The Cincinnati Bengals are going to the Super Bowl.
Repeat: The Cincinnati Bengals are going to the Super Bowl.
One more time, so it truly sets in: The Cincinnati Bengals, two years after sinking to the league’s basement, are 60 minutes away from winning it all.
It was fitting that on the weekend in which Tom Brady’s retirement was teased, Joe Burrow shone. Brady was the spiritual heir to his hero Joe Montana. In Burrow, the league has a quarterback who neatly completes the circle; another player with a backstory that would be rejected as corny were it fiction. Another instant franchise changer. Another player who raises his game in the biggest moments. In Burrow, the NFL has found its new Joe Cool.
Time and again, no matter how iffy the play-call, no matter how poor the protection, no matter how many resources a defense allocates to the Bengals’ No 1 receiver Ja’Marr Chase, Burrow finds a way. He slips and slides. He bobs and weaves. Burrow is not a supreme athlete but he does just enough to keep the chains moving, to avoid pressure, to extend plays and drives, to give his team a chance to score points when the other parts of the offense to click. He is the ultimate problem solver.
Unflappable. Unwavering. Call it what you want. As the intensity rises, Burrow finds a way to produce. Only two quarterbacks have led teams to college football’s FBS National Championship and a Super Bowl title: Montana and Joe Namath. In two weeks, Burrow can become the third.
Sunday’s game will be principally remembered for Burrow’s excellence. But this was as much a Chiefs loss as a Bengals win. Throughout the first half, the Chiefs were at their unstoppable best on offense. The run-game was rolling. Mahomes was dancing. Everything was clicking. On defense, they contained Burrow, Chase and Joe Mixon, cutting the supply line from the quarterback to his most dangerous receiver and swamping the Bengals’ run-game with bodies at the line of scrimmage.
And then it flipped. A dodgy call from the Chiefs’ coaching staff to end the half saw the Chiefs go for a touchdown when a field goal would have pushed their half-time lead from 11 to 14 points. In the second half, they flat-lined. There was a complacence to their play: “Pffft, we’ll figure it out. ”
The game took a similar pattern to the Week 17 matchup, which the Bengals won. The Bengals adjusted on defense, backing everybody up, baiting the Chiefs to continue to run the ball, and forcing Mahomes to make the same choice over and over again: Should I push the ball downfield into danger or play it safe and pass short?
Mahomes chose the latter – or was caught in two minds – and the offense bogged down. His timing was shaken. The Bengals pass-rush started to generate a smidge of pressure in crucial spots. But for most of the half, they ditched the notion of pressure altogether, freeing up Mahomes to indulge his own worst instincts. He held onto the ball… and held onto the ball… and held on some more. The Chiefs’ offense devolved into a freelancing mess. The usual crispness was gone. Over the course of the second half, Mahomes completed just nine of 19 passes for 55 yards, throwing no touchdowns.
Then, disaster for the Chiefs: Turnovers. For all the Chiefs’ explosiveness on offense, the secret to their success is that they do not hand the opposition chances. Mahomes had thrown just a single interception in his entire playoff career heading into Sunday. Against the Bengals, he tossed two in the second half: One to swing the game, setting up Burrow and the Cincy offense in scoring range; one in overtime to give the Bengals a shot to walk off.
It was the worst half of Mahomes’ young career. He was tentative in the pocket, taking too long to make decisions – and moving into pressure, where there were escape hatches elsewhere.
Burrow and the Bengals took advantage. It was Burrow’s ability to move and extend plays that proved the difference when the two sides met a month ago, and it was the same on Sunday. He picked up four first downs on four rushing attempts, scrambling away from pressure to extend drives. Burrow was bogged down by his own team’s dodgy play-calling, but when his number was called on third and long, he delivered each and every time.
Burrow’s legend – the coats, the walk, the cigars, the championships – was born in Ohio and burgeoned during his extraordinary college career in Louisiana. In 2019, the Bengals bottomed out, handing them the first overall pick and a chance to bring Burrow home when he was drafted in April 2020. He joined the worst team in the league, and transformed the franchise – its record, its aura, all of it – in 21 short months.
“I’m tired of the underdog narrative. We’ve got good players, good coaches, ”Burrow said before the game. The Bengals, and Burrow, are underdogs no more.
Stat of the week
The Rams overcame the largest deficit in the fourth quarter of a championship game (10 points) to beat the Niners, 20-17.
It was a strange game in LA, one in which the play clock often felt more like a suggestion than a law, and with two coaching staffs seemingly hellbent on undermining their own efforts with sloppy game management. Two of the league’s top offensive minds looked frazzled in the fourth quarter. Sean McVay burned all of his timeouts and challenges with 10 minutes to play. Kyle Shanahan’s offense turned into a pumpkin when his team needed it most. The Niners’ possessed the ball three times after taking that 10-point lead in the fourth quarter. The result: 12 plays, 26 yards, just four minutes rolling off the clock. Brutal. It was not quite 28-3 or the Niners’ collapse against the Chiefs in Super Bowl LIV, but it exists in the same orbit – part of the mounting evidence that when things get tight late in the game, so does the Niners’ head coach.
The Rams collection of stars will now move on to the Super Bowl, proof positive that the team’s policy to go all-in on this season, shipping out a stack of future assets to acquire Jalen Ramsey, Matthew Stafford, and Von Miller over the past two seasons, was ultimately worth it – even if they needed a helping hand (or two) at the end.
In San Francisco, they will be left to wonder what might have been had Shanahan better navigated the late-game situation or had Jaquiski Tartt caught a routine pop-up fly.
MVP of the week
Cooper Kupp, wide receiver, LA Rams. Who else? No amount of wonky clock management or puzzling game management calls from Sean McVay could stop Kupp from doing what he does best: getting open deep behind a defense. Kupp brought some sizzle to an otherwise stilted Rams offense late in the game. He finished with 11 catches for 142 yards and two touchdowns, including the touchdown grab that sparked the Rams’ comeback and a crucial catch and run that set up what proved to be the game-winning field goal.
Video of the week
A delightful moment of half-time comedy in Kansas City. CBS pays billions of dollars to the NFL for broadcast rights. Given that NBC has the rotation for the Super Bowl this year, the AFC Championship represented CBS’s Game of the Year. And in that big spot: The network’s halftime show was drowned out by a concert blaring out in Arrowhead.
It feels like a small win for TV viewers. For too long networks have shoved TV sets on the field for… what reason? Does any fan ever say “Oh, look, they’re really at the game!” Does it add anything to the broadcast other than, perhaps, some postgame activity – something that could be replicated by, I do not know, leaving a studio and walking down to the field at the game’s conclusion. On-field analysis in a raucous stadium environment adds nothing for viewers. It’s time to ditch the practice.
Quote of the week
“This story is total conjecture. Tommy has not made a final decision one way or the other and anybody else that says he has is absolutely wrong ” – Tom Brady Sr. on his son’s potential retirement.
Tom Brady’s future has officially become a will-he-will-he saga. ESPN reported on Saturday that Brady’s 22nd season will be his last. Current and former teammates congratulated the game’s unanimous GOAT. His own company wished him the best in the future. But Brady has yet to inform the Buccaneers, according to reports. His father told reporters that the quarterback is yet to make a decision.
Either Brady is playing a form of 4D chess, looking to exact some sort of press-based revenge on ESPN for the company’s reporting during Deflategate, or, Brady, ever the content creator, is keen to control his retirement narrative himself. Most likely, Brady will announce his retirement after the Super Bowl and will file the official paperwork once the new league season kicks in and he has received the final portion of his signing bonus with the Bucs.