INGLEWOOD, Calif. – They were all dressed up with nowhere to go.
One by one the Cincinnati Bengals showed up at postgame press conference Sunday wearing the affectations of a winner, but the unsmiling looks that come in defeat.
Quarterback Joe Burrow wore a bold, black and gray tiger stripe suit and white Air Jordan 1 Dior lows, an outfit that looked better when he walked into SoFi Stadium than when he came out of the locker room after the Los Angeles Rams had stolen the oft-used, come-from-behind script the Bengals used so often this season and marched to a 23-20 victory in Super Bowl LVI.
Tight end C.J. Uzomah carried his feather-adorned safari hat to the postgame dais and safety Jessie Bates wore a ball cap with the iconic LA logo turned upside down.
But the only thing that got upended here this evening was Cincinnati’s Cinderella season. That doesn’t mean they became midnight pumpkins.
They just lost a game they could have won with some better play calling in the final minute and some better pass protection throughout the entire second half.
“Collectively, we shot ourselves in the foot,” Uzomah said.
With 54 seconds left in the game, Cincinnati had a second-and-1 situation at the Rams’ 49-yard line. They still were eight to 10 yards out of Evan McPherson’s field goal range, but coach Zac Taylor said afterward they were trying to win the gam, not tie it. But Burrow missed on a deep pass in Ja’Marr Chase’s direction on second down.
On third down, he handed off to back-up running back Samaje Perine – in the game instead of starter Joe Mixon – and Perine was stopped for no gain.
On fourth and 1, Burrow immediately was under siege by Rams’ defensive end Aaron Donald, who grabbed him around the waist and was about to pull him down for another sack – L.A. already had seven – but this time quarterback twisted free just enough to fling the ball away and see it fall incomplete.
While the Bengals’ offensive line did a good job protecting Burrow in the first half, it couldn’t keep him from becoming a piñata once gain. Six of those seven sacks came in the second half. One of them early in the fourth quarter left him with a wrenched right knee.
He hobbled off the field, but never missed a play.
Afterward he stressed: “I wasn’t coming out.”
He said he will get it checked by doctors once he gets back to Cincinnati today.
Meanwhile his counterpart, Matthew Stafford, orchestrated the most memorable drive of his 13-year NFL career. The Rams quarterback got the ball with 6:13 left and his team trailing by four points. He took them 75 yards in 15 plays and connected with Cooper Kupp, the game’s MVP, on a 1-yard touchdown pass with 85 seconds left.
Stafford to Kupp was eerily reminiscent of the final-minute TD pass from Joe Montana to John Taylor when San Francisco edged Cincinnati in the Bengals last Super Bowl appearance 33 years ago.
One big difference is the way the future looks for this team compared to the what happened to the Bengals’ Super Bowl XXIII team.
Following that title game, the franchise had just had one winning season over the next 16 years.
This team is young and talented and as Burrow said: “You’d like to think we’ll be back in this situation multiple times over the course of the next few years.”
Rookie kicker Evan McPherson – whose two field goals Sunday made him a perfect 14 for 14 in the playoffs, tying him with Adam Vinatieri – said the reason for the unbridled optimism is Burrow.
Uzomah agreed: “He should have been the (league) MVP. He’s a (expletive) dog. He immediately makes our team better when he’s in the huddle, when he’s calling plays and when he’s in the training rooms and practice. He’s telling us how to run things and how he wants them.”
One thing Burrow certainly doesn’t want is the way his first two pro seasons have ended for him.
In his 2020 rookie year, he was carted off the field during a late November game after a sack left him with a destroyed left knee that required extensive surgery.
Sunday, when he stepped off the riser following his press session, he noticeably winced when he put weight on his right knee.
He can’t continue to take the beatings he’s getting. He was sacked a league-high 51 times in the regular season. In the playoffs, he overcame nine sacks by the Titans and won. He couldn’t do the same after seven sacks by the Rams.
Sunday, Burrow completed 22 of 33 passes for 263 yards, including a 75-yard touchdown pass to Tee Higgins to open the second half.
Afterward, he didn’t belabor the sacks or say much about the TD pass. Instead he said he was disappointed in his own performance:
“I thought I could have played better and given us a better chance to win.”
Uzomah, though, said this game would fuel the entire team and especially Burrow:
“I mean, when’s the last time he lost a playoff game? In high school? And he went on a run after that.”
That high school loss came in the Division III state championship game in 2014 when Burrow threw for over 500 yards and six touchdowns, but his Athens Bulldogs fell to Toledo Central Catholic, 56-52.
“Losing the state championship game or the Super Bowl, obviously there’s different media coverage, but it feels the same to me,” he said.
As Uzomah noted, Burrow followed that high school title loss with an unbeaten season and national championship at LSU and now a change in culture, confidence and fortune for the Bengals, who had had just six wins in the two previous seasons combined.
After Sunday’s game Burrow said he had to make sure the disappointment didn’t eclipse what this team had done:
“I watched the football life of Kurt Warner last week and I kind of thought about that in the locker room now.
“It told how they lost one (Super Bowl) and he said they’d let it sting too much and didn’t celebrate what they’d accomplished. We have to remember that. This last game didn’t turn out the way we wanted it, but we had a great year and we still have something to celebrate.”
Defensive end Sam Hubbard said at the start of the season, the team, nor the fans knew what was possible: “Now we know what it takes to get to the Super Bowl. And I think we made a lot of people happy along the way.”
“Cincy is lit! Cincy is going crazy right now and even today Cincinnati fans came out here in bulk. They were going crazy. I love it. I love this city and how they backed us this year.
“I love going out and people just yelling randomly, ‘Who Dey!’ They try to stop in front of your car at a red light. It’s dope!
“Baseball started it low key when the Reds made a run. Then UC (football) started it and now we made it to the Super Bowl.
“This is just the beginning for us. And it’s going to be exciting to see the fan base grow and be a part of all that.”
So it looks like the Bengals need to hold onto those party clothes.
As McPherson put it: “We could back next year or the year after.”