Rams, Bengals win conference championships

Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford celebrates after leading Los Angeles to the Super Bowl against the Bengals. // Photo courtesy of Christian Petersen Getty Images

The stage is set for Super Bowl LVI. The AFC champs Cincinnati Bengals will take on the Los Angeles Rams of the NFC in Sofi Stadium on Sunday, Feb. 13. Both teams were able to successfully navigate the ups and the downs of the playoffs and have reached the ultimate goal for every NFL franchise.

During the NFL Wild Card round of the playoffs, the Los Angeles Rams were slated to play against division rivals, the Arizona Cardinals. The Rams easily beat the Cardinals after jumping out to a 21-0 halftime lead. The Rams found success in their rushing attack where running backs Cam Akers and Sony Michel rushed for 113 combined yards along with 22 more yards and a rushing touchdown from quarterback Matthew Stafford. The Cardinals picked up steam in the second half and finally scored, but their efforts were not enough. The final score of the game was 34-11 after the Rams shut down any hopes of a Cardinal comeback.

The Bengals had a tougher time with their wildcard opponent, the Las Vegas Raiders. The Bengals were unable to get a lot going on offense but found themselves with a seven point lead at halftime in large part due to a strip sack of the Raiders’ quarterback by Trey Hendrickson, the Bengals star defensive end. The game came down to the wire late in the fourth quarter as Derek Carr, Las Vegas’ quarterback, led the Raiders inside the Bengals’ ten-yard line with 30 seconds left on the clock and a chance to tie the game with a touchdown. The Bengals defense mustered a goal line stand though, intercepting Carr on fourth down and ultimately winning the game for the team as the Bengals held off the Raiders 26-19.

The following week, both teams continued their journey towards the super bowl with thrilling victories in their divisional round games. The Rams were given the task of trying to upset quarterback Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Rams caught fire quickly, leading the defending Super Bowl champions 20-3 at halftime. The Rams further extended their lead halfway through the third quarter with a rushing touchdown by quarterback Matthew Stafford from a yard away to bring the score to 27-3. From then on it was Brady and the Buccaneers who came roaring back, scoring 24 unanswered points of their own and tying the game up with 46 seconds left in the contest. The Rams finally broke through in crunch time with two massive pass completions to NFL-leading receiver, Cooper Kupp, setting up their kicker Matt Gay with a 30 yard game winning field goal. As time expired, Gay snuck the field goal inside the left upright for the Rams to stun the Bucs and move on to the NFC Championship.

The Bengals had their hands full in their divisional matchup as well as they had to play the Tennessee Titans coming off a first round bye. The Bengals offense was able to move the ball with help from rookie wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase, with an impressive 109 receiving yard performance, but they were only able to score one touchdown the entire game and relied on field goals for most of their points. The Titans defense was also giving the Bengals fits, sacking quarterback Joe Burrow nine times throughout the game. The Bengals defense created havoc of their own though as they were able to intercept three passes from Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill. The final interception forced was during an attempted game winning drive with 28 seconds left and the game knotted at 16-16. The Bengals quickly gained 19 yards and set up rookie kicker Evan McPherson with a long game winning field goal attempt from 52 yards out. McPherson made the difficult kick and sent the Bengals into the AFC championship game.

This past Sunday, Jan. 30, both teams had strong showings yet again in the entertaining conference championship games. The Rams were put to the test against another division rival, the Jimmy Garoppolo led San Francisco 49ers. The pace of the game was slow and methodical as both defenses were able to stifle the opposing offenses. The Rams put together a long 20 play drive that ended in a Kupp touchdown reception early in the second quarter but were down 10-7 at halftime with momentum favoring the 49ers. San Francisco then extended their lead to ten points after a touchdown pass to tight end George Kittle. 

At the end of the third quarter the Rams were losing 17-7. Stafford began the Rams comeback by engineering another drive which led to a second Kupp touchdown reception. The Rams were able to take a lead in the fourth with two field goals from Gay. Now it was the 49ers quarterback, Garrapolo’s turn to attempt a comeback. The Rams gave him no chance though, and All-Pro defensive tackle Aaron Donald forced an errant throw three plays into the drive which turned into the game sealing interception for the Rams with just over a minute left on the clock. Stafford took a kneel three times and the Rams punched a ticket to the Super Bowl in their home stadium.

The Bengals had the privilege of traveling to Kansas City where they would take on All-Pro quarterback Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs. The Chiefs dominated the Bengals early and had a 21-3 lead late in the second quarter. With just under five minutes left on the clock, Cincinnati drove down the field and finally broke through with a dump off pass from Joe Burrow turning into a 41 yard touchdown scored by backup running back Samaje Perine. The Chiefs had another opportunity to score right before halftime and got all the way down to the Bengal one-yard line, but after failing to score on the previous play, with no timeouts, and five seconds on the clock, the Chiefs took a risk and opted to not take the field goal. They drew up a play to attempt a touchdown that fell just short, but they had a 21-10 lead going into the half. 

In the second half, Joe Burrow and the Bengals were not to be denied. Burrow threw another touchdown, this time to Ja’Marr Chase, and the offense was able to score 14 points in the second half. Defensively, the Bengals had improved drastically from their first half performance. They had given up no points the entire half and the team had just taken a 24-21 lead after a McPherson field goal with about six minutes left to play. 

The Chiefs weren’t done yet though. They drove down the field, wasted the clock, and set up former Tech kicker Harrison Butker with a 44 yard field goal to tie the game. Just as Butker used to do as a student athlete at Tech, he drilled the kick and sent the game to overtime. 

The Chiefs won the coin toss and the fans erupted as though they had already won, but the Bengals defense had other plans. Four plays into the first overtime drive, the defense forced a Mahomes interception and set the Bengals up in prime field position. A few plays later, Evan McPherson hit a chip shot field goal to win the game and send the Bengals to the Super Bowl.