How a team that went 4-11-1 last season is going to the Super Bowl

The 2022 Super Bowl, to be held on Feb. 13 at SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, Calif., will be played by the Los Angeles Rams (LAR) and Cincinnati Bengals (CIN).

The Bengals are an unprecedented contender for Super Bowl champion. Cincinnati finished last in the AFC North for the 2020-21 season, at 4-11-1. In May 2021, CBS Sportswriter John Breech predicted that the Bengals would finish with a 9-8 record and, in their Week 17 matchup with the Chiefs he said, “they haven’t caught up to Kansas City yet.”

The Bengals concluded the regular season 10-7, and on Jan. 30, became AFC Conference champions after a 27-24 win in overtime at Kansas City. The Chiefs, arguably the most dominant team coming into the 2021-22 season, lost to a team that had not had a winning season since 2015-16.

Cincinnati’s last playoff win – prior to 2022 – was Jan. 6, 1991, with a 41-14 win over the Houston Oilers (now Tennessee Titans). In contrast, Kansas City has not had a losing season since 2012, playing in both the 2020 and 2021 Super Bowls, beating San Francisco in 2020 and falling short to Tampa Bay in 2021.

So, how did a team that started the 2021-22 season with a mediocre outlook become a contender for Super Bowl champion?

This massive turnaround can be attributed to changes in coaching staff and players. Head coach Zac Taylor was hired and assembled a new coaching staff, drafting Heisman Trophy winning quarterback Joe Burrow in 2020. Although Burrow’s season was cut short because of a torn ACL and MCL, the Bengals added more to their arsenal when they drafted wide receiver and Burrow’s former college teammate Ja’Marr Chase out of Louisiana State University and invested heavily in free agents in 2021.

Kansas City struggled in the AFC Championship. The Bengals defense, which gave up 21 points in the first half, responded in the second by allowing only three. QB Patrick Mahomes and the rest of the Chiefs offense consistently made errors. Mahomes had a few crucial missed throws, including the first play of OT, and the Chiefs appeared to repeatedly struggle with miscommunication. The Bengals defense capitalized on these mistakes and came up big with interceptions and major stops.

Attitude also wins games. In the divisional round, Bengals’ rookie kicker Evan McPherson made a game-winning field goal. When McPherson was walking on the field, Burrow said to him, “Looks like we’re going to the AFC Championship.”

Then, in the third quarter of the AFC Championship game, Mahomes’ short left pass was intercepted by the Bengals at the KC 30, before being downed at the 27. After taking the field, Burrow immediately said to his offense “When we score, we’re going for two.” There was no if.

After taking a 24-21 lead, running back Joe Mixon could be heard yelling from the bench, “You gotta believe!”

Cincinnati’s confidence and their bend-don’t-break attitude is integral to their success. The adaptability of a team on both defense and offense can be a major factor in the outcome of games.

Throughout the game, Kansas City’s mistakes added up – clock management was an issue. On the first drive of the game, Chiefs Head Coach Andy Reid called a timeout prior to throwing a challenge flag. The Chiefs burned their remaining 2 timeouts quickly and ended up on the one-yard line to end the first half, unable to score because of WR Tyreek Hill being tackled in bounds. Repeatedly, Mahomes spent roughly 10 seconds scrambling in the back field looking for an open receiver prior to being sacked.

And, despite winning the coin toss in OT, the Chiefs could not secure a victory. The Bengals came up with an interception after Jessie Bates III deflected a pass from Mahomes into Von Bell’s arms.

After nine plays and 42 yards, the Bengals set up a 31-yard field goal with 9:22 left in OT. Once again, McPherson kicked Cincinnati’s way to victory.

On becoming AFC Champions, Burrow said, “I think if you would have told me before the season that we’d be going to the Super Bowl, I probably would have called you crazy. Then, you know, we play the whole season and nothing surprises me now.”

The Super Bowl will take place on Sunday, Feb. 13 at 6:30 ET and will be broadcast by NBC.