Nobody thought they’d be here.
And, really, that’s not an exaggeration — there wasn’t a soul who thought the Bengals would be playing for the most iconic trophy in American pro sports (aside from the handful of irrationally confident fans in Cincinnati) this season.
Before the season began, oddsmakers gave the Bengals the third-worst odds to win Super Bowl LVI (+15000, tied with the New York Jets) and set their win total over/under at just 6½ games.
In early September, Vegas also had them at the worst odds to win their division, the AFC North (+2500), but the team accomplished that with a 10-7 record, securing the No. 4 seed in the playoffs.
All year, they’ve been doubted. Time and time again.
It’s safe to say that they shattered expectations.
Yet, despite knocking off the Tennessee Titans and the Kansas City Chiefs, the AFC’s Nos. 1 and 2 seeds, respectively, over the past two games, the Bengals are still being touted as a massive underdog against the Los Angeles Rams in SoFi Stadium in L.A. this weekend.
At this point, it’s straight-up disrespectful.
That’s why I’m here to tell you why the Bengals can — and will — upset the Rams, who are 4½-point favorites, in Super Bowl LVI.
Weapons, weapons everywhere
You could rag on the Bengals for a lot of things — namely their offensive line — but you simply can’t ignore the abundance of riches that quarterback Joe Burrow has at his disposal.
Cincinnati picked LSU wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase with the No. 6 overall pick in last year’s NFL Draft — a selection met with plenty of criticism after they bypassed Oregon offensive tackle Penei Sewell when the Bengals’ offensive line was among the worst in the NFL in 2020.
But Chase silenced the doubters in his rookie season, racking up 81 catches for 1,455 yards and 13 TDs, along with an additional 279 yards in the postseason so far, while being selected to the Pro Bowl and being named a 2nd-team All-Pro selection.
He’s already broken the rookie record for receiving yards in a season (regular season and postseason) with 1,734 and, in a Week 17 game against the Chiefs, broke the rookie record for receiving yards in a single game with a 266-yard, three-TD performance in the win.
This Saturday, he’s also bound to win the NFL’s Offensive Rookie of the Year award at the NFL Honors.
Joining Chase in the Bengals’ dynamic receiving corps is Tee Higgins, the second-year receiver out of Clemson who also passed the 1,000-yard receiving mark this season with 1,091 yards. He acts as one of Burrow’s favorite targets and plays like a smaller version of a versatile tight end.
Rounding out his top three receivers is Tyler Boyd — an often-forgotten piece to this stacked offense — who had 67 catches alone this year.
Then, they’ve got Joe Mixon, who’s sneakily become one of the league’s top running backs over the last couple of seasons, including a third-place finish in total rushing yards this season (1,811).
The point is, Burrow’s supporting cast, when put all together, is top-tier and easily one of the best in the NFL.
His offensive line may be shaky and the Rams’ defense may be at the top of their game this postseason, but with as many options as Burrow has, it’s nearly impossible to shut them all down.
Add kicker Evan “Shooter” McPherson in there, who’s aiming to break the NFL rookie record for field goals made in an NFL postseason (14), and you have a group of underdogs bound to cause some headaches in Hollywood.
It’s not about how you start…
Burrow and the offense have gotten almost all of the attention this postseason.
And for good reason.
But as crazy as it sounds, the Bengals’ defense deserves a ton of credit for getting them to this point. And if they want to win the whole thing, they’ll have to put on one more stellar performance.
Cincy’s defense often has some hiccups in the game’s opening half, but once intermission comes around and defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo makes some adjustments, they’re lights out.
In the three first halves this postseason — against the Las Vegas Raiders, Titans and Chiefs — that Bengal defense has allowed 40 combined points.
In the second halves of those same games (including overtime against the Chiefs), the Bengals have allowed just 19 points, which accounts for Cincinnati’s masterful second half in the AFC title game, where it shut down Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs’ offense, allowing just 3 points and picking off Mahomes twice.
That defense is made up of a group of unlikely heroes, including Germaine Pratt, Mike Hilton, Jessie Bates, Logan Wilson, Vonn Bell and B.J. Hill, all of whom have recorded interceptions this postseason, with none of them being household names, unlike the Rams’ star-studded D.
Perhaps the biggest plays of the Super Bowl run, however, came at the hands of linebacker Sam Hubbard, who sacked Mahomes on back-to-back goal-to-go plays at the end of regulation in the AFC title game, forcing the Chiefs to kick a field goal to send it into overtime instead of scoring a go-ahead — and likely game-winning — touchdown.
So, whether you know their names or not, the Bengals’ defense is riddled with playmakers.
And while Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford has also been exceptional in fourth quarters this postseason, we need to be reminded of one of football’s classic sayings: defense wins championships.
An ice-cold competitor
As I’ve alluded to multiple times, the Bengals’ biggest barrier to winning a Super Bowl comes at the hands of its offensive line holding its own against the ferocious Rams’ pass rush — namely the duo of Von Miller and Aaron Donald, one of the scariest D-line combos we’ve ever seen.
But when Burrow has the ball, it’s as if offensive line struggles simply don’t matter.
Against the Titans in the Divisional Round, Burrow was sacked an NFL-record nine times. And won.
In the regular season, he was sacked a whopping 51 times, most in the NFL and most since Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson (62) in 2018.
Yet, the Bengals still collected 10 wins, won the AFC North and proceeded to win their first playoff game in three decades, all while Burrow ranked sixth in passing yards (4,611), eighth in passing TDs (34), first in completion percentage (70.4%) and second in yards-per-completion (12.6).
As cool and confident as Burrow’s been off the field — most notably in his post-game press conferences — he may be even more so on the field.
He’s as composed as it gets, rarely gets rattled and can maneuver the pocket better than most of ‘em.
And as phenomenal as his weapons are and his defense has been over the last few weeks, the Bengals’ path to the Lombardi Trophy lies in the hands of Burrow, who’s trying to become the first NFL player to win a Heisman Trophy, national title and Super Bowl — and he may just do it in a three-year span, all while bringing the first Lombardi home to Cincinnati.
Scratch that. Burrow will become the first NFL player to do so.
With a swagger like his, how couldn’t he?
Reporter Victor Hensley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @Frezeal33.
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