The Super Bowl nobody saw coming: Bengals-Rams

Just when these NFL playoffs were beginning to settle down, the sleek Chiefs bungled what should have been a half-ending field goal. This gave their opponents, who’ve been known as the Bungles for much of their unassuming history, a lift they didn’t deserve. But, to borrow from “Unforgiven” and the gunfighter Will Munny, " ‘Deserve’s’ got nothing to do with it.”

After a quarterfinal weekend that defied credulity, semifinal Sunday began in predictable fashion. The raging Chiefs hurtled to a 21-3 lead. Owing to Patrick Mahomes’ unfortunate decision not to throw into the end zone from the Bengals’ 1, the half ended with Kansas City’s lead sliced to 11 points. Still, you figured Mahomes would throw three more touchdown passes in the third quarter and that’d be that.

What happened wasn’t that. A Bengals’ defense that ranked 18th-best in a 32-team league held the Chiefs to three second-half points, those coming at the end of regulation to force overtime. In OT, a deflected Mahomes pass became an interception. The Bengals – who entered this postseason having last won a playoff game on Jan. 6, 1991 – drove for the winning field goal, which means they now get to fly to Los Angeles for the Super Bowl.

The Bengals went 10-7 and won the AFC North with a week to spare. They have Joe Burrow, the first player drafted in 2020. They have Ja’Marr Chase, the fifth player drafted in 2021. They have a youngish coach who worked under the Rams’ Sean McVay, the new paradigm of NFL coaches, though Zac Taylor is 38 to McVay’s 36. Did anyone expect the Bengals, who’d gone 0-7 in playoff games under Marvin Lewis, to take down top-seeded Tennessee in Nashville and the Chiefs in Kansas City after falling 18 points in arrears?

Nah. But that’s the story of these playoffs, which have seen six games over two weekends decided by 3, 3, 3, 6, 3 and 3 points. Only Sunday’s second game, in which the Rams came from 10 down in the fourth quarter to beat the 49ers – yep, another blown postseason lead for poor Kyle Shanahan – didn’t see the final snap yield the winning points. The most obvious Super pairings – Packers-Chiefs, Buccaneers-Bills – have been dashed. Instead we get Bengals-Rams, one No. 4 seed against the other.

We get mentor McVay against pupil Taylor. We get Matthew Stafford, once a Georgia Bulldog, and his Hollywood Rams against Burrow, who with LSU twice thrashed the Georgia Bulldogs, and his blue-collar Bengals.

The Rams have been pointing toward this. McVay’s first team made the playoffs but lost to the Falcons in the wild card round in January 2018. They upset the Saints, with help of the NFL’s most notorious non-call, to reach the Super Bowl in Atlanta the next year, whereupon they lost 13-3 to Tom Brady. Last year they lost to the Packers in Round 2, whereupon they decided being pretty good wasn’t good enough.

Already star-studded – Aaron Donald, Jalen Ramsey and Cooper Kupp are among the best at their positions – the Rams decided to cut ties with Jared Goff, who wasn’t quite the franchise quarterback they’d believed him to be. They swapped Goff for Stafford, who’d presided over no playoff wins in 12 seasons with Detroit. They traded for Von Miller, a Super Bowl MVP with Denver. They signed Odell Beckham after he’d been cut by Cleveland.

The Rams went all-in on this season, which is always scary. They have only three 2022 draft picks, the earliest coming in Round 5. They won’t have another Round 1 pick until 2024. They care nothing about that now. They’re in the Super Bowl, which not incidentally will be staged in SoFi Stadium, their home. This risk was worth its reward.

The Bengals hired Taylor in 2019. They were 2-14 in his first season, which left them with the No. 1 pick that became Burrow. The quarterback tore his ACL as a rookie, which put their rebuild on hold but positioned them to take Chase, Burrow’s LSU teammate. Chase caught 81 passes for 1,455 yards and 13 touchdowns this season. Here’s your new Montana-to-Rice.

This will be the Bengals’ third Super Bowl. They lost the first two to Joe Montana’s 49ers. The Rams nearly lost – for the seventh time in succession – to Jimmy Garappolo’s Niners in Sunday’s NFC title game. McVay’s team isn’t always as good as you think it should be, but it’s good enough to be favored over the Bengals. Which, given how much these playoffs have traced expectation, means nothing.