs.
Not that anyone thought of them as Super Bowl contenders, even after they’d beaten the Las Vegas Raiders 26-19 to end that 32-year streak without a playoff win. The fairytale continued when they beat the top seeded Tennessee Titans 19-16 with a last second Evan McPherson field goal.
This was the Bengals’ first ever playoff win away from home, but it seemed to set them up for a trouncing in the AFC Championship game against the Chiefs, who with the sublime Patrick Mahomes at quarterback had won an all-time classic against the Buffalo Bills.
Things went according to script in the first half as the Chiefs led 21-3 at the break. Only one team in history had ever overturned such a deficit in a championship game. But the Bengals reached even greater heights of unlikeliness by coming back to draw 24-24 before winning with another McPherson field goal in overtime.
This run defies all logic. Burrow has engineered the transformation while receiving minimal protection from an awful offensive line. During the regular season he was the league’s most sacked quarterback. Against the Titans he was sacked a record equalling nine times, but still prevailed.
Burrow’s ability to get the job done no matter what is unmistakably Tom Brady-esque. Brady also led an unfancied team to the Super Bowl in his second season with the New England Patriots, beating the St Louis Rams 20-17. The comeback against the Chiefs evoked memories of Brady overhauling a 28-3 Super Bowl deficit against the Atlanta Falcons five years ago.
Like Brady, even when Burrow’s stats are not spectacular, he makes big plays at the most crucial times. For all his passing brilliance, this quality was best summed up by a run against the Chiefs which saw him somehow evade three converging defenders and hop clear of a tackle from another to get a first down on third and six.
His contribution has not been limited to the field. When the Bengals wanted to select an offensive lineman in this season’s draft to protect Burrow he asked them to pick Ja’Marr Chase, his favourite wide receiver at LSU, instead. Chase has just won Offensive Rookie of the Year while Tee Higgins, wide receiver on the Clemson team LSU beat in the national final, has also had a fine season.
Burrow’s rising tide has lifted all Bengals’ boats. Running back Joe Mixon has a whopping 17 touchdowns this season compared to a total of 25 in the previous four. The incredible improvement in a defence which ranked 26th out of 32 against the pass in the regular season was illustrated as they held the Chiefs to just three points in the second half.
When the Chiefs had a first and goal in the last minute, some pundits suggested the Bengals should simply let them score immediately. Mahomes was going to find a way through anyway so why not leave some time for Burrow to try and engineer a comeback?
Instead the Bengals defence drove the Chiefs back, sacked Mahomes and forced them to settle for a field goal before coming up with the overtime interception which enabled Burrow to bring them home. The contributions of the defence should not be overlooked and neither should that of coach Zac Taylor. A 38-year-old whose biggest previous job was as quarterback coach of tonight’s opposition, he’s another unlikely hero.
Yet it all comes down to Burrow in the end. The Bengals will be underdogs tonight and perhaps, like Dan Marino in 1985, Elway in 1987 or Cam Newton in 2016, their all-conquering quarterback will finally run out of road in the biggest game of all.
But even getting this far has been an achievement for the ages. And perhaps the impossible dreamers have it in them to scale one last mountain.
If they do, a fortnight after the greatest player of all-time called it a day, the Age of Brady could give way to the Age of Burrow.
Dynamic duo of Stafford and Kupp aim to produce goods
Matthew Stafford and Cooper Kupp are the deadliest partnership in the NFL and the Los Angeles Rams pair will hope to crown a magnificent campaign with victory tonight.
Stafford’s move to the Rams at the start of the season was greeted with some scepticism. His stats during a dozen seasons with the Detroit Lions had been impressive, but they had lost more games than they’d won. Would he have the nerve to produce with honours on the line?
The veteran has flourished, with a career best 47 touchdown passes. Twenty of those have gone to wide receiver Kupp who’s already accumulated an all-time record 2,333 receiving yards, more than in the previous two seasons combined.
Kupp caught two touchdown passes in the 20-17 NFC title game win over the San Francisco 49ers and his brilliant 44-yard reception set up the last-second winning field goal which dethroned the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the previous round. “I don’t know if you ever stop a guy like this Cooper Kupp,” admitted Bengals defensive co-ordinator Lou Anarumo.
Stafford has another dangerous option in Odell Beckham Junior. Perhaps the best wide receiver in the league five years ago, the former New York Giant currently looks rejuvenated after a nightmarish injury-hit slump in recent years.
Rams hold a lot of aces in their stellar defence
The meeting of the Bengals offensive line with the Rams fearsome defence seems like a match made in hell. It pits the unit which has allowed most sacks this season against the one with the league’s second highest total to its credit.
Leading the way for the Rams will be defensive tackle Aaron Donald, one of the finest defensive players in NFL history, who’ll be keen to blot out the memory of the 2019 Super Bowl. Then, after the finest season of his career, he was utterly anonymous when the New England Patriots beat the Rams 13-3.
Should Joe Burrow elude Donald and the almost equally dangerous Leonard Floyd, he’ll have to outfox Jalen Ramsey, voted the league’s best cornerback last year. An outstanding athlete who long jumped 7.96m at the age of 20, Ramsey has outplayed the best wide receivers in the game.
The Bengals have some aces of their own. Defensive end Trey Hendrickson ranked fifth in the NFL regular season rankings with a club record 14 sacks while linebacker Logan Wilson has been a revelation.
He leads the playoffs in tackles made and has been the key man as the Bengals built one of the league’s best defences against the run.