By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) -- The Cincinnati Bengals are in the Super Bowl. This has been known for a little while. It still hasn't sunken in.
Depending on your age, it's possible that you've never seen the Cincinnati Bengals have any sort of legitimacy in your entire life. Prior to this year, they hadn't won a single playoff game since January of 1991, a casual 31-year break from winning in the postseason. They only even played in seven playoff games during the three-decade drought, losing by an average of 12.2 points in those contests. (They almost won in the 2015 playoffs against Pittsburgh, when the took a one-point lead with 1:50 left to play. But then Vontaze Burfict happened. It was very Bengaly.)
Now, the Cincinnati Bengals are nails. They are just nails.
Their coach was a nobody when he got the job a few years ago, and he promptly compiled a cool 6-25 record in his first two seasons on the job. He's now in the Super Bowl.
Their quarterback is a picture of cool, sure, but he still entered this postseason with 26 games of NFL experience and a sub-.500 record to his name. Then he went and won the Bengals their first playoff game since almost six years before he was even born, then he beat the No. 1 seed in the conference on the road, then he won an overtime slugfest with Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs. In Kansas City. Now he plans on beating the Rams in the Super Bowl, in their home stadium.
Their leading receiver is a rookie, one whose selection made everybody point and laugh at the Bengals for not addressing their porous offensive line.
Their kicker, who is impervious to pressure, is a rookie (and looks to be about 15 years old). Likewise, when the Bengals drafted a kicker, some chuckles were chuckled. He's now 12-for-12 in the playoffs, drilling a 52-yard game-winner in Tennessee after hitting a 54-yarder earlier in the game, then hitting a 52-yarder to take a fourth-quarter lead in KC a week later.
It was a decent draft year for the team that selected receiver John Ross one spot in front of Patrick Mahomes less than five years ago.
They also nailed their free-agent signings in Trey Hendrickson, Chidobe Awuzie and Mike Hilton, and here they are. In the Super Bowl. The CINCINNATI BENGALS. In the Super Bowl.
An earlier generation saw this once, with the '88 Bengals making it to the Super Bowl but losing a close one to Joe Montana and the 49ers. Despite an 11-for-25 for 144 yards with no touchdowns and one interception performance from Boomer Esiason, the Bengals led Super Bowl XXII in the fourth quarter. But then Joe Montana did Joe Montana things, and Cincinnati enjoyed zero success for a cool 33 years. (As an aside: Jerry Rice caught 11 passes for 215 yards and a touchdown in that game. LOL.)
But everybody aged 40 and younger has never seen this. And frankly, we weren't prepared for it. How could we have been?
Now, having shared that astonishment and awe that the team with the striped tiger helmets is in the Super Bowl, I must be frank. I don't like their chances.
The fact that they made it this far with that offensive line is a miracle. A freaking football miracle.
PFF ranked that group as the 20th-best (or 13th-worst, depending on your outlook) group in the NFL this year. They've looked a whole lot worse than that this postseason. Burrow took five hits and two sacks vs. the Raiders before taking a ridiculous 13 hits and nine sacks vs. the Titans. Bengals running backs had just 140 total rushing yards in those first two games, too. They cleaned it up a bit in the conference championship, with Burrow taking just four hits and one sack, and with Joe Mixon running for 88 yards on 21 carries, but there's been enough doubt cast on that group to have some serious concerns about ...
And Von Miller.
And Leonard Floyd. And Greg Gaines. And ... you get the point.
So, for the same reasons I liked the Rams against an injury-weakened Bucs offensive line, I like the Rams against a low-on-talent Bengals offensive line. And it's enough to make me go with the Rams.
At the same time, I don't think it's a slam dunk.
For one, I once witnessed a Super Bowl where Aaron Donald spent the entire game residing in the back pocket of Joe Thuney. He got dominated and eliminated. I don't know if the Bengals have that in them, but it's a possibility.
I also can't get this one Joe Burrow play out of my head:
Special play. Special player. I don't discount the possibility of Burrow rising to the occasion on a stage like this. (He did throw for 956 yards with 12 touchdowns with no interceptions, while also rushing for 79 yards and two touchdowns in the College Football Playoffs a couple of years ago, you know.)
I also look at Sean McVay and Matthew Stafford and see two guys who are all too often desperate to give away football games. Had it not been for Jaquiski Tartt temporarily losing control of his arms, we wouldn't be talking about this Stafford redemption story. We'd be talking about the Rams blowing their bid in the conference championship.
So it's not a 1000 percent lock, and I think my heart is with Burrow. But just looking at the damage and disruption that the Rams are capable of causing on the line of scrimmage, the smart pick is with the real home team.
The Pick: Los Angeles Rams (-4.5) over Cincinnati
Conf. Champ.: 2-0
Regular season: 152-119-1
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