Super Bowl LVI: Beginning vs. End
The 2021 NFL season has been wild with random upsets to teams who have been serious contenders all year.
In Super Bowl LVI, there’s one team who’s been a contender all year, the Los Angeles Rams, but even so, they’ve had down moments, not looking as good as advertised when they were assembled this offseason and in-season.
And then there’s another team that had one of the worst odds entering the season of making the Super Bowl: the Cincinnati Bengals. Yet, they won the division, being the NFL’s annual worst-to-first version, and have overcome almost all doubters to make it to the big game.
This matchup is the lowest seeding ever of a Super Bowl as both teams are №4 seeds from their conference. They’ll be facing off Sunday at 5:30 CT on NBC at SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, Cal., the home of the Rams (and Chargers), which is the second year in a row and ever that a team has gotten to host it. (Tampa Bay won it last year too.)
Before I preview the big game, let’s recap the wild conference championship games that lived up to the dramatics.
AFC Championship Game: Cincinnati Bengals 27, Kansas City Chiefs 24 (OT)
The game started out how some had expected. The Chiefs scored touchdowns on their first three possessions with Patrick Mahomes throwing them to Tyreek Hill, Travis Kelce and Mecole Hardman. The Bengals, on the other hand, were only able to get a field goal in the red zone and punted twice. After it got to 21–3 with five minutes left in the second quarter and interest dimmed, Cincinnati woke up as Joe Burrow dumped off a screen pass to running back Samaje Perine for a 41-yard score.
After the fireworks at the end of each half in the previous week, Mahomes and Co. knew his team could easily score with 1:05 left and two timeouts. Again, he led his team down the field with ease, getting to the 1-yard-line with nine seconds left after a Bengals pass interference with no timeouts. First, he threw a quick incompletion. Then with five seconds, the Chiefs realistically needed a quick shot in the end zone. But for some dumb reason, Mahomes decided to throw a lateral pass to Hill who wasn’t able to get in. It could have easily been a 14 or 18-point lead at that, but it was only 11 as the Chiefs led 21–10 at the half.
This led to a swing in momentum. Cincinnati made a halftime adjustment to only rush three against Mahomes, a blueprint to what slowed him down for the first half of the season — and it paid off. On their first two possessions, the Chiefs only gained 33 total yards. With a punt squeezed in between, the Bengals made it a one-possession game on their next drive, settling for a field goal in the red zone after Burrow didn’t see a wide-open receiver.
But then the Bengals’ defense gave Burrow another chance after defensive tackle B.J. Hill made this nice bat and catch for an interception. With a short field of just 27 yards, Burrow redeemed himself with a TD to Ja’Marr Chase and a two-point conversion to tie it at 21 going into the fourth quarter.
After a Chiefs’ three-and-out, Burrow threw a deep interception on the next play, but the Bengals’ D stepped up again and got another three-and-out. Burrow then led his team down the field for a 52-yarder by Evan McPherson, who, of course, made it to give Cincinnati their first lead of the day with 6:04 left.
Mahomes, being no stranger to game-winning drives, led his team methodically down the field. Getting to the 4-yard-line as the Bengals were out of timeouts, it looked like the Chiefs could give their opponent a taste of their own medicine from Week 17, draining the clock to win the game. However with 1:26 left on 2nd-and-goal, the Chiefs got weird again, throwing the ball instead of running, which led to a Mahomes sack at the 9. Then he got too cute playing backyard football and got strip-sacked at the 24. Luckily, one of his offensive lineman recovered. The field goal was no longer a chip shot at 44 yards, but Harrison Butker made it anyway like the week before, sending the game into overtime.
The Chiefs won the all-important coin flip, getting the ball just like the week before, but their offense went back to flopping as Mahomes threw a deep pass that went off Hill’s hands with help from Jesse Bates and into Vonn Bell’s lap for the interception. Then just like the week before for Cincinnati, Burrow calmly led his team down the field for the game-winner by McPherson of 30 yards, sending Cincinnati to their first Super Bowl in 33 years.
After a slow-ish start, Burrow finished with 23-of-38 completions for 250 yards and two touchdowns with an interception. Tee Higgins had six catches for 103 yards. Mahomes completed 26-of-39 for 275 yards and three touchdowns but had two critical interceptions. The Bengals rushed for 116 yards while the Chiefs had 139.
