It's fitting in this craziest and wildest of NFL seasons that two number four seeds will contest the Super Bowl in Los Angeles on February 13.
The hometown Rams and the Cincinnati Bengals are living proof that you just need an invite to the postseason party. Once there, you can finagle and fight your way to the big dance. That was always likely to be the case this season given the frantic, dramatic and highly-entertaining nature of this year's playoffs.
And so, for the first time in NFL history, a Super Bowl will be played without one of the top three seeds in each conference.
The Bengals are in the big game for the first time since the 1988 season and it still feels weird to write that because they looked dead and buried as they fell into a 21-3 hole against the Kansas City Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium.
I was selling the whole 'Comeback Train' theme for the second week running, but mostly to have fun with the guys in the Sky Sports NFL studio and to keep the viewers interested. If I'm honest, I was not entirely sure Joe Burrow and the Bengals could make it all the way back, especially given how prolific Patrick Mahomes was looking through the 29 minutes and 55 seconds of the first half.
The Chiefs could not have looked more perfect. They had three drives, scored three touchdowns, had not been penalized, Mahomes had not been sacked and they had not turned the ball over. As they moved to within inches of the Bengals' goal-line, I was in position to throw to our halftime break and I was scribbling notes about four drives, four touchdowns and football perfection.
But Kansas City blew their clock management there and came away empty-handed after a short pass to Tyreek Hill in the flat ticked the final seconds away. What might have been a 28-10 nail in Cincinnati's coffin was another 11-point lead for the Chiefs at the break, just like when these teams met in Week 17.
And just like in Week 17, Cincinnati held the Chiefs to just three second half points. I did not see that coming. I don't think anybody did. In the second half and in overtime, the Chiefs had seven drives and produced just 83 yards, three points and two Mahomes interceptions.
It was a stunning fall from grace on the Kansas City side of proceedings, but the spirit and fight shown by the Bengals – not for the first time this season – is a testament to the belief and confidence that has been instilled in this whole team by second-year quarterback Joe Burrow.
He is the major reason this AFC North cellar dweller – the Bengals were bottom of their division in the 2018, 2019 and 2020 seasons – are now 60 minutes from writing football history and crossing their name from the list of 12 teams never to have won a Super Bowl.
The NFL Playoffs… The NFL must have been worried about a letdown on Championship Sunday after the greatest weekend of playoff football ever in the Divisional Round. But this is the postseason that keeps on giving and we should have known that close, unpredictable games are becoming the norm in this ridiculous season for the ages. Both Conference Championship games were decided by three points. Cincinnati ran out 27-24 winners in overtime, while the Los Angeles Rams were 20-17 victors over the San Francisco 49ers. It was only the second time in NFL history that both title games were decided by three points or fewer. On this kind of form, I would expect the playoffs to finish strong with the Super Bowl in SoFi Stadium just under two weeks from now.
Cooper Kupp… The Rams were in trouble and on the ropes in what was a physical heavyweight battle with their fierce division rivals, the 49ers. LA trailed 17-7 early in the fourth quarter but their comeback was sparked by Matthew Stafford's 11-yard touchdown pass to Cooper Kupp, who had another huge game. Kupp was largely uncoverable as he reeled in 11 receptions for 142 yards and two touchdowns. After a regular season in which he led the league in catches (145), yards (1,947) and touchdowns (16), Kupp has added 25 for 386 and four scores in three excellent postseason showings.
Cincinnati's second half defense… The Bengals shut down Patrick Mahomes in the second half of their Week 17 win in Cincinnati and they did the same again on Sunday, proving it was no fluke the second time around. In two games against the Bengals, Mahomes had a second half passer rating of 35.0, he tossed two picks and was sacked four times. Cincinnati's defensive backs plastered the receivers at Arrowhead and Sam Hubbard came up big with some late sacks while his QB-hunting partner Trey Hendrickson was gasping for air on the sidelines.
Jimmy Garoppolo… I don't care what the numbers say (Garoppolo threw for a respectable 232 yards and two touchdowns), San Francisco's quarterback was not good enough when it mattered and it cost the hard-hitting and battling 49ers a spot in the Super Bowl. Jimmy G made some good throws at times, but there were far too many occasions where he missed open receivers or threw his downfield targets into trouble. He almost got Deebo Samuel decapitated on one ill-advised pass and he finally tossed up a game-clinching interception inside the final two minutes after flirting with disaster at various points in the second half. The Trey Lance era begins in 2022 or could it be another veteran? Aaron Rodgers? Either way, it won't be Jimmy G under center.
