Cincinnati lost the Super Bowl to the Los Angeles Rams, yet better game management by the head coach Zac Taylor could have made the difference in the Bengals pulling the upset and lifting the Vince Lombardi championship trophy. Running back Joe Mixon was not on the field for both of Cincinnati’s failed fourth-and-one opportunities. In hindsight, this looks like an inexplicable failure on Taylor’s part to put his best players in a position to succeed.
Taylor would later say that Samaji Perine “deserved” the opportunity to be on the field in those situations. The Bengals’ players and fans (and bettors) deserved to have their best running back in Mixon be given the opportunity to get the one-yard necessary to continue the drive. Mixon averaged 4.8 yards per carry in the Super Bowl but was only given 15 rushing attempts in the game. Perhaps it is understandable why Taylor kept Perine on the field for their fourth-down attempt in the first quarter given his ball-catching skills. But for Taylor to not use a timeout to get Mixon into the game when the Bengals had a fourth-and-one on their final drive and about ten yards away from getting into placekicker Evan McPherson’s field goal range for a potential game-tying kick was simply inexcusable. That mistake might have cost Cincinnati the Super Bowl.
Neither of the Super Bowl teams had impeccable credentials entering this game, yet observers that were discounting Cincinnati’s chances made a mistake by not focusing on their most recent run of games. After an embarrassing 41-16 midseason loss at home to in-state rival Cleveland, the Bengals followed that up with a hard-fought 26-23 loss at home to San Francisco. Cincinnati’s prospects did not look promising at that point, despite not many appreciating how impressive the close loss with the 49ers would like in hindsight. Since that loss to the eventual loser in the NFC championship game (who had beaten the Rams twice this season), the Bengals won six of seven games. The play of their defense has improved as they held five of those seven opponents to 21 or fewer points. They stymied Kansas City to just a field goal in the second half in both weeks 17 and in the AFC championship game.
In the playoffs, Cincinnati had six interceptions going into the Super Bowl. Their defense then faced Matthew Stafford who threw 17 interceptions this season with four returned for touchdowns. While much of the conversation in the two weeks before the Super Bowl included a coronation of Stafford in his first year out of Detroit, what was being forgotten is how different he would be treated if the Bengals had not dropped his errant pass midway through the fourth quarter in the NFC championship game which should have been his 18th interception of the season. Sean McVay only had Stafford throw 17 passes in their opening playoff game against Arizona. If Stafford had finally solved his interception problem, McVay did not seem to be convinced of this just a month before the Super Bowl. The Bengals found success in the second half against the Chiefs in the AFC championship game by relying on a three-man pass rush which allowed them to use eight defenders in pass coverage. One of the advantages of a pass defense like this is that it takes the power out of offensive head coaches like Andy Reid and now McVay since it is difficult for these masterminds to simply scheme out of the challenge. These defenses can be beaten, but it requires the quick-thinking skills of the quarterback. This had not been a strength for Stafford in his career.
Joe Burrow, on the other hand, was playing with the utmost confidence and seemingly pressure-free with his career still ahead of him. Cincinnati is well ahead of its rebuilding plan. Isn’t it interesting that six of seven-run going into the Super Bowl was about eleven months after Burrow suffered his season-ending knee injury last season? Burrow worked himself to be available to begin the year, yet doctors often claim it takes a full twelve months to fully recover from injuries like that. The Bengals' late-season surge coincides with that timeline. Cincinnati covered the point spread in nine of their eleven games against winning teams this season, with eight of those nine covers occurring in the second half of the season. The Rams covered the point spread in just three of their nine games against winning teams this season. Considering that the underdog has covered the point spread in eleven of the last eighteen Super Bowls since 2003, we expected that dog trend to continue with this improving Bengals team.
Cincinnati was in a position to win the Super Bowl if only had Taylor better managed those final moments. Now the Bengals will go from the hunter to the hunted next season. Defending their AFC North title will be a challenge with four games against two of the best and most consistent franchises in the league in the Baltimore Ravens and the Pittsburgh Steelers with another two games against the very talented Cleveland Browns. Dan Marino made the Super Bowl in his second year in the NFL but was never able to get his Miami Dolphins back in the big game. Could Burrow suffer the same fate?
Good luck - TDG.