Nothing says parity in the NFL like a Super Bowl featuring two No. 4 seeds.
The Cincinnati Bengals and Los Angeles Rams combined to go 22-12 during the regular season, which is the worst combined record for a Super Bowl matchup in history. Both teams took down the two Super Bowl teams from last year in their respective conference championships during their postseason journeys to SoFi Stadium.
Despite their conjoined efforts to make this Super Bowl relatively unique, they are two teams with extremely different compositions and narratives. The Rams, in many ways, have mortgaged their immediate future to be here. They pushed all their proverbial chips towards the middle of the table. Don’t take my word for it; look at what their official Twitter account posted a few months ago:
We're all in. pic.twitter.com/3Z0ELD11RW— Los Angeles Rams (@RamsNFL) November 1, 2021
The Rams are indeed all in; don’t let anyone convince you otherwise. And there’s nothing wrong with that! To see an NFL team treat first-round picks like they’re poison and trade their franchise quarterback for a better franchise quarterback is fun and refreshing. It’s actually the exact opposite of what you’d expect from the team they’ll face on Sunday.
Cincinnati might be tired of the underdog narrative, as Joe Burrow put it, but that transcends more than just the points spread this weekend. Compared to the Rams, the Bengals are operated like a fourth-generation vacuum cleaner store. Los Angeles owner Stan Kroenke operates as a hostile-takeover mogul, while it wouldn’t shock anyone if Cincinnati owner Mike Brown still deposits his checks in person every month.
It may not seem like David vs. Goliath on the field, but that’s certainly the perception off of it.
Nothing the Bengals do organizationally is validated without winning. That’s how it should be for any team, but it’s exponentially amplified in Cincinnati. The family-owned franchise whose revenue stream is 100% dependent on football operations has given fans and analysts several grievances to pick from. They don’t have an indoor practice facility. They made players buy their own Gatorade. They can’t develop offensive linemen.
However you want to put it, they haven’t been good enough until right now, and that’s what it all comes down to. The Bengals aren’t the only team that has experienced immense hardship in recent years, but they’ve turned their misfortunes into one of the greatest turnarounds in all of sports. Isn’t that something worth cheering for?
I’m not talking about casual fans or just people who just watch the Super Bowl because everyone else is doing it too. I’m referring to fans of teams who can relate to the Bengals’ recent past. The teams who rarely see the Any Given Sunday magic sprinkled their way. The snake-bitten franchises who can’t escape the injury bug. The organizations who experience twice more scandal and depravity than enjoyment on the field.
Peter Schrager of Good Morning Football put it beautifully: If the Bengals can do this, any team in the NFL can.
"If the @Bengals win this thing, it gives hope to teams and fanbases like the Lions, the Jaguars, the Browns, and even the Jets. It can happen. Seriously. Look, there's proof. No team was worse over 2019 and 2020 than the Bengals. They're in the SB." -@PSchrags pic.twitter.com/AptmASYWZt— Good Morning Football (@gmfb) February 11, 2022
Despite all their preconceived shortcomings, Cincinnati has earned the chance to win their first Lombardi Trophy. A franchise founded by arguably the most influential person in modern football—Paul Brown—with a real history of Hall of Fame-caliber players and previous Super Bowl trips can finally be looked upon with fair eyes instead of condescending glares. Winning cures all, as they say.
And it’s not just the past that gets rectified, it’s the immediate future. The idea of Burrow becoming the new face of the league while playing in Cincinnati becomes more palpable when he’s already won a championship here. Burrow is undeniably special, but quarterback play all over the league has elevated and more and more teams are working to find and develop their guy at the position.
They can be in this position too if enough things fall in the right place. And that’s why humanity gravitates towards long shots. Hope, inspiration, and a trying journey culminating in immense glory tugs at everyone’s heartstrings.
And what a trying journey it’s been. The Bengals hired a young head coach in Zac Taylor just over three years ago. His staff wasn’t fully put together until the Scouting Combine began, and the rushed nature of his tenure beginning led to an underwhelming first offseason filled questionable free agent decisions, and an uninspiring first draft class.
