Super Bowl musings: No moral victory for Bengals, but something to build on

Credit: Chris O'Meara

Credit: Chris O'Meara

Well, the Bengals lost the Super Bowl. I was surprised they were in it, but I thought they could win it.

Actually, I kinda thought they WOULD in it (unlike the previous two games), and the way it played out displayed exactly why there was reason to believe in the Bengals and why the Rams were the favorites.

Some thoughts:

  • When the Rams got the ball with 4:48 left I said that was gonna be the drive to decide the game because the Bengals weren’t likely to score again, and if the Rams were going to score, they would need more than two minutes. The Rams converted a fourth down with a smart play call (end around to Cooper Kupp) and then got the benefit of some ref calls later in the drive.
  • Some are upset about those flags, but my position on NFL pass defense officiating is like college basketball officiating in general: The rules are enforced so poorly and inconstantly that I am shocked if nothing goes wrong. I guess I’m kind of numb to it at this point. For certain, they had let a lot go earlier in the game, but I thought live it looked like Logan Wilson grabbed his man on that critical third down that set up the game-losing sequence. Upon further review, his hand was there, but he appears not to have grabbed the receiver.
  • Joe Burrow was good, but he had to be great. They got big plays (one each) from Ja’Marr Chase and Tee Higgins. They ran the ball better than expected and totally dominated the Rams’ running game, putting the onus on Matthew Stafford to win the game for L.A. — and he did. But the Bengals pass rush, a huge strength all year, faded and the Bengals offensive line, a huge weakness, fell apart. Only one of those was a surprise, but it took both to keep Cincinnati out of the winner’s circle.
  • The way this game played out that way showed exactly how much was on Burrow’s shoulders and why what he did to get them there was so remarkable. He was playing with only half a deck, only so many chances to make a big play, and he often managed to hit them anyway. He had a QB rating of 100 despite getting sacked or knocked down 18 times plus however many more pressures disrupted his ability to do anything.
  • Burrow has been so impressive the past few weeks that everyone is able to do what I just did and almost casually conclude, “Well, he was good, but he needed to be great,” like it’s already just assumed that is the case. This is remarkable because he should continue to get better with more experience. The more he sees, the more he can process that much faster and defeat. But he almost won it anyway.
  • Ultimately, the Rams were built to win it all. That was almost an all-star team. They went all-in (trading away lots of future assets) and got it done — barely — against a team that was built to win 7-8 games at most. That doesn’t get you a parade through Fountain Square, but it is worth noting.
  • Let’s call a spade a spade: The Bengals were fortunate to get this far. To a certain extent, any team is (the Rams were a play or two away from losing to the Buccaneers and 49ers in the playoffs), which is also why they say you can never assume you’ll be back. Dan Marino lost a Super Bowl his second season and never returned despite having good teams pretty much every year.
  • You need the injury luck the Bengals had, and that isn’t common. But on the bright side, they should be able to fill holes and build depth to be able to withstand more injuries AND be less reliant on big plays to swing games.
  • That the Bengals overachieved is of course no guarantee they’ll be back, but there are a lot of pieces in place. They have the money to add multiple offensive linemen this offseason, and they can still use the draft to strengthen various other positions. The defense needs some more pieces, especially in the back seven. Then maybe they can be good all the time instead of half the time.
  • The Bengals need to realize — and probably do — that just upgrading the offensive line isn’t enough for the offense. The scheme also needs a fairly significant face lift, though that becomes a lot easier if there are more plays you can block.
  • So how to feel now? I guess there is nothing to feel for this season but appreciation. Every year you don’t win it all has some disappointment, but some have enough joy to overcome that. Making the playoffs ahead of schedule could pay off down the line by making future teams better, either by fostering a greater belief in what they can do next year or by attracting better free agents (or both). The last nine years, a team with a strong case to be considered the most talented team in the league — or the Patriots — has won the Super Bowl. The Bengals have a chance to be one of the most talented teams — or the Patriots — for the next few years, right? Maybe that’s going too far, but is it out of the question? I don’t think so.
  • The 2021 Bengals made great strides, exercised some demons and broke some hearts — both of opposing teams and their own fans. A win would have changed the franchise forever, not only ushering them into the champions club but removing any doubt they could win it all. That creates a certain kind of respect from opponents and pride from fans that can last for many years. The run still reset a lot of narratives that were long past their expiration date, though. Not moral victory, but a building block to be sure, and something to feel good about.

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