Fun facts: The 21–3 comeback was the biggest in a conference championship game since 2006, and very similar to the Week 17 matchup when Cincinnati had a double-digit deficit in the first half and won. A team has never won back-to-back postseason games in overtime. The Bengals tied for the biggest three-year turnaround with two other teams (1981 San Francisco 49ers, 2003 Carolina Panthers). Arrowhead Stadium was the site of Zac Taylor’s first preseason game as a head coach and the Big 12 Championship Game he played quarterback in 2006 for Nebraska.
NFC Championship Game: Los Angeles Rams 20, San Francisco 49ers 17
The NFC West rivalry had plenty of buildup to this game — and it delivered. Both teams traded three-and-out punts on their opening drives. Then the Rams got all the way to the 3-yard-line before Matthew Stafford’s throw went off Cooper Kupp’s hands into Jimmie Ward’s for the interception. The Rams forced another punt and executed an 19-play, 97-yard and 9:33 drive that ended with a beautiful pass from Stafford to Cooper Kupp for a 16-yard score. The Niners answered with a jail break pass from Jimmy Garoppolo to Deebo Samuel who took it to the house from 44 yards. After a 54-yard miss by Matt Gay, the Niners took advantage and got down the field before a 38-yard kick by Robbie Gould to lead 10–7 at the half.
The Niners started out the second half with a drive that got in Rams’ territory but ended in a punt. The Rams got in the same situation at the San Francisco 43 and decided to go for it on 4th-and-1, but Stafford came up short on a QB sneak. The 49ers went right down the field and Garoppolo threw a touchdown to George Kittle.
With just under two minutes left in the third quarter down 17–7, the Rams saw their season slipping away at home (with more 49ers fans again), but Stafford, who’s had many comebacks in his career, did his thing. He executed a perfect 5-for-5 completion drive, hitting Kupp for another touchdown. The Niners got back in Rams’ territory again but punted.
On the first play of the Rams’ drive at their own 15, Stafford threw up a jackpot for Jaquiski Tartt to intercept — but he dropped it and cost them. L.A. took advantage and moved the ball before getting a field goal to tie the game at 17 with 6:49 left. The pass rush and anger of the Rams (and fans) started to take over, forcing a San Francisco three-and-out. With a chance to take the lead, Stafford led his team into the red zone again but only got three points again instead of a touchdown with 1:55 left.
Like the week before, Garoppolo had the chance to play hero again, but after three plays on a 3rd-and-13 in the grasps of Aaron Donald, he flicked a backhanded pass to his running back JaMycal Hasty, that went off his hands and into Rams cornerback Travin Howard’s for the game, sending the veteran Stafford to his first Super Bowl ever.
Stafford completed 31 of his 45 passes for 375 yards and two touchdowns with an interception. Kupp, the triple crown winner and Offensive Player of the Year, caught both touchdowns with 11 receptions for 143 yards. His other star receiver, Odell Beckham Jr., caught nine balls for 113 yards. Garoppolo, who likely played his last snap as a Niner, was 16-of-30 for 230 yards and two touchdowns with an interception. Both defenses played the run well as the 49ers had 50 yards and the Rams had 70.
Fun facts: The win came on the one-year anniversary of the Stafford trade from Detroit (Jan. 30th). The game-winning field goal of 30 yards was the same distance of the other game’s winner.
Super Bowl LVI Preview
While neither teams have much history, there are some ties. Taylor, 38, is a young offensive mind like his counterpart, Sean McVay, 36, and was an assistant under him in 2017–18. Both quarterbacks are №1 picks (Stafford 2009, Burrow 2020). Veteran left tackle, Andrew Whitworth, being at 40 with the full gray beard, played in Cincinnati for 11 seasons.
This game obviously means a lot to both teams, but for the Rams, it’s what they bought in for. The trades for All-Pro cornerback Jalen Ramsey in 2019, star veteran Stafford in the offseason, and perennial Pro Bowl pass rusher Von Miller midseason, signing star receiver Beckham midseason and others shows this is what they’re here for. They don’t have a first-round pick until 2024 among other ones, so it’s literally Super Bowl win-or-bust. Plus, McVay was here three years ago and had his best offense in the league look completely flat against New England, losing 13–3, so he’s wanting redemption.
