As Tom Brady readies to exit the NFL stage, the football nation turns its lonely eyes to Joe Burrow.
He is the last, best hope to spoil the diabolical dream of dominion by the Los Angeles Rams.
The plan by owner Stan Kroenke — harvest at all costs the best mercenaries to win the grandest game in the world’s most spectacular sports cathedral that he built and runs — is one win from achievement. Playing the role of Luke Skywalker is Burrow, a baby-faced young lad from the Midwest who leads the absurd little Cincinnati Bengals in the attempt to thwart the colossus in its own lair at Super Bowl LVI.
Corny as it all sounds, since it is mandatory that fans and non-fans pick a side in the unofficial national holiday, Burrow and the Bengals are designated as the protagonists, and Aaron Donald is Jabba the Hutt.
The drama would have been more enthralling, except for the fact that Sunday, the advancing sides didn’t win their games as much as they were given the triumphs.
The Rams and Bengals didn’t swash their buckles. The Kansas City Chiefs and San Francisco 49ers dropped their pants.
As as been noted here and elsewhere, NFL games usually are lost, not won.
In Kansas City, the Chiefs blew an 18-point lead to default the AFC Championship to the one-touchdown-underdog Bengals, 27-24 in overtime (box). In Los Angeles, the Niners blew a 10-point, fourth-quarter advantage and defaulted the NFC Championship 20-17 to the Rams (box), three-point favorites who had nevertheless lost the previous six games in a row to their Sunburn State rivals.
Regarding the the NFC doings, it turned out the Rams did their heavy lifting a week earlier in Tampa Bay. They whooshed to a 27-3 lead over the defending Super Bowl champions before Brady did his Benjamin Button impression, getting younger by the minute. But a walk-off field goal was good for a harrowing 30-27 win to set up a potential two-game postseason homestand for the No. 4-seeded team.
Sunday, the Rams merely had to hold serve and wait for the 49ers to blink. They obliged.
Even though San Francisco won regular season games against LA by counts of 31-10 and 27-24 (in OT), the Rams had too much to lose, and the Niners had the sometimes-good, never-great Jimmy Garoppolo at quarterback.
In the fourth quarter, coach Kyle Shanahan chose to punt from midfield rather than trust Garoppolo to get a fourth-and-two conversion. And on SF’s final possession, Garoppolo couldn’t escape the clutches of Hutt, er, Donald, who forced a wild throw that the Rams intercepted to seal the game — and likely end Garoppolo’s time in The Bay.
With the third pick in the first round of the April draft, the Niners selected their future QB, Trey Lance. So when Jimmy G was 16-for-30 for 232 yards passing in the crucible, it won’t matter that he could say he helped bring back the Niners from a 3-5 start. Time was up.
“(The emotions) hit pretty hard in the locker room,” Garoppolo said post-game, choking up. “These next couple days, they’ll settle in a little bit. Emotions are high after a game, a win or a loss. It’s one of those things you got to be glad it happened. Just smile from it and think about the good things. We’ll see what happens in the next couple days and weeks, but I love this team.”
Since the Seahawks swept the 49ers in the regular season, and were swept by the Rams, Seattle fans probably wanted to see SF advance, just to catch a sliver of reflected NFC West glory in Super Bowl week. But if they want to cling to something that matters Feb. 13, Burrow is the guy.
The Bengals, 4-11-1 a year ago, were 5-4 at mid-season after losses to the Jets and Browns. And now Burrow joins Russell Wilson, Tom Brady and Ben Roethlisberger as the only QBs to reach the Super Bowl in their second season.
As a prep, Burrow was Mr. Football in Ohio (Athens HS), went to Ohio State and the Buckeyes’ bench, then transferred to LSU. In 2019, he won the national college title and the Heisman Trophy before the Bengals drafted him first overall in 2020. His bona fides as a winner were further established two weeks ago: The 26-19 win over Las Vegas ended Cincy’s eight-game playoff losing streak dating to 1991, when Boomer Easiason and Ickey Woods helped beat the Houston Oilers, 41-14.
Sunday’s win wouldn’t have happened if the Chiefs hadn’t opened the door at the end of the first half.
Ahead 21-10 and a yard away from the end zone with five seconds remaining, KC coach Andy Reid skipped a field-goal attempt and went for six, figuring he could get off two plays if needed. Instead, QB Patrick Mahomes threw a swing pass to WR Tyreek Hill, who was double-teamed and tackled behind the line of scrimmage as the clock ran out.
The rest of the way, the Bengals defense held the celebrated KC offense to three points, allowing Joey Franchise to run down the AFC’s bell cow. Reid knew he screwed up.
“I’ll take responsibility,” Reid said. “We had enough time for another play, but I’ve got to get one that’s open in the end zone.”
The Chiefs’ flop makes the Bengals one of the great out-of-nowhere stories in Super Bowl history, one even Burrow can’t believe.
“If you would have told me before the season we would go to the Super Bowl,” he said, “I would say you’re crazy.”
While the Bengals are barely in, the Rams, a 3.5-point betting favorite, are all in on this one — to get to this hometown Super Bowl, they traded six first-round picks since 2018 to build the arsenal, and won’t have another until 2024.
With the exit of Brady imminent, it’s never too early to begin the inevitable next-Brady search with the guy who does in the NFL’s Death Star.