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Why the Rams are actually the underdogs, not the heavily-supported Bengals

People expected the Rams, they didn’t expect the Bengals, but that doesn’t mean they don’t both deserve to be here

NFL: Super Bowl LVI-City Scenes Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Predictions are as closely related to impossible as Jason McCourty is related to Devin McCourty, but if pressed to make a pick for this Sunday’s Super Bowl, I would lean towards the Los Angeles Rams over the Cincinnati Bengals. (The Rams are currently 4-point favorites, according to DraftKings Sportsbook).

I’m just nowhere near to being as confident as most are that the narrative of this matchup is a powerhouse team against a Cinderella story.

Observers saw the Bengals as a team that entered the season with wild card hopes and the Rams as a team that would disappoint if falling anything short of a Super Bowl, but these teams were dead even well past the halfway point.

On Nov. 28, 2021, three days after your not-so-distant memories of last Thanksgiving, the Rams and Bengals were both 7-4. L.A. had lost three straight, Cincinnati had won their last two, including a 41-10 blowout of their biggest rivals in the AFC North. The Rams had +1200 Super Bowl odds, eighth-highest in the NFL, while the Bengals had the next-best odds at +2800.

L.A. was looking up at 9-2 Arizona, a two-game deficit in the NFC West.

Cincinnati was looking up at 8-3 Baltimore, just a one-game deficit in the AFC North.

The Rams also had to do more to get where they are, suggesting that it is even more surprising that Los Angeles has gotten this far than it is that Cincinnati ran through the AFC. Sean McVay had to guide the Rams to five straight wins in order to get ahead of the Cardinals, who stumbled to lose four of their last five.

Syndication: Arizona Republic Michael Chow / USA TODAY NETWORK

The Bengals lost their next two games after blowing out the Pittsburgh Steelers, and finished 3-3 over the final six. Fortunately for them, the Baltimore Ravens went 0-6 to close out the season, the Browns lost four of five games headed into the season finale when it was too late to make the playoffs, and a tie against the Detroit Lions in the middle of the season may have been the only thing keeping the Steelers from winning the division.

In the NFC West, the Rams must compete against the other NFC semi-finalists, while also holding off Kyler Murray and Russell Wilson.

In the AFC South, the Bengals saw Lamar Jackson get hurt, Ben Roethlisberger get old, and Baker Mayfield get dunked on.

This suggests that the L.A. Rams might be a stronger team and more suited to defeat any foes along their journey to win the Super Bowl, but clearly by now we can’t still be fooled to believe that the Cincinnati Bengals are just “any foe.”

The Bengals lost to the 49ers at home in overtime, but so did the Rams.

In their two meetings against the Ravens, the Bengals won 41-17 and 41-21; the Rams also beat the Ravens, but only by a single point.

Cincinnati is also 2-0 against Patrick Mahomes this season, beating the Chiefs 34-31 at home and 27-24 in Kansas City in the AFC Championship. The Bengals may have gone 10-7, but a Week 18 “sit starters” loss to the Browns is literally meaningless as it pertains to Cincinnati’s strength as a team.

The Bengals are 8-2 in their last 10 “real” games, including that loss to a San Francisco team that nearly made the Super Bowl, and a 41-22 loss to the Chargers that was 24-22 going into the fourth quarter; a Joe Mixon fumble was then returned for a touchdown (Mixon has fumbled three times in the last four seasons) and a bad punt led to a short field for another quick score.

Other than that, Cincinnati has two wins over the Chiefs, two wins over the Raiders, blowouts over the Steelers and Ravens, a road win in Denver, and a win over the top-seeded Titans, and that’s just in the last 10 games. The Bengals record is 10-7, but you could easily bump that to 11-6 if Joe Burrow and Ja’Marr Chase had played against the Browns, and they suffered two overtime losses:

In Week 5, star power kicker Evan McPherson missed a would-be game-winner from 57 yards against the Packers and lost to Green Bay in overtime. And the Bengals even had a lead in overtime in their the Week 14 loss to the 49ers, prior to giving up a touchdown. People will keep saying that Cincinnati was “only 10-7” but we all know that if they were entering this Super Bowl at 13-4 that the line in Vegas would change significantly.

Simply based on maybe two plays in the regular season and a meaningless Week 18 loss.

The Rams also have impressive wins and understandable losses on their resume. They are also a team worthy of being the Super Bowl, but I don’t think that L.A.’s perceived strengths should overshadow the fact that the Bengals are just as deserving of their ticket to the Super Bowl.

Going into the season finale, the Rams have won eight of their last nine (therefore, are also 8-2 over the last ten like Cincinnati) and they atoned for their Week 18 collapse against the 49ers with an NFC Championship comeback against the 49ers. Sean McVay has star power all over his roster and the team has more familiarity with SoFi Stadium than any other organization could possibly have at this moment. But they also have to deal with something that the Bengals do not have to deal with:

Haters.

People want to have some rooting interest in every Super Bowl and while many without a particular attachment to either team have expressed a desire to see Matthew Stafford win a championship, they have also expressed an even bigger affinity for seeing the Bengals finally win a championship.

As reported by our friends at Cincy Jungle, the majority of America will be rooting for the Bengals on Sunday. It will be a sea of orange.

At ESPN, 35 experts have picked the Rams, compared to 29 who are going with the Bengals. Among those siding with Cincinnati are Todd McShay, Field Yates, Dan Graziano, Jeremy Fowler, and Linda Cohn.

However, 18 of the 35 people to pick the Rams believe it will be by at least a touchdown, if not two.

Only five of the 29 people to pick the Bengals think the margin could be seven or more points, with the largest gap being a 43-21 Cincinnati blowout according to Chargers reporter Shelley Smith.

Clearly there is still a perception that the Rams are significantly better than the Bengals, and yet at the same time, the most common pick to win Super Bowl MVP — by far — was Joe Burrow.

Why?

Because people who aren’t Rams fans or Matthew Stafford fans really want to see the Bengals win. So by my definition, if the L.A. Rams beat the Cincinnati Bengals in the Super Bowl, that is to me, an upset.

It is a logical fallacy for anyone to “pick the Bengals to win in an upset” because you are clearly making a prediction that the best team on Sunday will be Cincinnati. All that matters is what happens on Sunday. Not what happened last January. Not what happened during midseason pickups for Von Miller and Odell Beckham Jr.. Not who the experts picked to be here last August. Not who the gamblers put bets on in March. That doesn’t determine who the favorite should be for any given game.

The only thing that determines that is “Who is the best team right now?”

It doesn’t seem like people are putting their money where their mouth is. They’re betting on the Rams—unless they’re betting on Joe Burrow to be one of the few ever Super Bowl MVPs on the losing team—but showing support for the Bengals.

That’s fine. That’s sports. That’s television. It’s the narrative, the hero’s journey, the Odyssey. Fans want a “good guy” and a “bad guy” in the Super Bowl and Stafford has made it really difficult for the L.A. Rams to be the “bad guys” on Sunday. It’s just that Cincinnati has been so low during our lifetimes that the only team in the entire NFC who they could possibly be “the bad guys” against them in a Super Bowl is the Detroit Lions. With Matthew Stafford.

It’s not that I don’t see the Rams as a potential powerhouse, as I’ve said I do think that they are the better team, but it’s that I also respect the Bengals as being in that same class. I would not see a Cincinnati win as an upset because at this time, they’ve proven themselves over the last three months to be worthy of this opportunity.

And that’s why the Rams must take them very seriously, as I’m sure they have been for the last 10 days, so that they can go out there and beat them by 30.

Then I’ll say that the Rams were the favorites.