Super Bowl 2022: How beleaguered Bengals turned around their fortunes

By Ben CollinsBBC Sport
Super Bowl 56: Los Angeles Rams v Cincinnati Bengals
Venue: SoFi Stadium, Inglewood Date: Sunday, 13 February Kick-off: 23:30 GMT
Preview: Watch The NFL Show on Saturday night on BBC One, BBC iPlayer, BBC Red Button and online.
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After a season full of surprises, it seems fitting that the NFL's championship game features a side that few fancied to get there.

Just two years ago, the Cincinnati Bengals finished with the worst record in the league.

Last summer, even the Jacksonville Jaguars had shorter odds for reaching Super Bowl 56.

Yet while the Jaguars went on to become the league's worst team for a second straight season, the Bengals will play in the big game for the first time in 33 years.

Cincinnati face the Los Angeles Rams on Sunday looking to claim their first NFL title and complete their journey from whipping boys to 'world champions'.

But how has the long-suffering franchise managed to turn its fortunes around so soon?

A season of 'unprecedented parity'

American football has been the most popular sport in the US since the 1960s and the main reason is competitive parity. It's what the NFL prides itself on.

In 55 years, no team has won the Super Bowl more than six times, and the last 22 seasons have seen 13 different champions.

But two-time Super Bowl winner Osi Umenyiora says this season the "parity was unprecedented". Fellow BBC pundit Jason Bell reckons it was "the greatest in NFL history".

The regular season produced a record 35 walk-off wins - games won with a score on the final play. There were four more on an extraordinary weekend in the play-offs, before Cincinnati claimed another to deny the Kansas City Chiefs a third straight Super Bowl and continue their own Cinderella story.

"You love competition and that's what the NFL delivered," Bell added. "The teams are so equal. With so many match-ups we just didn't know what was going to happen."

Joe Burrow and Ja'Marr Chase pictured as they were drafted
Burrow and Chase had very different draft experiences, with Burrow celebrating at home with his parents during the Covid lockdown while Chase was on stage with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell

The NFL tries to level the playing field by having a salary cap and distributing television revenue equally to the 32 teams, while the NFL draft gives them the chance to make immediate improvements on the field.

Teams select from the nation's best college players, with last season's worst team going first in each round and the champions last.

With the first pick in 2020, Cincinnati selected Joe Burrow. The quarterback was expected to go first having just won the national college championship and the Heisman Trophy for best college player. He also happens to be from Ohio so the Bengals are his closest team.

With the fifth pick in 2021 they chose wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase. Then with the 149th they took Evan McPherson, the only kicker to be selected in last year's draft.

It's fair to say those selections have paid off, for Cincinnati and the NFL.

Burrow brings a swagger to Cincy

The Bengals were coming off a 2-14 season in 2019 but Burrow brought a swagger to Cincinnati. He made an impressionable, young team and a city that's been starved of success believe they could become winners.

Burrow has led with a calm assuredness, introducing an air of confidence to the Bengals' locker room - and celebratory cigars.

Off the field, he's been sporting various outfits including fur coats, custom suits, turtleneck sweaters and coloured sunglasses.

"If you look up 'cool' in the dictionary there's a picture of him in some Cartier shades," Rams wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr said this week. "This guy's smooth, you can't help but like him."

Although a promising rookie season was cut short by a serious knee injury, the Bengals improved to 4-11-1 in 2020 and were expected to draft an offensive lineman to give their franchise quarterback greater protection.

Instead, Burrow wanted Chase, his former Louisiana State University team-mate, and despite still playing behind one of the league's most porous offensive lines, Burrow has been the NFL's most accurate passer in 2021 while Chase has set a rookie record for receiving yards.

Back to full fitness and with a 7-6 record late in the season, Burrow led Cincinnati to three straight wins to clinch their division title before they finished the season on 10-7.

Chase was named Rookie of the Year but Burrow has also brought the best out of tight end CJ Uzomah and running back Joe Mixon, with wide receivers Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd also proving dangerous playmakers.

The Bengals went on to claim their first play-off win in 31 years and rookie McPherson has shown his worth in the post-season, kicking all 12 field goals so far, including two game-winning kicks.

The second came after Burrow led a fightback from 21-3 down to upset the Chiefs and secure Cincy's third Super Bowl appearance.

"He elevates his team-mates and the coaches around him," said Bengals coach Zac Taylor. "This team's got really good talent, really good character, and when you believe your quarterback can take you the distance everybody plays better. When the moments are big, he plays big as well.

"He's had a big impact on Cincinnati. I'd imagine that nine or 10 months from now there's going to be a lot of new babies round the city named Joe!"

Who else has gone from worst to first?

Burrow is the first quarterback drafted first overall to reach the Super Bowl inside two years and only two teams have previously reached the big game two years after having the league's worst record.

They are the San Francisco 49ers' 1981 team, who beat the Bengals in the Super Bowl, and the 2003 Carolina Panthers, who lost to the New England Patriots.

And two teams have gone from the bottom of their division to Super Bowl glory the next year.

The Rams, then based in St Louis, improved from 4-12 to 13-3 as undrafted quarterback Kurt Warner came in for the 1999 season.

The Rams beat the Tennessee Titans for their first Super Bowl win and an offence known as 'The Greatest Show on Turf' returned to the big game two years later.

They faced a Patriots team that improved from 5-11 to 11-5 in 2001, with a certain Tom Brady replacing the injured Drew Bledsoe as their starting quarterback early in the season.

New England and coach Bill Belichick celebrated the first of six Super Bowl wins in 18 years, while Brady enjoyed a seventh with Tampa Bay last year.

The Rams and the Patriots have enjoyed small periods of dominance, but they never last long in the NFL. And the Bengals have shown this season that, if struggling teams get their draft picks right, they can catapult themselves into Super Bowl contention.

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