Who dey? They the AFC champions, that's who. The Cincinnati Bengals knocked off the Kansas City Chiefs in overtime Sunday, 27-24 to reach their first Super Bowl since 1989. It sends them to Hollywood for Super Bowl LVI, headed to SoFi Stadium after a turnaround script worthy of a blockbuster movie.
Indeed, after a 25-53-2 record from 2016-20, bottoming out with two wins during the 2019 season, this team is now one win away from their first NFL championship in franchise history. The city of Cincinnati is already expecting big things, changing the academic calendar to give students a day off the Monday after the Super Bowl.
Yet even with some of the sport's rising talents (second-year quarterback Joe Burrow, wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase) the Bengals enter the big game an underdog for the third straight NFL playoff game. They're currently giving up 3.5 points to the Los Angeles Rams, a fellow No. 4 seed who squeaked by themselves, 20-17 after scoring 13 unanswered points against the San Francisco 49ers.
The Rams' reward is to play the Super Bowl at home, the second straight year the sport's NFC champion has done so. Just don't expect a happy ending the way Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers took it to the Kansas City Chiefs last season.
No, this Bengals team is rising all the way to the top, making the Rams their final victim in this rags-to-riches story. Here are five reasons why they're armed and ready to take home the hardware in Super Bowl LVI.
5 Reasons Why the Cincinnati Bengals Will Win Super Bowl LVI
1. Joe Burrow
Burrow could honestly be reasons 1 through 5, suddenly one of the most popular athletes in America. From his orange shades to that diamond chain, the fashion statement and swagger alone has won him the hearts of millions, unifying much of a divided country.
But it's his talent on the field and leadership off it that's left Burrow a rising star during these playoffs. Sure, his numbers on paper aren't quite at the level of Patrick Mahomes or Josh Allen until you get to that final category: wins and losses.
|PY/G||TD||INT||QB Rating||Playoff W-L|
That's right; Burrow had nearly one-third as many touchdown passes as Mahomes, falling 70 yards short of his average. He turned the ball over twice as much as Allen while enduring more sacks (12) of any quarterback during these playoffs.
It didn't matter. Burrow found a way to win, taking charge of the offense when needed like after falling behind 21-3 against the Chiefs. It was his pass to Samaje Perine, a 41-yard gem that sparked a momentum shift for Cincinnati late in the second quarter. From there, he fought for every yard, including five rushes for 25 yards on the ground. Multiple times, it looked like Chiefs had Burrow tackled only for him to emerge from the rubble and make a play.
It’s the "it" factor, the intangible that won Tom Brady seven Super Bowls and changes superlatives from good to great. Emerging with the AFC championship earned Burrow kudos from around the sports world, validating his claim during the postseason the Bengals were "no longer underdogs."
"The situation that I'm in socially, doesn't really feel real to me," Burrow said Sunday night. "In my head, I'm just the same old guy. Kid Cudi reached out to me yesterday, you've got LeBron tweeting at me. That part is surreal."
Do you really want to bet against the guy going viral right now?
2. Their defense causes turnovers
Speaking of going viral, how about that Bengals defense? They were all over the field in the second half of the AFC Championship Game, limiting Mahomes and the Chiefs to just three points as the clock expired to end regulation. Four sacks and two interceptions (including the key pick on the first overtime possession) kept the Bengals in the game as their offense slowly chipped away at the deficit.
But forcing turnovers is nothing new for Cincinnati this month. Their seven takeaways tie Tampa Bay for the most during these NFL playoffs, producing a healthy turnover margin of plus-five. That's how you win football games, especially in a Super Bowl expected to be an offensive showcase considering the Los Angeles Rams' high-flying offense and two of the best receivers in football: MVP candidate Cooper Kupp and the speedy Odell Beckham Jr.
But why are the Bucs up there with the Bengals, despite getting knocked out last week? It’s because of four turnovers they forced against the Rams, fueling a comeback that nearly knocked L.A. out in the Divisional Round. Then, on Sunday, quarterback Matthew Stafford threw an early first-quarter interception after driving the entire length of the field against San Francisco.
It’s the ninth pick Stafford has thrown in the past seven games, a nasty habit Cincinnati will try and exploit. It only takes one big mistake under the glare of those Super Bowl lights and this Bengals defense, led by defensive end Trey Hendrickson and linebacker Logan Wilson, will be sitting there ready to pounce.
3. The Bengals can run
It took a while for Joe Mixon to get going last week against the Chiefs. But he ended up with 88 yards and a healthy 4.2 yards per carry, coming through in some key moments during the second half and overtime to help the Bengals move forward. His 1,205 yards on the ground during the regular season ranked third in the NFL.
That's key to spark the offense against a middling Rams defense that finished just 17th in the NFL in total yards allowed (to be fair, they were sixth vs. the run). But it's not just the run defense the Rams should be worried about. When will their 1-2 punch at running back get going during these playoffs?
Cam Akers and Sony Michel have combined into one big disappointment, averaging just 2.8 and 3.3 yards per carry, respectively. That won't cut it, especially Michel's ugly 16 yards on 10 carries against the 49ers. Considering the way the Bengals' defense has played the past few weeks, holding the Tennessee Titans' Derrick Henry to just 62 yards on 20 carries, doesn’t squaring up against these two feel like child's play?
4. They have the new Justin Tucker
You think Evan McPherson has already called his winning kick in the Super Bowl? This fifth-round draft pick out of Florida has already set an NFL record by going 12-for-12 on field goals during these playoffs. Three of those have been from 50-plus yards, including a 52-yarder to win it as time expired in the AFC Divisional Round against top-seeded Tennessee.
It's the closest thing to invincible you can have on special teams without getting Justin Tucker on loan from the Baltimore Ravens. On the other side? We have Matthew Gay, no one to sneeze at (this year's NFC Pro Bowl selection) but a kicker who's already missed more field goals (two) in the playoffs than he did during the entire regular season.
So much of being a kicker is getting hot at the right time and being able to come through in the clutch. Which one of these guys would you trust right now with the game on the line?
5. The Bengals are in every game
Keep in mind just a month ago, the Bengals were down 14-0 at halftime against Kansas City in Week 16. If they lost that regular-season game, it’s possible they wouldn't have even made the playoffs, let alone win the AFC North and climb all the way into the Super Bowl.
But this team just won't quit. Not when they faced a 21-3 deficit against the Chiefs late in the first half of the AFC Championship Game. Now, that type of comeback was rare for them; five of their seven regular-season losses were by five points or less. Only four of their 10 victories were by less than a touchdown; when the Bengals are on, they have the ability to blow opponents away with offensive firepower.
Thing is, the Bengals' speed at wide receiver leaves them right up there with the Chiefs in terms of putting points on the board in a hurry. Chase led the NFL with five catches of 50-plus yards this season and can break free at any time. Fellow wide receivers Tee Higgins, Tyler Boyd, running backs Mixon and Samaje Perine, and even tight end C.J. Uzomah (if he plays) are all capable of that big-play ability – and Burrow has the arm to throw deep.
Sprinkle in this extra dose of postseason confidence and the Bengals are backing up that swagger with results. It's hard to see this train stopping anywhere short of claiming the Lombardi trophy by winning Super Bowl LVI.
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NASCARBowles.