INGLEWOOD, Calif. — Sometime a few days before Super Bowl Week, when the Bengals got a bit of a break before everything ramped up and the team headed to California, Joe Burrow watched “A Football Life: Kurt Warner.”
“He said they let it sting too much,” Burrow recalled. “They didn’t celebrate what they accomplished. Obviously it stings, but we had a great year, didn’t come out this last game the way we wanted to, but I think we still have something to celebrate.”
The Bengals didn’t come this far to only come this far, but for head coach Zac Taylor and the small group of players who went to postgame podiums, the feeling was largely the same: There is still plenty to be proud of for this team, which won two games two years ago and four last year before winning the AFC North this season and going on a memorable postseason run.
“We’ve been working for the last six months, played 21 games, and then you lose the Super Bowl, it’s not a lot of fun,” Taylor said. But he expressed a fondness for this roster. “Proud of them. Special group. It stings right now, but you gotta find a way to really cherish what this group had together. It’s a special group. It’s rare that you get to coach a team like this. This team means a lot. I’m proud of the way they fought. I thought they did a lot for our team, our organization, and for our city. And they need to be proud of that.”
Before their wild-card win over the Raiders, the Bengals hadn’t won a playoff game in 31 years — or before text messaging was a thing. They overcame Burrow being sacked nine times against the Titans, and won the AFC championship in overtime.
They were down by three points at halftime of the Super Bowl. In a matter of minutes once the second half kicked off, the Bengals took control of the game.
On the opening play of the third quarter, Burrow was pressured out of the pocket to his right and found Tee Higgins on the left sideline. As the ball came in, replays showed Higgins appearing to grab Ramsey’s facemask and twist his helmet, which disrupted the star corner and he lost his balance. Higgins made the catch and with no other defenders nearby, jogged into the end zone for the Bengals’ first lead of the game, 17-13.
On the very next play from scrimmage, Matthew Stafford looked for Ben Skowronek over the middle. Skowronek got only his left hand on the ball and the Bengals’ Chidobe Awuzie snagged it out of the air for an interception. Cincinnati turned the turnover into a field goal for a seven-point lead.
While the much-discussed and much-maligned Bengals offensive line had held up for the first half, as the second half wore on, the Rams’ defensive front did what it does and Burrow found himself on the turf a lot. At one point after a fourth-quarter Von Miller sack, Burrow stayed down and grabbed at his right knee before limping off the field.
He came back for the next possession, and said the knee “feels good” after the game, though Taylor wasn’t sure how severe the injury is. Burrow appeared in the postgame in the same black and silver suit he wore into SoFi Stadium, with no visible sign of a brace.
For all the struggles the offense began to have moving the ball, the Bengals’ defense did well for much of the second half. But for their last possession, Sean McVay, Matthew Stafford and the Rams’ offense picked up the tempo and Awuzie said Cincinnati got a little “rattled.”
After an early fourth-down conversion on that final drive, McVay finally stopped trying to run the ball and Stafford began picking away: 8 yards to game MVP Cooper Kupp, 6 to Brycen Hopkins, 3 to Cam Akers, 22 to Kupp, 8 to Kupp. There was one last run, an 8-yard pickup by Akers that gave Los Angeles first-and-goal from the 8-yard line.
That’s when things went a little sideways for the Bengals. An iffy third-down holding call against Logan Wilson meant a new set of downs for the Rams, and defensive pass interference on Eli Apple meant first down again, this time from the 1. After Stafford was stopped on a keeper, he threw to Kupp for the game-winning touchdown.
“They threw a good punch there and we weren’t able to kind of rally the troops,” Awuzie said. “But we fought. We got down to third down and Logan made a hell of a play I thought on Cooper Kupp, but the penalty flag comes out. Obviously I’m not a ref but we fought, we fought.”
After the Rams’ touchdown the Bengals had time to at least get into Evan McPherson’s field-goal range and force overtime, a familiar situation for them after going to OT against Kansas City two weeks ago. But this time it wasn’t meant to be.
“We believe in Joe and we believe in our offense to go down and score whenever we need to,” receiver Tyler Boyd said. “Especially in crucial times we always deliver. It just unfortunately did not go our way and I know we will be back.”