Rams are the pick to win Super Bowl, but I’m pulling for Bengals

Quarterback Joe Burrow (9) of the Cincinnati Bengals and defensive tackle Tyler Shelvin (99) celebrate following the Bengals overtime win against the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC Championship Game at Arrowhead Stadium on January 30, 2022, in Kansas City, Missouri. (David Eulitt/Getty Images/TNS)

Credit: TNS

Combined ShapeCaption
Quarterback Joe Burrow (9) of the Cincinnati Bengals and defensive tackle Tyler Shelvin (99) celebrate following the Bengals overtime win against the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC Championship Game at Arrowhead Stadium on January 30, 2022, in Kansas City, Missouri. (David Eulitt/Getty Images/TNS)

Credit: TNS

I grew up 100 miles from Cincinnati, down the Ohio River in a city with no NFL team, but I never cheered for the Bengals. I fell in love with America’s Team, the Cowboys. Tom Landry’s star was fading at the time, but the Cowboys were still glamorous. The Bengals were just ... there.

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My big brother’s influence may have had something to do with my indifference. He was a Browns fanatic who regularly derided the Bengals as a poor imitation of his team. Paul Brown had a part in founding both franchises. When the team in Cincinnati started, Brown gave his new team the same initials (C.B.) and the same shade of orange on the uniforms as his old team.

I noticed that my schoolfriends who rooted for the Bengals rarely seemed to enjoy it. They didn’t put up much of a fight when outsiders called their team the “Bungles.” That nickname was coined by Myron Cope, a longtime radio broadcaster for the Steelers, and the Bengals lived up to it for a long time.

There were a few exceptions. The 1988 season was the one time I remember thinking the Bengals were cool because they had Ickey Woods. His TD dance was a lot of fun, so, of course, the killjoys in the NFL office hated it. The Bengals made it to the Super Bowl that season but lost to Joe Montana and Bill Walsh’s 49ers. Then they managed only one playoff victory over the next 32 seasons.

The Bengals finally stopped bungling this season. They ended their playoff drought and will play in the Super Bowl on Sunday for the first time since 1989. A team with a legacy of flopping in big games flipped the script. The Bengals advanced to the Super Bowl by coming back from a 21-3 deficit to beat the two-time defending AFC champion Chiefs at their place.

Bengals tight end C.J. Uzomah was a rookie when the team made its last playoff appearance. After the the victory over the Chiefs, Uzomah said he “laid my head down” to think about what it meant for the Bengals.

“I took a moment personally to reflect on this organization’s journey to get to where we are over the past couple of years of having some turmoil,” Uzomah told AJC Falcons beat writer D. Orlando Ledbetter. ”I just went to bed with a smile on my face knowing that, at the end of the day, we’re getting to play a freakin’ Super Bowl. Like, that is so sick.”

It is sick, in the positive sense. It’s a great story. After decades of indifference about the Bengals, I’m moved to pull for them Sunday. I love underdogs when I make my picks against the spread. It’s more about sentiment with the Bengals. I’d like to see them win so that my childhood friends who’ve stuck with them all this time finally will be rewarded for their loyalty.

OK, maybe I also want the Bengals to win out of spite for my brother. He would hate on the Cowboys nearly as much as the Bengals. It would be comeuppance for him if Cincinnati wins a Super Bowl before his beloved Browns.

Even worse for Browns backers: Cincinnati can do it with a quarterback it drafted two years ago. The Browns have been searching for a great one since Otto Graham. After so many years of getting it wrong with high draft picks, the Bengals got it right with Joe Burrow (and, last year, top target Ja’Marr Chase).

Burrow went to high school in Athens, Ohio, and signed to play for Ohio State. Burrow later transferred to LSU, where he won a national championship. He ended up working 150 miles from Athens when the Bengals picked him No. 1 overall in the 2020 draft.

Burrow said it was “chaos” when fans showed up at an event to send off the Bengals to Los Angeles.

“Growing up in Ohio, I understand how important it is for the state and the region,” Burrow said on NFL Network. “These fans have deserved something like this for a long time, and I’m just excited to give them a product that they feel proud to represent.”

Burrow is in the Super Bowl after he played in only 10 games as a rookie because an ACL injury ended his season. The surgery was performed by Dr. Neal ElAttrache, the head team physician for the Rams. He arranged for Burrow to meet Rams offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth, a fellow LSU alum who played for the Bengals from 2006-16.

Whitworth was rehabilitating his own injury at the time. He invited Burrow and his girlfriend over to his home to watch some football and get to know one another. Whitworth said he called Bengals coach Zac Taylor the next day to tell him that his old team had a hit with Burrow.

“I think people in Cincinnati are going to have a chance to experience (the Super Bowl) a couple more times as long as Joe Burrow is the quarterback,” Whitworth said.

That’s the way it looks. You never can tell with the Bengals, though. They can find a way to mess this up. They usually do with Mike Brown, who inherited ownership of the team from his father. There’s still some Bungles residue on the Bengals even as they get ready to play in the Super Bowl.

The Bengals don’t have an indoor practice facility at their team headquarters in downtown Cincinnati. Taylor wanted to practice indoors, so the Bengals had to board buses for the University of Cincinnati. The AFC champions looked like a high school team going to face their rivals in the next town over. The episode was as a reminder of why the Bengals weren’t taken seriously for so long.

Why would I root for them as a kid when there were so many other choices? The Bengals weren’t the kind of team that captured the imaginations of people outside of Cincinnati. They were the kind of team that frustrated even their own fans for so long. Now the Bengals are back in the Super Bowl, and I’ll be pulling for them to win.

I don’t think they will do it. Make it Rams 27, Bengals 21, with the Bengals failing to cover the four-point spread. I wouldn’t mind it too much if I’m wrong.