ANALYSIS: Late penalties, pass protection issues and other key takeaways from Bengals’ Super Bowl loss

INGLEWOOD, Calif. – Another Super Bowl, another heartbreak. The Cincinnati Bengals lost their third Super Bowl in much the same fashion as their other two and will have to wait at least another year for the franchise’s first NFL championship.

The Bengals gave up the goal-ahead touchdown with 1:25 left and fell 23-20 to the L.A. Rams in Super Bowl LVI on Sunday at SoFi Stadium. Joe Burrow and the offense were stopped before they could cross midfield on the final drive.

Cincinnati was playing in its first Super Bowl since the 1988 season, which ended with a 20-16 loss to the San Francisco 49ers. The organization’s only other appearance in the championship game was in 1981, also a narrow loss to the 49ers. All three Super Bowl losses have been by five points or less.

Here are five takeaways from the loss:

1. Disappointing ending

Cincinnati surprised just by getting this far in quarterback Joe Burrow’s second season, especially coming back from major knee surgery, and turning things around so quickly after winning a combined six games the previous two years.

However, being so close to their first championship made the sting perhaps even worse.

Owner Mike Brown and his family walked somberly past reporters after the game as they were making their way out of the stadium. Brown has been waiting for that Super Bowl ring since his father, Paul Brown, founded the team 54 years ago. Prior to this season, Cincinnati hadn’t won a playoff game since the year before Mike Brown became the team owner in 1991.

“It’s tough to fight and get this far and not finish it off,” Bengals coach Zac Taylor said. “I’m really proud of the way our team played. They gave us tremendous effort and put us in a position to win. We just needed one more stop, one more score there at the end to be champions. Hats off to the Rams, they got it done.”

2. Penalties, pace hurt defense

The Rams got the ball with 6:13 left, facing a four-point deficit, and drove 72 yards on 15 plays for the lead. Stafford completed a fourth-and-1 pass from his own 30-yard line, and after that, the Rams went no-huddle for most of the next four minutes to cruise down the field.

On third-and-goal at the 8-yard line, Logan Wilson broke up a pass to the end zone but was flagged for holding, giving the Rams the first down and moving them half the distance to the goal. Two more Bengals’ penalties and two additional plays later, Stafford connected with Cooper Kupp for the winning touchdown.

“We just didn’t make the plays when we needed to,” Bengals cornerback Mike Hilton said. “We got some questionable calls, I’m going to be honest, but that’s name of the game. We shouldn’t have been in that situation when we had opportunities to get out the field on third and fourth down.”

Kupp was the game’s MVP, finishing with 92 yards and two touchdowns.

Cincinnati also had a bad penalty late in the first half when inactive cornerback Vernon Hargreaves ran on the field to celebrate a Jessie Bates’ interception in the endzone, which prevented L.A. from extending a 13-10 lead just before the two-minute warning. The unsportsmanlike conduct penalty put the Bengals on the 10-yard line instead of the 20, and they ended up punting.

3. Rams pressure changed game

Cincinnati allowed just one sack in the first half, but as the Rams pressure started breaking down the offensive line better in the second half, the Bengals didn’t have a solution.

Burrow was sacked a Super Bowl-record seven times, including twice on a drive that began at the L.A. 31-yard line and ended in an Evan McPherson field goal for the Bengals’ final points of the game with 10:15 left in the third quarter. Aaron Donald was hitting him as he threw a last-ditch pass that Samaje Perine just missed on fourth-and-1 to end the game. Ja’Marr Chase had Jalen Ramsey beat, if Burrow just had a bit more time.

Another two-sack drive resulted in a three-and-out, and Burrow was injured on his last sack of the game with about 12 minutes left. He hobbled off the field as the punt unit came on, but he never sought medical attention on his right knee and went back in the game the next drive.

Asked if using more screens might have helped, Taylor said the coaches will analyze everything on film, but the Rams didn’t do anything unexpected.

“That’s the problem is every tape we’ve watched they hit every single quarterback almost on every single snap,” Taylor said. “And so it’s a challenge. I thought our guys did a tremendous job early in the game managing that. As the game gets on, they did a good job creating that pressure.”

4. Where was Joe Mixon?

The Bengals had five third-and-1 or fourth-and-1 situations, and they didn’t use Joe Mixon on any of them. They converted just one of those, a fourth-and-1 scramble for Burrow.

On the opening drive, Perine carried the ball on third-and-1 for no gain, then Burrow’s pass intended for Chase fell incomplete for a turnover on downs at midfield. The Rams went down and scored to take the first lead at 7-0.

The Bengals gave the ball to Perine on third-and-1 on the final drive and he was stopped short of the first down before they tried a pass on the final play. Burrow said he was just trying to make something happen before he went down for a sack.

“We just did the things we thought we needed to do to win the game,” Taylor said when asked about going away from the run.

Mixon finished with 72 yards on 15 carries.

5. A few bright spots

Cincinnati played well enough to have a chance in the end.

Usually the winner of the turnover battle has a good chance to win a game, but the defense’s two interceptions weren’t enough even with no offensive miscues. Bates’ third pick of the season helped the Bengals stay close going into halftime, and Chidobe Awuzie had an interception on the Rams’ first drive of the second half after Cincinnati took its first lead.

That momentum allowed the Bengals to build on their cushion, though they settled for a field goal despite starting at L.A.’s 31-yard line. McPherson did his part all postseason and that was the case Sunday, as he made both his field goal attempts to tie Adam Vinatieri’s 2006 record of 14 field goals in a postseason. McPherson didn’t miss at all in the playoffs.

“I really just try to take it one game of a time and obviously, I had the goal to break that record and you know we tied it, so, I mean that is cool and all, but it sucks we didn’t win,” McPherson said. “I will say that I am honored to be up there with Adam and everything that he has accomplished, and you know all his records are kind of what I’m striving for in my career. It is a cool moment for me but it sucks we didn’t win.”

Tee Higgins might have been up for MVP if the Bengals won. He caught four passes for 100 yards and two touchdowns, including a 75-yarder to open the second half. His first touchdown of the game came on a pass from Mixon for 6 yards with 5:47 left in the second quarter to trim a 13-3 deficit to three points.

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