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What? The Bengals are in the Super Bowl? Someone tell Deirdre!

One of the funny things about working in sports media for more than a decade is you assume everyone knows when the Super Bowl is. After all, over the past half century the NFL’s championship game has developed into less a sporting event than a cultural one, with more eyeballs often keyed on the commercials and halftime show than the football. I have generally figured the Super Bowl, if not on your social calendar, was at least in your general field of awareness.

Then I came to Stern and learned that, apparently, not everyone schedules their lives around football games. Whoops!

Here’s a fun true story. The first time I met our erstwhile Editor-in-Chief Deirdre – the first time I met anyone from Stern after enrolling for that matter – was for the first Oppy meeting of Spring 2020. As fate would have it, Deirdre decided the ideal time for this meeting was at 5 p.m. on Super Bowl Sunday. Kickoff, I should note, is always at roughly 6:30 p.m.

When I raised this as a potential conflict for some of the Oppy board, Deirdre was nonplussed, having no idea the game was happening that day and assuming that, surely, we’d have plenty of time to run through our agenda and travel home by the coin toss. So, as I watched the first quarter of Super Bowl LIV (which was really good!) on my iPhone while speedwalking through a downpour to a nearby friend’s apartment, I thought, “Is business school for me? Do these people understand my worldview?”

I am happy to report two years later that business school has very much been for me, and I’m actually quite fond of Deirdre, even if I had to remind her again this year when the Super Bowl is. But the best part about all of this is thanks to the NFL’s new 17-game regular season, the Super Bowl now falls after we release our February issue. Now the only thing the Super Bowl will conflict with is Valentine’s Day, and I see no way that can cause issues with my personal life. Nosiree bob.

Anyways, if you made it through that neurotic preamble, you are probably more interested in the game than whether or not Deirdre is going to be watching this year (my guess is no). And I have to tell you, as someone who has watched the past 28 Super Bowls, slept with football history books under his pillow as a kid, and fancies himself as a low-level expert on the subject, this is a weird one.

Super Bowl LVI kicks off next Sunday night, and the Lombardi Trophy is coming down to the Los Angeles Rams, a team widely expected to contend most of the season, and the Cincinnati Bengals.

The Bengals.

The Cincinnati Bengals.

Yeah, that team. The one with the tiger stripes. Break out the Skyline Chili.

So here’s the interesting thing about being a self-proclaimed Super Bowl expert and being under 40 years old: The sentence, “The Cincinnati Bengals are in the Super Bowl” just doesn’t really, well, make very much sense to me? This is literally a series of words I’ve never conceived of seeing in that particular order.

You might be sitting on the outside here and be like, “Well, Dave. They did win their division this year, and quarterback Joe Burrow has had a track record of success between his rookie season and his college career at LSU, where he won a national championship.” And sure, that’s all true. But the thing is the Bengals, throughout my life, have been – how do I put this delicately? – the worst-run team in professional sports?

Oh, they’ve had flashes of near glory to be sure. When Carson Palmer and Andy Dalton were young men, the Bengals actually won their division four times between 2005 and 2015, with seven playoff appearances in that span. That’s actually a better track record than most teams, including my New York Giants, who won two Super Bowls during that stretch. 

But before this “magical” run, the Bengals of Dave Klingler and Carl Pickens, the Bengals of my formative football youth, were a special kind of bad. From 1991 to 2000 the Bengals won a total of 47 games. They lost 113. The first time the Bengals made the playoffs when I was old enough to understand it was a few months after I turned 19. This is Cincinnati’s first Super Bowl appearance since 1988. The last time Cincinnati had even won a playoff game before this year (1990) most current Sternies weren’t alive. The team the Bengals beat that year, the Houston Oilers, moved to Tennessee 25 years ago. Recent seasons haven’t been measurably better. Last year the Bengals won a grand total of four games.

Even if the phrase “The Bengals are in the Super Bowl” doesn’t seem objectively strange to you, this isn’t a surprise Super Bowl participant like the 1999 St. Louis Rams or the Chiefs of two years ago, a team that you weren’t used to seeing in the big game, but had been dominant throughout the regular season and established its bonafides. No, the 10-win Bengals were the last team standing after the brutal four-month war of attrition that was the AFC North this season. They beat a Raiders team that was lucky to be here in the first round of the playoffs before shocking the top-seeded Titans and the Chiefs, maybe the NFL’s best team, on walk-off field goals each of the next two rounds. 

The Bengals were hardly inevitable. Many, myself included, considered this nice ride an afterthought after Kansas City outdueled Buffalo in the second round. That was a game so wild, so exciting, so entertaining, that many considered it the real Super Bowl this season, and maybe the greatest NFL game ever played.

And yet, Burrow, Ja’Marr Chase, Joe Mixon, and the rest of the Bengals weren’t paying attention to that, I guess. All they did was march into the home of the NFL’s best team over the past four years and erase an 18-point deficit to earn their first AFC Championship since the Reagan administration.

There is a cliche in sports that some teams can be too young and aloof to realize they aren’t supposed to win it all just yet. It’s a dangerous psychological edge that can leave established foes scrambling. The only thing standing in the way of the Bengals is another recent NFL power. Yes, L.A. quarterback Matthew Stafford may have never won a playoff game in 12 seasons before this year, but the blame for that rests largely on the front office of the Detroit Lions, for whom he toiled the first decade-plus of his career. The rest of the team is stacked and experienced, while the franchise is only three years removed from its last Super Bowl appearance.

But that sort of razzmatazz hasn’t really overwhelmed the Bengals yet. Given the cocky confidence of Burrow, Cincinnati’s elite collection of offensive playmakers, and a defense that has risen to the occasion with guile and clever play-calling throughout the postseason, there’s no real reason to think the Bengals will be overwhelmed this time. As a fan who has seen his own team go on wild title runs like this multiple times, some contenders just have “that thing” going on. As weird as it is for me to see the Bengals in a Super Bowl, their performance in the playoffs makes it hard to deny that they have “that thing,” and it makes it hard to believe the magic will run out now.

Anyways, I think the Rams are going to win. Probably by a lot. But, hey, I’ve been wrong before! The important thing is, I’ll make sure Deirdre knows the outcome when it’s over.

Photo credit: https://www.sportingnews.com/ca/nfl/news/joe-burrow-jamarr-chase-lsu-bengals/1g39z6cuahktb1ub5aobgiomze

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