The upstarts vs. the established

Bengals, Rams followed different paths to Super Bowl LVI

The time differences between the two teams returning to the Super Bowl is incredible.

The Rams had a quick restart. It was the first time they had reached the Super Bowl while based in Los Angeles since 1980, as their previous two appearances had occurred while based in St. Louis, but it only took three years to make their fifth Super Bowl appearance, and their second in the last four years. This time, they have a chance to return the trophy to its birthplace in Los Angeles. 

The Bengals, on the other hand, had to rebuild and begin again because they hadn’t won the Super Bowl since the 1980s. Making their third Super Bowl appearance, the other two times they were defeated by the San Francisco 49ers.

The Rams made the playoffs three out of the four years quarterback Jared Goff and head coach Sean McVay were together, but fell short of a Super Bowl win. In Super Bowl LIII, the New England Patriots defeated the Los Angeles Rams 13-3. A year later, the Rams traded Goff, a former first-round pick who had just signed a four-year, $134 million contract extension, plus a couple draft picks to the Detroit Lions for quarterback Matthew Stafford.

Stafford, who was the first overall pick in the 2009 draft, was a big risk because he is prone to injuries and had a huge contract of his own. But the Rams ate the money, sacrificed their 2022 and 2023 first round pick in hopes that the risk would be worth it.  

222 days later Stafford became everything the Rams hoped for. He ended up  finishing the season with 4,886 yards, 41 touchdowns, and 17 interceptions, breaking franchise records for pass completions, pass attempts, and passing yards, and tied Kurt Warner’s record for passing touchdowns in a single season. 

In his first Divisional Round appearance Stafford and the Rams defeated the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 30–27, then beat the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC Championship game 20–17. 

Important as the quarterback position is, the team’s success wouldn’t have happened without receiver Cooper Kupp. He averaged 893 receiving yards and 24 touchdowns as a key playmaker on the Rams’ offense over the previous four seasons, but no one expected him to lead the NFL in all three categories (145 catches, 1,947 yards, and 16 touchdowns) in 2021. Kupp’s 1,965 yards from scrimmage set a new record for a wide receiver in an NFL season, breaking Calvin Johnson’s record set in 2012.

The Rams added more star power to their roster when Odell Beckham, Jr was released by the Browns on November 5 and signed with LA less than a week later. They also have one of the league’s scariest front sevens thanks to the addition of Von Miller via trade. 

Despite the exciting transactions the Rams looked doomed after the trade deadline when they lost three straight games. Critics said the losses would create locker room problems.They’ve literally bet the farm on this team winning the championship. 

The following Sunday the Rams ended a six-game losing streak to the 49ers by winning a thriller by three points. The 49ers had a chance to drive down and possibly win the game but Jimmy Garoppolo flung an ill-advised, backhanded pass to JaMycal Hasty, who tipped the ball in the air for linebacker Travin Howard to make a play on the ball and secure the win with a heart-breaking interception.

Los Angeles now has a chance to become only the second team in history to win a Super Bowl in its own stadium. But first, the Rams must defeat the AFC Champions, who are widely regarded as one of the luckiest teams in this year’s playoffs.

Two weeks ago, the Bengals faced an 18-point deficit  in the NFC Championship game. After fighting back and ending the game with a tie, the mighty Kansas City Chiefs won the coin toss and received the overtime kickoff. 

Within the first 5 seconds of gameplay Bengals Safety Vonn Bell intercepted quarterback Patrick Mahomes’ pass intended for receiver Tyreek Hill. Bengals kicker Evan McPherson hit a game-winning field goal minutes later and sent the Bengals to their first Super Bowl since 1988.

Perhaps more remarkable than that day’s comeback was quarterback Joe Burrow’s own journey to the Super Bowl. Cincinnati selected Burrow first overall in 2020. His rookie season was cut short due to a devastating knee injury that tore his ACL, MCL, PCL, and meniscus. His return this season helped the Bengals reach the AFC championship game for the first time in 31 years, and they will now compete in their first Super Bowl since 1988. He had a fantastic season, finishing in the top ten in both touchdowns (36), and yards (4,611).

Burrow couldn’t have done it without Jamar Chase, his former college teammate. Chase notified the team in late August that he had decided to forego the 2020 college football season in order to focus on his professional career. Despite opting out of his final season to play for the Tigers, he was drafted fifth overall in the 2021 NFL Draft. Many people questioned the Bengals’ pick, Chase ended up having a record-breaking rookie season. Chase set new records for receptions (79), receiving yards (1,429), and touchdowns (13) by a rookie. His 1,429 receiving yards are the most for a rookie in Super Bowl history. He was named to the Pro Bowl and Chase also broke Chad Johnson’s franchise record for receiving yards in a single season, and his 279 postseason receiving yards broke Torry Holt’s record, which stood since 1999.

 Chase was named NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year and second-team All Pro by the  Associated Press. 

The Bengals’ run has been a triumph for running back Joe Mixon, too. With many notable off-field issues, including the assault of a woman in 2014 and the harassment of a parking attendant in 2016, several teams refused to even consider drafting him. However, the Bengals took him in the second round of the 2017 Draft. Mixon ranked in the  top-four  in all categories for his position, racking up nearly 300 attempts with 292 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns this season. He also had 420 receiving yards and three touchdowns and established himself as one of the top running backs in the NFL.

The Bengals are back in the Super Bowl for the first time since the Boomer Esiason-led teams of the 1980s, while the Rams return for the second time in the past four years. Tune in on Sunday at 6:30 to see which team will walk out of SoFi Stadium in Englewood, CA with the Lombardi Trophy.

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