From the Bleachers: How Did We Get Here?
Baily Deeter recaps the chaotic NFL postseason that has resulted in next weekend’s Super Bowl LVI matchup between the Cincinnati Bengals and the Los Angeles Rams.
Filling out a perfect bracket in March Madness is practically impossible. It requires picking 65 consecutive games correctly, many of which are toss-ups and many of which end in massive upsets. It has never been done before, and it may never be done.
But picking a perfect March Madness bracket this year may be easier than picking a perfect NFL playoffs bracket. If you picked all 12 postseason games correctly, you should read this article about why lying diminishes trust between human beings. Maybe you didn’t pick the last five games incorrectly like I did (that 49ers-Chiefs Super Bowl rematch will have to wait for Trey Lance), but you certainly didn’t see this coming.
I went back through old playoff predictions just to make sure I wasn’t the only one. I first turned to The Ringer, where the first playoff bracket I saw picked the Los Angeles Rams and Cincinnati Bengals both losing in the first round. Not even one bracket had the Rams or Bengals winning their respective conference, and none saw the Rams making it past the Divisional Round. We were all collectively terrible at picking playoff winners this season.
In fairness to all of us, how could we possibly have seen this coming? How could anyone have seen the Bengals making the Super Bowl? Cincinnati began the season as FiveThirtyEight’s 28th-ranked team. They had a young head coach, a young quarterback coming off a torn ACL and a bad offensive line. Worst of all, they hadn’t won a playoff game since George H.W. Bush’s presidency!
And yet the Bengals made the playoffs, and they finally won that elusive playoff game in gritty fashion against the Las Vegas Raiders. They then knocked off the top-seeded Titans in a similarly hard-fought Divisional Round contest. But those games were far more winnable than the AFC Championship Game at Arrowhead Stadium. After last week’s Divisional Round thriller, the Chiefs seemed to have a clear path to a third straight Super Bowl appearance for Patrick Mahomes and two weeks full of TikTok content for Jackson Mahomes.
Mahomes completed 13 of his first 14 passes for 154 yards and three touchdowns as he gave Kansas City an early 21-3 lead. But if there’s anything we’ve learned about Chiefs football, it’s that big leads are never safe, no matter who has them. Kansas City came back from 10 points or more in all three of their playoff wins during their Super Bowl season in 2020. This time, they got a taste of their own medicine.
Samaje Perine’s touchdown before halftime kept the game worth watching into the second half. Cincinnati’s goal-line stand as the first half expired kept their hopes of covering a seven-point spread alive. BJ Hill’s interception down eight gave the Bengals a chance to stay alive into the fourth quarter. Then, a few Joe Burrow dimes later, the game was tied up entering the fourth quarter. Two clutch kicks from Money McPherson later, the Bengals clinched their ticket to Los Angeles.
Looking back, it doesn’t seem real. The Chiefs scored on their first three drives and were inches away from scoring on their fourth, then they accumulated less than 100 yards and threw two interceptions in the second half and overtime. Mahomes was a magician in the first half, but he reached too far up his sleeve for tricks in the second. The Bengals stayed alive for as long as they could, and they capitalized in key moments. Believe it or not, the Cincinnati Bengals are Super Bowl-bound.
Perhaps equally surprising is Los Angeles’ journey to… Los Angeles. The Rams moved their chips to the center of the table in sacrificing many future draft picks to trade for Matthew Stafford, Von Miller and Odell Beckham Jr., perhaps because Sean McVay is getting old and doesn’t have a lot of time left to win a Super Bowl. The gamble paid off, as the Rams sent Kyler Murray to the couch, Tom Brady to retirement and Jimmy Garoppolo to the trending page on Twitter. They dominated the fourth quarter of the NFC Championship in a 20-17 triumph in front of a crowd full of disappointed 49ers fans.
At times, it looked like the 49ers were a team of destiny. That was the only explanation for their ugly win in the snow in Green Bay, which they won without scoring an offensive touchdown. They inspired this photo of my reaction to Robbie Gould’s game-winning field goal, which fortunately didn’t expose my multiple hoodie stains. They also inspired my fraternity pickup football team, quarterbacked by yours truly, by showing us that we don’t need to score an offensive touchdown to win our upcoming game this weekend. Special teams win championships, or at least Divisional Round matchups.
But even with the 49ers leading by 10 at the start of the fourth quarter, the Rams never wavered. Matthew Stafford remained poised all game, even as his stellar play didn’t translate to points. It finally came together for the Rams thanks to some clutch completions to Cooper Kupp and a flustered San Francisco offense. Unfortunately for the good guys up in Northern California, Los Angeles continued to get the better of the Bay in the postseason. Now, all the 49ers faithful can hope for is that the Rams suffer the same fate as the Dodgers did after beating the Giants and the Lakers did after beating the Warriors.
Luckily, we have a weekend off from playoff football, giving me plenty of time to recover and think about how I want to structure next week’s column. We’ll cover the upcoming Super Bowl, the Brady retirement and the Brian Flores lawsuit. Then, we’ll drag our football coverage on as long as we can for the next few weeks so that we don’t have to spend late February writing about the XFL again.