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We Finally Have A Super Bowl Matchup, And It’s Exactly* What We Expected

sara.ziegler (Sara Ziegler, sports editor): A day after the entire world was transfixed by whether a 44-year-old quarterback would keep playing after he turned 45, we got our fill of drama on the field, too. At long last, after 21 weeks of football, we have ourselves the Super Bowl matchup we always knew we’d get: the Los Angeles Rams vs. the Cincinnati Bengals. Saw it coming a mile away.

Before we dissect the Super Bowl, let’s talk about the conference championships, starting with the AFC. Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs began the game with a fury, scoring touchdowns on their first three drives. And then they just … fell apart. The Bengals pounced, coming all the way back from an 18-point deficit, and won the game in overtime. Guys, what happened there?

neil (Neil Paine, senior sportswriter): I remember when K.C. was the team that would do this kind of thing to other teams.

joshua.hermsmeyer (Josh Hermsmeyer, NFL analyst): I’m still shook by watching Mahomes almost fumble away the game two plays after a first-and-goal inside the 5 to win. Mahomes missed on passes short and long the entire second half. 

Salfino (Michael Salfino, FiveThirtyEight contributor):  We got the October Chiefs offense/Mahomes.

neil: For the second half, for sure. Well, basically from the moment they botched the drive/clock management at the end of the first half.

And who could have known at the time those 3 points would come in handy??

Salfino: The Bengals were dropping eight, and the play was to run. The Chiefs had a 67 percent success rate on rushing plays. But Mahomes kept trying to win the game. 

I think the Chiefs made an adjustment midway through the season to eschew the deeper passing game, and that carried them in December and through the divisional round. But eschewing the passing game, period, was too much to ask.

neil: Everything about their approach to that game screamed “overconfidence.”

joshua.hermsmeyer: The Chiefs seemed to be in a weirdly self-destructive cruise control and couldn’t find the pedal to cancel it.

Salfino: Those back-to-back sacks at the end of regulation were so gross and showed that Mahomes was not remotely in control. 

neil: And here we thought Joe Burrow’s tendency to be sacked would be the story!

But Burrow only went down once. Mahomes was sacked four times, including the two that cost them big at the end of regulation.

Salfino: Mahomes’s problems all started at the end of the first half with five seconds left. That was the turning point.

sara.ziegler: The sequence at the end of the half really made no sense. Andy Reid was apparently trying to let his star make a play, but should he have just kicked the field goal?

Salfino: I would have taken the field goal. Five seconds is right on the line, and I do not trust Mahomes to give up on a play. He’s an artist. He’s not a structure guy.

neil: Mahomes should never have thrown short of the end zone with no timeouts left. Although he didn’t appear to even know they had no timeouts, because he tried to call one after Hill came up short.

Salfino: Yes, Neil, Mahomes was shown on ESPN calling a timeout when they had none left, which raises the question of whether he thought he had a timeout before the play. That is horrible if true. Can’t happen.

They were going to get the ball back after halftime, so if you take the 3 points and then go out and get 7 to start the third, the game would have been essentially over. They would have won the middle of the game with 10 points. The Cincy defense was reeling.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I probably would have kicked as well, and the points certainly would have come in handy, but I think we can make too much of a single play.

neil: Unfortunately, it ended up being an important single play! But we only know that now, in hindsight.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I mean, if in the second half Mahomes looks even remotely like the guy who opened the game with three straight TDs, the point is moo, as Joey Tribbiani would say. 

neil: I know you are right, Josh. It should never have come down to that one play. But it did, in large part because of this crazy split:

Mahomes Raw QBR in 1st half: 98.0

Mahomes Raw QBR in 2nd half and OT: 1.4

sara.ziegler: That really makes … no sense.

It was the largest gap in Raw Quarterback Rating by playoff half since QBR tracking began in 2006, according to ESPN’s Stats & Information Group.

neil: The Bengals’ coverage was impressive in the second half. Mahomes had nowhere to throw.

Salfino: But we’re kidding ourselves by being shocked by this with Mahomes. He had seven games under 45 Total QBR this year, including the AFC Championship. He had two from 2018 through 2020. He struggled often this year. 

neil: And in fact, we saw it against Cincy earlier this month!

His Raw QBR dropped from 94.6 to 46.7 from the first to second half of that regular-season game as well. Cincy outscored K.C. 34-6 across the second halves of both games combined.

sara.ziegler: Can we also talk about that timeout that they didn’t have at the end of the first half because they burned it before successfully challenging a spot? Is there any explanation for a timeout like that? I suppose they could have needed more time to make sure they were right to challenge, although the spot seemed terrible from my couch, so I don’t know how much more time a decision like that really needs.