On the other hand, I’m still pinching myself that the Bengals are in the Super Bowl, especially with that shocking Chiefs comeback. They never won a playoff game with quarterbacks Carson Palmer and Andy Dalton. They were really bad in 2019, going a miserable 2–14, preparing for a rebuild as they drafted Burrow №1 overall and cut Dalton after nine seasons. The rookie did fine for the circumstances granted, but his terrible offensive line caved in when he tore his ACL in late November as Cincinnati finished 4–11–1. Coming back this year, he’s exceeded with his college teammate, Chase, winning games people didn’t expect, going 10–7.
Burrow has plenty of weapons with Chase, Higgins and Tyler Boyd at receiver with Pro Bowl running back Joe Mixon and his Oklahoma teammate, Perine, but they didn’t improve much on the O-line with one of the worst in the league.
Defensively, they signed Pro Bowl end Trey Hendrickson, who had a career-high 14 sacks, while having some solid counterparts in draftees, Sam Hubbard and DJ Reader, the last few years. Not to mention, a young linebacker corps through the draft in Logan Wilson and Germaine Pratt with a secondary that gets turnovers with Eli Apple, Mike Hilton and several others, including former Dallas Cowboy, Chidobe Awuzie.
When it comes to matchups, it really leans the Rams’ direction as they rank first in pass block and rush, and run stop win rate. The defensive line is just dominant right now with arguably the best player in the NFL, tackle Donald, 2010s All-Decade pass rusher Miller and a good supporting cast. However, even with a terrible offensive line, Burrow showed he can still win after being sacked nine times against Tennessee’s defensive front in the divisional round.
The Rams’ offensive line is led by Whitworth, a former Pro Bowler, with a group that has played above expectations, but the Bengals’ D-line could make it interesting.
Cincinnati’s secondary is the weak link even though they’ve made plays. I expect Stafford to use Kupp all over the field with Beckham continuing to play at high level. On the other side, the Bengals have one of the best trios at WR, but the Rams do have Ramsey, which could make some difference on Chase or whoever. Plus, having Ramsey at corner, Taylor Rapp at free safety (if he plays), and Leonard Floyd at linebacker keeps things going.
When it comes to experience, the Bengals only have one player who has been to the big game, that being cornerback Ricardo Allen who went with Atlanta in 2016 and was on the wrong side of the infamous 28–3 blown lead. And Taylor was the quarterbacks coach with McVay in 2018.
For the Rams, they have plenty. For players in 2018, there’s Whitworth, tight end Tyler Higbee (if he plays) and Donald. (Kupp tore his ACL then and receiver Robert Woods was there, but he tore his ACL this season.) Miller was the MVP in 2015 with Denver and running back Sony Michel was the leading rusher on the winning team in 2018 — New England. Then, obviously McVay was the head coach that year.
This is the Rams’ fifth Super Bowl appearance as they lost in 1979, 2001 and 2018 but won in 1999. It’s the Bengals’ third Super Bowl appearance, losing the previous two in heartbreakers to San Francisco in 1981 and 1988.
For Stafford, this means everything at 33. He spent 12 seasons with the hapless Detroit Lions with an 0–3 playoff record, never getting help, but despite some of the interceptions, including 17 pick-sixes — the most among active NFL quarterbacks, he’s been a fighter. Look no further than him refusing to come out on the final play of a game his rookie year with a separated left shoulder, throwing the winning touchdown pass. He’s near the top 10 in several passing categories and could possibly get in the Hall of Fame — if he gets a ring.
For Burrow, it’s him continuing to show that swagger as “Joe Cool,” like greats Joe Namath and Joe Montana, who actually has that name, as he won Comeback Player of the Year last night. The guy hasn’t lost a playoff game since 2014 in high school when he lost a shootout in the state championship game that still bugs him till this day. He’s looking to become the first quarterback to win a Heisman Trophy, national championship and Super Bowl. It would be most similar to Tom Brady, whom was his comparison coming into the draft, and won a trophy in his second season on a team coming out of nowhere. (Of course, Ben Roethlisberger and Russell Wilson won it in their second seasons, too, but those were already stacked teams.)
I know Cincinnati has that dark horse feeling and maybe if their opponent didn’t have a compelling case, I would pick them, but this has to be the Rams’ year. They were brought to L.A. for the Lombardi Trophy, kind of like Tampa was last year, getting to host the game as well. That defensive line has to take advantage. Jared Goff wasn’t good enough anymore with a №1 defense. This is Stafford’s time. Burrow has a bright future, though. Cincinnati better hope he stays around with how poorly the franchise has been run over the years. Stafford wills his team to win, 27–24, and gets the MVP, finally getting his ring.