By Hannah Bowater

After waiting 55 years for a team to make a Superbowl appearance in their home stadium, the NFL got its second in a row this year as the re-born Cincinnati Bengals travelled to take on the L.A Rams in their brand new home of So-Fi Stadium located in the heart of Los Angeles County, California.

The two teams couldn’t have had more different expectations heading into the season. For the Bengals, this season saw the return of number one overall draft pick, QB Joe Burrow, from a knee injury as the Bengals aimed to win a playoff game for the first time in 31 years. Whilst over in the City of Angels however, the expectations were very, very different.

The Rams had an already productive offseason electing to replace struggling quarterback Jared Goff via a trade with the long-suffering Detroit Lions for their QB1 Matthew Stafford. The goal was clear: return to the Superbowl and do what Jared Goff was unable to do when he got there with the team in 2019 – win it.

It wasn’t until the 2021 season was already underway though that the league got to see how serious the Rams were that this was their year when they traded for Superbowl 50 MVP, Von Miller, of the Denver Broncos on November 1st. The move sent shockwaves throughout the NFL but the social media admin of the Rams was nonplussed, tweeting a gif of the 1998 movie Rounders. The gif of John Malkovich throwing all his chips on the table was accompanied by three simple words: “We’re all in.”

The question was – would the gamble pay off? It didn’t for John Malkovich’s character in the movie who was beaten by a young Matt Damon.

The only problem was – that the Rams weren’t finished. 10 days after they were “all in,” they went further still by adding former Offensive Rookie of the Year, wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. who had just been released by the Cleveland Browns. The quest for the Lombardi was truly on.

However, it wasn’t all plain sailing as a loss in overtime to the 49ers in the final game of the regular season saw the Rams slip down to the Number 4 seed in the NFC. The team took this in their stride however as they easily brushed aside Kyler Murray’s Arizona Cardinals; beat Tom Brady in what briefly looked to be the final game of his career; all before getting payback on San Francisco for that overtime loss in Week 17 to reach football’s biggest game.

All that stood between the Rams and their coveted 2nd Lombardi was the Cincinnati Bengals. The Bengals, fresh off a comeback win in overtime against Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs, arrived at their first Superbowl since 1988, looking to claim their maiden Lombardi Trophy and they would not be pushed aside without a fight.

Things started well for the Rams with Stafford connecting to OBJ for a touchdown in the first quarter with the Bengals only able to reply with a field goal. Stafford then found this season’s Offensive Player of the Year and Received Triple Crown star, Cooper Kupp, in the endzone for a second touchdown. A bad snap on the extra point though meant the Rams were unable to capitalize and led 13-3. Would this mistake prove to be a costly turning point?

It looked that way as the Bengals drove down the field and scored a touchdown on a trick play as running back Joe Mixon threw to Tee Higgins to bring the Bengals back into play with only a 3 point deficit. Things only got worse for the Rams from there as Stafford was picked off on an attempted deep pass to Van Jefferson on 3rd and 14 by Bengals safety Jessie Bates. Luckily for Stafford, the Bengals were unable to do anything with their possession and were forced to punt.

Following a star-studded halftime show – consisting of performances from Mary J. Blige, Eminem, Snoop Dogg, Dr Dre, Kendrick Lamar with surprise appearances from 50 Cent and Anderson.Paak – the football got back underway with the Rams aiming to hold on to their lead.

The Bengals had other ideas though as they came racing out of the blocks scoring a 75-yard touchdown on the first play of the half. The play was not without controversy however as replays showed that Jalen Ramsey had not merely tripped whilst covering Tee Higgins who claimed his second TD of the night. It was instead a blatant pull to his facemask which brought one of the NFL’s most talented cornerbacks to the ground.

With the score now 13-17 in favour of the visitors, things were about to get worse before they got better for the Rams as Matthew Stafford was picked off (again) on his first play of the 3rd quarter.

Things were starting to look rough for the Rams with the Bengals comfortably driving down the field and into the RedZone until they approached the NFL’s greatest defensive player – three-time Defensive Player of the Year, Aaron Donald. Donald made his first meaningful play of the game at the perfect time, sacking Joe Burrow on third down and forcing the Bengals to settle for a field goal. The Rams then failed to convert their RedZone opportunity minutes later when a failed trick play forced the kicking unit on for a successful 41-yard attempt.

After a couple of 3 and outs for both teams, the game took another turn as the Bengals franchise quarterback was seen grabbing his knee before limping off the field after being sacked on 3rd down. Burrow was able to soldier on to complete the game but the Bengals were forced to resort to a more run-heavy offence given Burrow’s injury. The first dropped pass of Tyler Boyd’s season couldn’t have come at a worse time than the 3rd and 9 passes from Burrow which forced the Bengals to punt to the Rams.

Down 16-20, with only 6 minutes left in the game, the Rams needed a touchdown to have any chance of winning. No better time to truly light up the connection that had been on fire all season. Despite his two interceptions, Matthew Stafford connected when it mattered to Cooper Kupp, driving down the field for the go-ahead touchdown. Not for the first time in the game, controversy hit with a somewhat invisible holding call on Bengals’ line-backer Logan Wilson in the lead-up to the touchdown. Bengals fans were seething, Rams fans argued it made up for the missed facemask on Jalen Ramsey which resulted in a Bengals touchdown.

And now the ball fell to Joe Burrow with 1 minute 25 seconds left on the clock to save the Bengals who were now down 23-20. The drive began promisingly as Burrow connected to his favourite target, Offensive Rookie of the Year Ja’Marr Chase, for a big gain.

The game’s deciding moment came on 4th down at midfield, with the Bengals needing just 1 yard to keep their Superbowl dreams alive.

Up steps that man again. The man whose jersey number mirrors his Madden rating – 99. He wouldn’t go on to be named the Superbowl MVP – that honour would go to Cooper Kupp – but he got to do something far sweeter.

Aaron Donald sacked a desperate Burrow who was able to get the ball away…but it was all in vain. And as the ball hit the ground, and the multi-million dollar roof was blown off So-Fi Stadium, the NFL could merely tip their hat to the Rams whose ‘all in’ gamble had paid off.


Photo Credit: Adrien Curiel via Unsplash