Salfino: I hated even the challenge there, Sara. Just go for it on fourth and 3 inches. And the timeout just added to the problems. The value of the challenge plus the value of the timeout made that a very bad trade for the Chiefs.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Great point, Sara, and I agree, Mike. Andy Reid has never been a good game manager, and that was a costly wasted time out.

Salfino: Josh, why don’t these teams have a game management coach? I can’t take watching these teams just make minus-expected value after minus-expected value decisions.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I can’t speak for all coaches, but I assume it’s because they see those decisions as theirs.

Salfino: It still will be theirs, IMO. They’re just being advised.

neil: I assume we will have a LOT of game management to discuss with the NFC game.

We have not yet BEGUN to criticize game management.

joshua.hermsmeyer: LOL

sara.ziegler: So true.

neil: But yeah, the Chiefs just seemed on multiple occasions like they assumed they would win this game.

Salfino: I felt that the Bengals were in control the entire second half, Neil.

neil: And yet didn’t you feel the Chiefs would pull it out on that final drive of regulation, when they had first-and-goal from Cincy’s 5, down just 3 with all their timeouts?

K.C.’s win probability at that point spiked to nearly 75 percent.

Salfino: Neil, I thought the Chiefs were likely to get the field goal but not likely to score the TD, honestly. They were just struggling the entire half against that eight-man secondary. And it wasn’t zone — it was a combination. Give Cincy credit.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I mean, I was arguing that the Bengals should let them score — I was so sure it would happen.

Salfino: Letting them score from the 5? No.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Preserve the clock, put it on Burrow. But in the end, Mahomes danced around, and they should have played “Send in the Clowns.” 

neil: Haha. So true.

He lost about 20 yards on two straight sacks. If he’d had another play to take a sack on, he might have lost enough to push them out of FG range the way he was going.

sara.ziegler: And then came overtime — I was bracing for The Overtime Discourse to continue for another week. I think last week’s unfortunate loser, Buffalo quarterback Josh Allen, said it best:

Salfino: This game didn’t have that Bills-Chiefs vibe, Sara. I honestly didn’t think it would determine the game. Of course, I thought it could. But I didn’t remotely think, “Game Over.”

sara.ziegler: So we’ve spent a lot of time on the Chiefs’ failings, but let’s talk a little about the Bengals and what they did right. Burrow is a bona fide star now, right?

neil: When Burrow doesn’t get sacked a lot, he is amazing. He didn’t get sacked a lot Sunday.

Salfino: Burrow is for real. He’s a franchise QB, obviously. That escape and scramble on third-and-7 won the game. But the Cincy offense was meh. The Chiefs defense actually played OK. It was the Cincy defense and scheme plus Mahomes’s play and K.C.’s unwillingness to run that determined this game.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Burrow had a good but not great game — which is surprising given the comeback he led and the competition he faced. He passed for 250 yards, 6.6 yards per attempt, had a pick, and his raw QBR was 59.1.

The biggest play I remember was the 43-yard Samaje Perine screen pass for a TD in the first quarter — not exactly a highlight reel worthy quarterback play.

neil: Although who had Burrow scrambling for two rushing first downs on a go-ahead drive in the fourth quarter on their bingo card?

Salfino: 

sara.ziegler: LOL

Salfino: What really excites me about the Bengals is that teams copy success, and I really like how the Bengals drafted offense and dealt with defense in free agency. I think that’s a very, very smart approach. You can build a long-term offense if you get a decent QB. And defense is ephemeral anyway.

Anyone else think teams will copy the Cincy turnaround blueprint?

joshua.hermsmeyer: Seems pretty standard issue to me, Mike.

Salfino: Look at those Jets mock drafts, Josh: 90 percent are two defensive picks in the top 10.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Well, that’s the Jets I guess.

All bets are off!

neil: I think a lot of teams would LIKE to do that.

“Hit home runs on a QB and WR in back-to-back drafts with top-five picks.”

OK, cool, let’s do that.

sara.ziegler: 🤣

So the Bengals will now face the Rams, playing at home in their Los Angeles stadium — the second year in a row a Super Bowl team hasn’t had to travel. The Rams beat the San Francisco 49ers despite shaky play early from Matthew Stafford, who was outplayed by Jimmy Garoppolo in the first half (81.7 Raw QBR vs. 61.9). But Jimmy G turned back into a pumpkin at the end of the game, throwing a thoroughly Carson Wentz-esque pick to end the Niners’ chances.

neil: I was convinced Jimmy and his handsome face would pull it off until right about then.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Jimmy G was everything his detractors said he was in the second half — after being everything his proponents said he was in the first.

neil: Jimmy G is all things to all people!

