Bengals, Rams prevail in dramatic fashion for Super Bowl berth

Jake Blancher, Associate Sports Editor

conference championship
The Rams and the Bengals will face off the Lombardi trophy on Feb. 13. (Matthew Tate)

After a divisional round that will go down in annals of NFL history for its sheer abundance of nail-biting, late-game drama, the NFL conference championship games did not disappoint. 

Sunday’s first contest was a matinee AFC matchup between the Kansas City Chiefs and the Cincinnati Bengals. Featuring two of the NFL’s crown jewels of young quarterback talent  — Patrick Mahomes and Joe “Shiesty” Burrow — viewers quickly got the feeling that this game might be the first of many post-season bouts between these premier signal-callers.

The heavily-favored Chiefs burst out of the locker room riding the momentum from their chaotic win against the Buffalo Bills, jumping out to an early 21-3 lead. Their quick advantage was courtesy of receiving touchdowns from their three top receivers, Tyreek Hill, Travis Kelce and Mecole Hardman, each snagging a touchdown.

The Bengals were able to slow the Chief’s steamrolling, thanks to a 41-yard house call on a screen to running back Samaje Perine and a goal line stand to end the first half at only an 11-point deficit.

In the visiting locker room at Arrowhead Stadium, head coach Zac Taylor must have delivered a Pacino-esque speech to their defense, for that might be the only explanation as to why they were so ravenous in the second half. 

After three possessions ending in punts, the Bengals were able to muster a field goal, cutting the lead to a measly one possession, by a score of 21-13. Just three plays later, the momentum fully shifted to the Bengals, when defensive lineman BJ Hill tipped a pass to himself at the line of scrimmage to record his first career interception. 

Burrow took advantage of the short field, tossing a 3-yard touchdown to his favorite target and former LSU teammate Ja’Marr Chase and easily converting the two-point conversion to tie the game at 21.

Following three ugly offensive possessions, the Bengals were able to take their first lead of the game by means of a field goal from rookie kicker Evan McPherson, a score of 24-21. However, this generously provided Mahomes over six minutes to piece together a game-winning touchdown drive.

Sam Hubbard had other plans, moving the Chiefs offense backwards on a pair of sacks, which included a strip sack that was recovered by the Chiefs, after reaching the Bengals 4-yard line. Kansas City settled for a field goal to send the game into overtime.

Evoking deja vu for Bills fans, the Chiefs won the coin toss in overtime and received the ball first. After one turnover-worthy throw by Mahomes, luck caught up to him as a deep ball intended for Tyreek Hill was first batted up by All-Pro safety Jessie Bates and then intercepted by Vonn Bell.

Just nine plays later, McPherson drilled a 31-yard field goal to send Burrow and the rest of the Cincinnati Bengals, which include fourth-round rookie and Tulane alumnus Cameron Sample, to their first Super Bowl in over three decades. 

In all, the Chiefs had five drives in the second half, which ended in four punts and one interception. The Chiefs historic offense accrued just 83 yards in the second half and overtime combined.

As for the NFC, the conference championship came down to a bitter divisional matchup between the Los Angeles Rams and the San Francisco 49ers.

The game began as a low-scoring affair, with no points scored in the first quarter. Eventually, each team’s top playmaker, Cooper Kupp and Deebo Samuel for the Rams and 49ers, respectively, broke through the shutout, trading touchdowns halfway through the second quarter. San Francisco converted a field goal to end the quarter, giving them a 10-7 lead at the half. 

After the half, the 49ers struck first as quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo found the NFL’s highest paid tight end George Kittle for a 16-yard touchdown to extend their lead to 17-7.

The Rams quickly retaliated, again with a touchdown pass to Kupp, slicing the lead to just three at 17-14. 

On the subsequent drive, the Niners were unable to score, punting the ball back to the Rams. Three minutes and one crucial dropped interception later, the game was tied at 17 a piece.  

Once again, San Francisco’s offense remained ineffective with Garoppolo at the helm, moving backwards for 5 yards before punting it back to the Rams.

The Rams moved down the field with patience and poise, converting on key third downs, including a 25-yard pass to Kupp to solidify them in field goal range and take a 20-17 lead with just under two minutes remaining.

After an incompletion and a pass for negative yards, three-time Defensive Player of the Year, Aaron Donald emerged when it counted the most. On third-and-13, Donald bull rushed the 49ers right guard, quickly wrapping his powerful arms around Garoppolo. Quickly running out of options, Garoppolo attempted an errant flip of the ball to running back Jamycal Hasty in hopes of avoiding the sack. Hasty could not secure the pigskin, elevating the ball in the process for an easy interception by Rams linebacker Travin Howard, securing the Rams spot in the Super Bowl against the Bengals.

This victory at SoFi Stadium will mark phenom head coach Sean McVay and the Rams’ second Superbowl appearance in the past four years.

The downfall of the 49ers was their inability to contain the Rams lethal passing attack, spearheaded by triple crown winner Kupp and Odell Beckham Jr., the controversial yet uber-talented receiver. Kupp finished with 142 yards and two touchdowns, while Beckham had 113 yards.

However, the 49ers future looks bright with a potent defensive front and Garoppolo likely on his way out to make room for third overall pick Trey Lance as the Bay Area’s signal caller. 

On Feb. 13 at 5:30 p.m. CST , the Rams will “host” the Bengals for the Super Bowl being played on their home turf in SoFi Stadium.