The Cincinnati Bengals and Los Angeles Rams are set to square off in Super Bowl LVI on Sunday. Both teams took different paths to get the big game.
Cincinnati is only two years removed from owning the league’s worst record. The Bengals’ offense caught fire late in the year behind second-year quarterback Joe Burrow, helping to spearhead an improbable playoff run.
Conversely, the Rams made it to the Super Bowl three years ago and they are all-in this year. They traded away Jared Goff in exchange for longtime Detroit Lions’ quarterback Matthew Stafford. They also traded for Denver Broncos’ linebacker Von Miller and signed Odell Beckham, Jr. during the 2021 season. After a three-game losing streak in the middle of the season, LA finished strong and wound up as the NFC’s fourth seed in the playoffs. They took care of business in the postseason, culminating in an upset win against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
As different as these two paths were, each team had one thing in common: They beat the Minnesota Vikings in the regular season. Both games were microcosms of the Vikings’ 2021 season. Long periods of ineptitude would be interrupted by moments of brilliance on both the offensive and defensive sides of the ball.
In Week 1, the Vikings traveled to Cincinnati as three-point favorites. But the Minnesota offense struggled early, scoring only one touchdown in the first half. Despite holding a 7-0 lead heading into the two-minute warning, the Vikings defense gave up two touchdowns to end the half. Their lack of defensive momentum carried over into the second half. The Bengals scored on the opening drive, putting the Vikings in a 21-7 hole.
The two-minute collapse at the end of the half, though, was something that would become a theme as the season wore on. Minnesota surrendered 93 points within the final two minutes of the first half all season. This continued in the final two minutes of regulation as well. The Vikings allowed 128 total points at the end of both halves in 2021, an NFL record.
Minnesota would rally late. On the last play of regulation, Greg Joseph hit a 53-yard field goal to tie the game 24-24. In overtime, the Vikings appeared to be driving towards a game-winning score. But Dalvin Cook fumbled at Cincinnati’s 38-yard line. The Bengals opted to go for the victory when they faced fourth-and-one at their own 48-yard line with only 40 seconds left. Burrow faked a handoff and found C.J. Uzomah for a 32-yard gain to get the Bengals to Minnesota’s 20-yard line. Following a five-yard run, the Bengals kicked a 34-yard field goal, starting the Vikings’ season off 0-1.
The Vikings would head to Arizona a week later and lose 34-33. Meanwhile, the Bengals lost 20-17 in Chicago. Although both teams left Week 2 disappointed, their Week 1 matchup still loomed large. Since division realignment in 2002, only 12.5% of teams that started 0-2 would have made the playoffs in the current 14-team format. The losses in Cincinnati and Glendale had the Vikings playing catch-up all season with the odds stacked against them.
Statistically, Cincinnati didn’t end up being a much different team than the Vikings this season. That isn’t surprising, given that the Vikings finished 8-9 and the Bengals 10-7.
- Minnesota ranked 12th in offensive yardage while Cincinnati was right behind them at 13th.
- The Vikings only had the 17th-ranked rushing attack in football, but this was still better than the 23rd-ranked unit that the Bengals deployed. And, ironically, no one turned the ball over less than the Vikings did in 2021, totaling 13 giveaways. Meanwhile, Cincinnati turned the ball over 21 times, 12th-most in the league.
- The main difference came in points. Although the Vikings slightly out-gained the Bengals in yardage, Minnesota ranked 14th in points scored with 25 per game. Cincinnati was tied for seventh, with just over 27 points per game. Minnesota also gave up 25 points per game, whereas the Bengals only gave up 22.
Minnesota’s postseason hopes functionally ended when the Rams beat them 30-23 in Week 16. The Vikings needed to win but came out flat, going three-and-out to start the game. LA responded with a 70-yard touchdown drive. The Vikings’ offense responded with a 12-play, 84-yard drive that got to the Rams’ eight-yard line. But on third-and-goal, Kirk Cousins threw a pass that uncharacteristically bounced off K.J. Osborn’s hands, resulting in an interception and a huge missed opportunity. It was one of only two drops Osborn had all year.
Even though the Rams held a 10-0 lead deep into the second quarter, the Vikings appeared to be sleepwalking. Momentum appeared to turn, though, when Stafford threw an ill-advised interception to linebacker Anthony Barr, who returned the ball to the Rams’ 11-yard line. But again, this red zone trip yielded little for the Vikings. Cousins was sacked on first down, and following two short passes to Justin Jefferson and Adam Thielen, the Vikings settled for a field goal at the Rams’ four-yard line, cutting the deficit to 10-3.
Another interception by Barr in the third quarter set the Vikings up at LA’s two-yard line. This time Minnesota punched it in with an Alexander Mattison run. The Rams only led 13-10, but that would be short-lived.
Following the next Vikings drive, another three-and-out, Jordan Berry punted to Rams’ returner Brandon Powell. Minnesota’s coverage team lost contain, and Powell sprinted down the right sideline, somersaulting into the end zone to give the Rams a 20-10 lead. The Vikings’ offense responded with a strong drive, but it stalled at the Rams’ six-yard line, leading to another field goal by Greg Joseph.
A touchdown by OBJ in the fourth quarter gave the Rams a 14-point lead. The Vikings scored on the following drive with a six-yard touchdown by Osborn. But Minnesota’s lost opportunities throughout the game allowed the Rams to control the final eight minutes of game time. LA ran a 12-play, 69-yard drive that ate up six minutes and 15 seconds of game-time. They converted three third-down conversions on the drive, sucking the soul out of the Vikings. Their 24-yard field goal was good, making the game 30-20. The Vikings kicked a field goal with 36 seconds left to cut the game to 30-23 but failed to recover the onside kick.
The final score was somewhat deceiving, much like the box score. LA was 7/14 on third down while the Vikings were only 2/12. Minnesota actually out-gained the Rams in yards per play and won the turnover battle. But that the Vikings could only score 10 points off of the three turnovers (all of which occurred in Rams’ territory) killed any momentum the Vikings built. Both teams were 2/5 in the red zone. But one of those “failed” red zone attempts came when LA kicked a field goal to end the first half. The other came at the heels of the six-minute drive in the fourth quarter that iced the game.
Much like the Bengals, the Rams didn’t rank much higher than the Vikings in offensive yardage. They were ninth in the league. Their 18 interceptions ranked 27th in the NFL. But, naturally, they were tied at seventh for points scored in 2021 with the Bengals.
These two games both showed that the Vikings could play with anyone in 2021. No one could have foreseen the Bengals advancing to the Super Bowl in Week 1, but they were clearly an improved team. The Rams were in the mix in the NFC from the beginning of the year. Minnesota had opportunities to seize each game. Instead, they spent the majority of both games chasing from behind. That is not a recipe for success for a team that relied on their running game.
As the turnover numbers show between the three teams, the Vikings were the most risk-averse team. However, came at the expense of points scored, and Minnesota was already giving up more points than Cincinnati and LA. Better coaching and a more aggressive mindset should help the Vikings in games like these next year. Every team suffers through an offensive lull here and there. But it shouldn’t be a recurring theme, especially when dealing with great field position.
Maybe the Vikings aren’t that far off. Perhaps what they need, more than anything, is a more intentional offense that is focused on maximizing their weapons and isn’t afraid of risks. Luckily, they have Rams’ offensive coordinator Kevin O’Connell coming to fill their head coaching vacancy after the Super Bowl. Meanwhile, the Bengals have former Sean McVay disciple Zac Taylor leading their team. When you watch the game this Sunday and how the two teams scheme their playmakers open, we will hopefully be seeing what the Vikings’ offense can become in the near future.