Salfino: Kyle Shanahan couldn’t get plays in on time. His vaunted running game had a 25 percent success rate. Jimmy had a 125.5 passer rating through three quarters. The story of this game is that Shanahan could not create running plays.

neil: And if we want to talk about game management, the Niners should never have been in that position to begin with.

Shanahan punted three times from midfield or deeper into Rams territory. (The one from the 50 would have been from the 45 if not for a deliberate delay of game trying to draw the Rams offside.)

Salfino: Shanahan is such a fake sharp. He’s a boomer on fourth down. Not to insult boomers — I just mean old-timey.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Well, he never considered going for it there, Neil, so at least he has conviction. 

neil: That makes it worse. Particularly after Sean McVay burned a precious timeout with one of the dumbest challenges since his last challenge in that game.

joshua.hermsmeyer: LOL

sara.ziegler: Serious question: Are McVay and Shanahan the two worst game managers in the league? There were the obviously bad challenges from McVay, and Shanahan just refused to go for it in obvious situations in that game. (McVay has similarly declined to use the fourth down, though he did in one situation in this game … and it failed and led to the first of his two bad challenges.)

neil: Yes, the irony is that the Rams went for one of their patented ugly Stafford sneaks and failed.

joshua.hermsmeyer: McVay went for it on fourth, Stafford again did the worst impression of a QB sneak we’ve seen, and the Niners scored on the next possession. All McVay and Shanahan’s priors were confirmed in that moment.

sara.ziegler: LOL

Salfino: I just don’t understand these teams because the offense gets to where they are punting from so easily, especially late in games. I guess you can say the gross pass that Stafford threw that was basically a punt that should have been picked and probably returned for 30 yards vindicates Shanahan’s decision to punt. But you can’t count on the opposing QB making a horrendous play on first down. 

These are the guys that need a game management assistant more than anyone.

neil: They were just trading off trying to one-up themselves for the Andy Reid Trophy for Worst Game Manager.

Salfino: McVay treats timeouts like my son treats his allowance money.

neil: McVay treats timeouts like the Rams treat draft picks.

Salfino: McVay treats timeouts like draft picks.

DAMN IT. JINX!

neil: LOL

sara.ziegler: Amazing.

neil: Great minds think alike.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Yet despite setting timeouts on fire and generally treating game management like a dog park, McVay keeps on winning. Perhaps the rest of the league should follow his lead.

sara.ziegler: Ugh.

Salfino: McVay is a great coach and really won the battle of the chalkboard with Shanahan. He got his main guys open

neil: I mean, he also has a ridiculous amount of talent on this team.

There was no excuse for them to not win with this group.

sara.ziegler: It should not have been as close as it was!

Why was it that close? I can’t really figure it out.

neil: Shanahan handles leads like reservations in this “Seinfeld” scene:

He can TAKE leads, but he can’t HOLD them. And that’s really the most important part.

joshua.hermsmeyer: The discourse around Stafford and Jimmy G would be a whole lot different if Jaquiski Tartt held onto the easiest interception he will ever see in his lifetime. 

sara.ziegler: Oh, man, that dropped pick. What a killer.

neil: Yeah, all joking aside, the game completely turns on that dropped first-down arm punt.

Salfino: Sara, if that pick is made — and one of us could have caught it (maybe) — the entire Stafford narrative changes.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I don’t think you’re overstating that, Mike.

sara.ziegler: And Jimmy G doesn’t get the chance to prove his naysayers correct.

(Probably.)

joshua.hermsmeyer: Jimmy G was pilloried in Super Bowl LIII for his pick at the end of the game; I assume Stafford would have gotten a similar treatment.

Salfino: Do you guys think that the Niners should have figured out a way to inject Trey Lance into that game even in just short yardage? Why did Shanahan have no Lance packages basically all year? I see this as a coaching failure.

neil: I agree with this.

I wouldn’t have tossed him out there just Sunday, cold! But maybe work more on those all season and into the playoffs.

sara.ziegler: My stance has been that perhaps Lance isn’t as good as they were hoping he would be. Shanahan loves random players doing random things, so there’s no other explanation to me for him not using Lance.

joshua.hermsmeyer: That makes the most sense, Sara. Shanahan was super excited to get his hands on Lance, and to not use him seemingly speaks volumes.

neil: Yeah, he had no problem with sixth-round rookie Elijah Mitchell powering his rushing game, but No. 3 overall pick Trey Lance is just not ready.

sara.ziegler: It’s very suspect.

So it all comes down to the Bengals and the Rams! Chaos Season deserved Chaos Super Bowl.