San Francisco's running game… The 49ers had rushed for 177 yards in their previous five playoff games under Kyle Shanahan and their ground attack was supposed to lead the way against the Rams. Such a physical approach had led the Niners to six straight victories over Sean McVay's men. But on Sunday night, San Francisco rushed for just 50 yards on 20 carries and they could not get going against a Rams' front that proved it can do more than just rush the passer. Elijah Mitchell carried just 11 times for 20 yards. Deebo Samuel had some tremendous moments, but the Rams would have happily taken him gaining just 26 yards on seven runs.
Homefield advantage in LA… There was a Super Bowl feel to the NFC Championship Game because it was a 50-50 crowd at best… and that's being kind to the Rams. During the presentation of the George Halas Trophy, Rams owner Stan Kroenke shouted into his microphone: "Whose house?" The response he was looking for was, "Rams House." But it could easily have been "everybody's house." The Rams are going to be the second NFL team in history to play in a Super Bowl in their own stadium, but they have not exactly won over the LA market just yet. Expect to see a lot of black and orange inside SoFi Stadium on Super Bowl Sunday.
The Fast Five…
- It is notable that Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow remains undefeated in postseason play in college and in the NFL. He has an aura about him that means he never knows when he or his teams are defeated. That's why the Bengals are getting set to play in the Super Bowl even though their points differential of +13 is the lowest by any team playing three games to reach the end-of-season finale. The Bengals are finding ways to win the close games and it all starts with Burrow.
- Burrow is not the only young Cincinnati player with ice running through his veins. Kicker Evan McPherson has now gone four for four on field goals in every playoff game in this postseason. And in each of those contests, the strong-legged kicker has landed a field goal of 50+ yards. McPherson splitting the uprights for his fifth game-winning field goal of this season was never in doubt.
- Andy Reid and Patrick Mahomes let another Super Bowl opportunity slip from their grasp on Sunday night, reminding us all how hard it is to win multiple titles. The Chiefs have now appeared in four home AFC Championship Games in a row, yet they only have one Super Bowl to show for that in-conference dominance. It feels like they will be back in this game again sooner rather than later, but the chances for Mahomes to add to his one Super Bowl victory keep slipping away.
- Good things come to those who wait. Matthew Stafford is in his 13th NFL season and will now play in his first Super Bowl. He delivered an NFC Championship Game victory for the Rams a year to the day after LA pulled the trigger on the trade that brought Stafford to California and banished Jared Goff to Detroit. Stafford had a few hairy moments on Sunday, but he was largely excellent and stands 60 minutes from delivering what he was brought on board to deliver – a Super Bowl.
- I talked about the Rams' defensive effort against the run on Sunday evening and I thought the Aaron Donald-inspired pass rush came good when it mattered the most with the game on the line. But there was also plenty of hard hitting for the entire 60 minutes. This was a chippy contest and the Rams were not going to back down from a division rival that had pushed them around in previous encounters. This win will go a long way to helping the Rams shed their label of being a finesse team.
Facts of the Week…
- The Cincinnati Bengals are only the second team in NFL history to make it to the Super Bowl after recording losing seasons in their previous five campaigns. The other team was the 1999 St. Louis Rams, who beat the Tennessee Titans in the Super Bowl.
- This will be the youngest Super Bowl head coaches matchup in NFL history and the first in which both head coaches are under 40 years of age. The Rams' Sean McVay is 36 and his friend and former colleague, Zac Taylor, of the Bengals, is 38.
It has been the most incredible NFL season and while I am personally gutted at not being on site in Los Angeles for the Super Bowl, we're all going to enjoy just one more game – the biggest of them all – before we don't see our NFL heroes in action again for another seven or eight months. This Super Bowl is tough to call but it will have a freshness to it. The Rams have only lifted one Vince Lombardi Trophy in four attempts, while the Bengals will hope to make it third time lucky. Let the talking commence. The hype train is up and running. And we'll be all over it on Sky Sports NFL with Inside the Huddle shows every night from the Tuesday of Super Bowl week. And on gameday, I'll be joined in the London studio by Jeff Reinebold and Shaun Gayle. Out in LA, we will have expert analysis from Hall of Fame quarterback Warren Moon, six-time Pro Bowler and current NFL Man of the Year Calais Campbell and Brian Baldinger, as well as pre-game contributions from Pro Bowl quarterback Kirk Cousins. I'll see you all in the studio from 10pm on Sunday February 13.