After a string of five Super Bowls featuring either Tom Brady or Patrick Mahomes, the Cincinnati Bengals’ Joe Burrow and the Los Angeles Rams’ Matthew Stafford made sure that trend didn’t continue.
Two weeks from now, the Bengals will face the Rams at SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, California, in the Super Bowl on Feb. 13. It will be only the second time that two quarterbacks who were No. 1 draft picks will face off in the championship game (Peyton Manning and Cam Newton were the first pair in 2016).
Both quarterbacks survived close calls Sunday to get there. Burrow led the Bengals to a second-half comeback against the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC championship game to advance to his first Super Bowl, the third in Cincinnati’s franchise history. A few hours later, the Rams advanced to their second Super Bowl since the 2018 season after getting past the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC championship game.
In just his second season as an NFL starter, Burrow made the Bengals’ postseason aspirations a reality, ending the team’s streak of 31 years without a playoff win. Cincinnati finished the regular season with a 10-7 record and one of the league’s hottest offenses, powered by Burrow’s poise, a record-setting season by rookie receiver Ja’Marr Chase and a career rushing season from running back Joe Mixon. Chase, who topped 1,400 receiving yards in the regular season, caught a game-tying touchdown Sunday.
The group, which is as young and inexperienced as any team in the postseason, got past Derek Carr and the Las Vegas Raiders in overtime in the wild-card round. Then the Bengals used a walk-off field goal against the AFC’s top-seeded Tennessee Titans to win the divisional round. On Sunday, the team stunned Kansas City, the AFC’s two-time defending conference champion, in the conference title game — keyed by a defense that stifled Mahomes, Kansas City’s superstar quarterback.
Burrow, whom the Bengals drafted with the No. 1 pick in 2020, won a Heisman Trophy in college and led Louisiana State to an undefeated season in 2019, capped by a dominant win over Clemson in the national championship.
After that win, many remember the image of Burrow, Chase and their teammates smoking cigars in celebration. Odell Beckham Jr., the Rams receiver and who formerly played for Louisiana State, was filmed giving out cash after the game.
Burrow’s success in his final season at LSU foreshadowed the successful and electrifying NFL quarterback he had the potential to be. His confidence was lauded by teammates, and he has been credited with implementing a winning culture in Cincinnati, despite not even playing a full season his rookie year.
After he tore multiple ligaments in his left knee in Week 11, he faced a test of how he would respond.
“I’m sure there was a lot of uncertainty on his end,” Bengals coach Zac Taylor told reporters this week. “He wanted to respond the right way.”
Rams general manager Les Snead brought in Stafford during the offseason after the team decided that Jared Goff, who led the Rams to a Super Bowl after the 2018 season, was not its best quarterback for the future. Stafford, who was known for his big arm, had built a formidable reputation as the Detroit Lions’ quarterback. Yet he had never won in three postseason appearances with Detroit, something that many credited to a lack of talent around him.
In Los Angeles, he forged a connection with one of the most productive receivers in football, Cooper Kupp, and found another weapon in receiver Van Jefferson. After deep threat Robert Woods tore an anterior cruciate ligament during the season, Stafford was given another reliable target in Beckham, who was one of the most talented receivers in the NFL but had been a poor fit with his previous team, the Cleveland Browns.
Snead’s methods of putting together this Super Bowl-caliber team have been unconventional and aggressive. He decided to forgo draft picks for established, impactful players like Beckham, who gave Stafford a dependable second target to replace Woods. Los Angeles also plucked a former Super Bowl MVP, Von Miller, from the Denver Broncos to play alongside dominant defensive end Aaron Donald. The Rams also added running back Sony Michel in a trade with the New England Patriots when Cam Akers tore an Achilles tendon before the season.
That added up to a team that many predicted had too much talent not to reach this stage.
Los Angeles’ road to the Super Bowl was not without bumps, however, as Stafford piled up late-game turnovers down the stretch. But after throwing 17 interceptions during the regular season, he has turned the ball over just once in the playoffs.
The Rams glided past Arizona in the wild-card round and survived a Tampa Bay comeback attempt in the divisional round, with Stafford using a long pass to Kupp late in the game to set up a winning field goal. Then, on Sunday, Los Angeles outlasted the 49ers in a close NFC championship game.
The Super Bowl matchup appears to favor the Rams, who indeed opened as a 4-point betting favorite in sportsbooks. Taylor, who has been the Bengals’ head coach since 2019, was the Rams’ quarterbacks coach under coach Sean McVay before that. He was with the team from 2017-18 and was a part of Los Angeles’ Super Bowl run.
Los Angeles seems to have the advantage in terms of pass rush, with Donald, Miller and Leonard Floyd waiting to face Cincinnati’s much-maligned offensive line.
The Bengals allowed the most sacks (51) during the regular season, but that only made Burrow’s elevated passing numbers all the more impressive. He had 4,611 passing yards and 34 touchdowns during the regular season, and has tacked on more than 800 yards and four touchdowns in the postseason.
Stafford, after throwing for 41 touchdowns in the regular season, had six passing touchdowns in the playoffs, including two straight 300-yard passing games.
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