The 2019 season was as disastrous as expected in hindsight. Taylor didn’t win a game until early December, and the Bengals became primed to pick Burrow at the top of the 2020 NFL Draft. Instead of discussions about what Burrow can bring to the Bengals, the discourse revolved around why Burrow shouldn’t want to go there and how he can get out of that fate.
Nevertheless, Burrow and the Bengals ignored the noise and got to work, which was cut short that year in November when Burrow’s left knee was eviscerated. There was no lower point than that, and it’s only fitting the events that have followed have been exclusively positive.
Here’s the resume for the 2021 Bengals entering Super Bowl Sunday:
- Announced and revealed new uniforms
- Began a long-overdue Ring of Honor
- Instituted new fan-centric stadium amenities and game-day traditions
- Continued building their defense via lucrative spending in free agency
- Nailed their first-round pick in the draft, again
- Got Burrow back and healthy for the regular season
- Swept divisional rivals in the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens
- Won 10 games and the AFC North
- Ended their 31-year playoff win drought
- Clinched their first Super Bowl berth in 33 years
This has been a season for the ages, to put it lightly, and the postseason run has fans thinking about destiny like they’ve never thought before. We’ve seen this happen with the New York Giants in 2007 and the Ravens in 2012. The best team on paper doesn’t always win the biggest game in American sports, but the team that gets hot at just the right time usually does.
Destiny very much seems to be on Cincinnati’s side, but claiming that as the main reason why they’ll win Sunday isn’t fair to the players and coaches. This is years of hard work and battles with adversity that would break most in this league. The movement from “Why not us?” to “It is us!” symbolizes the realization that this team belongs in this moment. They were built for it.
Like we said in our Meet the Bengals piece from earlier this week, Burrow is the quintessential gamer. He’s poised to become the first Super Bowl champion who’s also won the Heisman Trophy and National Championship in college. For a second-year quarterback, he’s as proven as they get. There’s not a moment too big or a pass-rush too menacing for him to overcome. His play only seems to elevate when the stakes are at their highest, so facing the Rams’ dominant pass rush with hundreds of millions of eyes watching him seems like a perfect storm.
That’s ultimately what modern football comes down to—the better quarterback almost always wins. The Bengals, despite every critique you can throw at them, have the better quarterback in this game. It’s not the only thing that matters in the overall equation, and several of those other factors also point in the Bengals’ favor.
Aside from phenomenal cornerback Jalen Ramsey, the Rams aren’t exactly strong behind their front four. Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd are naturally going to spend most of their time going up against cornerbacks such as Darious Williams and David Long Jr., respectively. Neither player has a Pro Football Focus coverage grade that eclipses 62. Their defense gives up most of their yardage over the middle of the field, which is where Higgins and Boyd feast. Say what you want about Ramsey against Ja’Marr Chase, Los Angeles doesn’t have a complete unit to contain the entirety of Cincinnati’s proven receiving corps.
The opposite is true in regards to the Bengals’ secondary vs. the Rams’ passing game. Cooper Kupp and Odell Beckham Jr. are a lethal duo now that the latter is fully acclimated in their offense, but exploiting the weakness in Cincinnati’s defense is difficult considering there isn’t one. If the closest player to a liability is the current version of Eli Apple, that’s not much to be excited about if you’re the opposition.
Kupp and OBJ will get their plays, but the guy throwing them the ball isn’t always careful with it. Matthew Stafford is a great fit within the Rams’ scheme. He’s also the same quarterback he was in Detroit, and that guy cannot help but put the ball in harm’s way a few times every week. His league-leading 18 interceptions on the year is backed up by his turnover-worthy throw percentage of 3.6%, which is tied for the ninth-worst among starting QBs. He’s now going up against a defense that’s hauled in six interceptions in their last three games. You get the picture here.
Finally, Taylor has first-hand experience of Sean McVay’s play-calling. Los Angeles’ head coach may have a photographic memory, but he’s never seen what a Taylor-made game-plan looks like with Burrow under center. It’s fair to say that Taylor has evolved since his days as an assistant to McVay more than the contrary, and with defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo proving to be a maestro of adapting on the fly, Taylor’s staff might just have the upper hand from the opening snap.
The Bengals have emerged as one of the greatest football stories in recent memory. Their fairytale is just four quarters away from being finished, so there’s better time than to get on board than right now.