Our model favors the Rams by quite a bit. What do you all think? Who leaves with the Lombardi Trophy?

joshua.hermsmeyer: My brain says the Rams, and my heart says the Bengals.

Salfino: The key is going to be sacks. Four or less, I like the Bengals. Five or more on Burrow, it will be “Murder She Wrote” for Cincinnati. Strictly passing, irrespective of sacks, I actually trust Burrow more than Stafford.

neil: We’ve got Rams -5 ½ … Vegas has Rams -4, and I think Vegas is more correct.

(It usually is, LOL.)

sara.ziegler: Blasphemy!

Salfino: I think this Rams pass rush is a very, very tough matchup for Cincy.

neil: Certainly tougher than K.C.’s!

sara.ziegler: Aaron Donald vs. the Bengals O-line is just not a fair fight.

joshua.hermsmeyer: If Jalen Ramsey can avoid getting in confrontations with the opposing kicker, I like the Rams’ chances. What in the world is Ramsey — one of L.A.’s best players — doing on special teams anyway. So silly.

sara.ziegler: 🤣

neil: Hey, Robbie Gould kicked over their heads in warmups. So disrespectful.

What a world, we’ve got kickers out here acting tough like they are real football players. SMH.

Salfino: Evan McPherson is Justin Tucker 2.0.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Bite your tongue, Mike! Tucker is incomparable.

sara.ziegler: McPherson has certainly had a nice run in the playoffs, that’s for sure.

neil: Yes, if Ramsey is expecting not to face a Swaggy Kicker again, this isn’t the right matchup.

sara.ziegler: That’s the real matchup we all care about.

neil: Dude has earned it going 12-for-14 from 50-plus yards (including the playoffs) this season.

Salfino: I think the Cincy defense has to force the Rams to run and play the same defense they played versus the Chiefs. We all know by now that you don’t blitz the Rams and Stafford. His blitz/non-blitzed splits are dramatic: He just kills the blitz.

I’m picking the Bengals, screw it. I want the Cinderella story.

neil: Oh, they definitely can win. I don’t love the matchup for Cincy on paper, but let’s be honest, the Rams were hardly impressive in dispatching the Niners.

sara.ziegler: I can’t figure out if that was just the matchup or something more.

joshua.hermsmeyer: No outcome will really surprise me. I wonder about the effect of home field advantage for L.A. — but Super Bowls are just different.

Salfino: The one thing I do like about the matchup is the Bengals can force the Rams to run, and I don’t even think the Rams can. But even if they do, you’ve put them in the low-20s in points, max.

sara.ziegler: So Mike has the Bengals; Josh and Neil, who are you taking?

neil: I’m taking L.A., but more reluctantly than our model suggests.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Rams are the pick, but I went 0-2 in the conference championship round, so take it with a grain of salt.

sara.ziegler: Haha

I think I have to take Cincy, just on the coolness of Burrow and Ja’Marr Chase alone.

And what about the odds that Tom Brady will have retired by the time the Super Bowl kicks off? Anyone want to place a bet there?

neil: Ooooh

I personally was thinking he wanted to save it to announce on his podcast. Wouldn’t be the first time a superstar athlete made an awkward announcement to Jim Gray.

Salfino: It depends on how long Brady wants to torture Adam Schefter. I’d say 95 percent.

joshua.hermsmeyer: -120 that he announces before the Super Bowl, despite reports that he doesn’t want to upstage the playoffs.

neil: I’ll go 80 percent he does it before the Super Bowl, 95 percent he does it sometime before next season.

Five percent he comes back with … IDK who.

sara.ziegler: Fifty-fifty he comes back with the Jets.

neil: OMG

Salfino: Not even playing.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Brett Favre is the second winning-est QB ever, so it would be fitting if the winningest QB ever followed his path into not-retirement.

neil: And that went really well for Favre.

Salfino: The Bengals have given the Jets and a bunch of teams legitimate hope.

neil: Teams formerly coached by Bruce Coslet CAN win!

Salfino: Bruce Coslet was the Jets’ coach the last time the Bengals won a playoff game before 2022.

History don’t matter.

sara.ziegler: Hahaha

And that will do it! Thanks for joining us for another season of NFL Slack chats! We’ll be back for more of our mostly analytical takes during our live blog of the Super Bowl. Come watch with us!

neil: “The live blog: Just like a slack chat, but with more mistakes because we do it in real-time.”

joshua.hermsmeyer: LOOOOOOL

Check out our latest NFL predictions.

Sara Ziegler is the sports editor at FiveThirtyEight.

Neil Paine is a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

Josh Hermsmeyer is a football writer and analyst.

Michael Salfino is a freelance writer in New Jersey. His work can be found on The Athletic and the Wall Street Journal.

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