Los Angeles will host its first Super Bowl since 1993, as SoFi Stadium in Inglewood will welcome a capacity crowd to watch the Cincinnati Bengals face-off against the Los Angeles Rams. 

It has been rare for Super Bowl participants to play in their hometown, but the Rams will be the second team in NFL history to do so, with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers doing it first in 2021 at Raymond James Stadium in Florida. 

(Brevin Townsell/L.A. Rams)

Both the Rams and Bengals had rollercoaster seasons, with neither team knowing if it would win its corresponding division until the last two weeks of the season. 

(Photo by Erik Drost/Wiki)

A Week 17 loss to the San Francisco 49ers almost put the Rams in the Wild Card, but an Arizona Cardinals loss to the Seattle Seahawks secured the Rams place atop the NFC West standings.

Similarly, the Bengals fought off the Pittsburgh Steelers and Cleveland Browns in the standings to take the AFC North Championship with a stunning Week 16 victory over the Conference Champion Kansas City Chiefs. The two teams would meet again in the playoffs with similar outcomes, but higher stakes. 

Rams Path To The Super Bowl

(Photo by Kam Nedd/L.A. Rams)

The Rams entered the 2021 season with not only a shiny new stadium, but also a shiny new quarterback, giving up a king’s ransom of future draft picks in order to acquire Matthew Stafford from the Detroit Lions. 

The 33-year-old quarterback always had a big arm, becoming the fastest to throw for 40,000 yards in 2019, but his years with the Lions typically ended in losing seasons. Stafford requested a trade at the end last season, which brought him to a Rams team littered with stars on both sides of the field. The Rams were seemingly waiting for an offensive piece to put them over the top after taking a Super Bowl loss in 2020 and an early playoff exit the following year.  

Stafford inherited an offense that had solid receiving options in Cooper Kupp and Robert Woods, along with a budding young running back in Cam Akers.

While Kupp had impressive seasons in the past, the addition of Stafford led him to put up MVP-type numbers, catching 16 touchdowns and receiving 1,947 total yards, both league highs for the 2021-2022 season. 

With the team looking almost unbeatable through the first eight weeks of the season, the Rams hit a snag in a loss to the Tennessee Titans. The team responded by making another big splash, landing Pro Bowl wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr., who had just been released by the Cleveland Browns.

The athletic wide receiver gave the Rams a new option for Stafford in the pass game, even if it took a series of weeks for Beckham to find a fit in the offense. 

The Rams ended up winning three of their final four games of the season, but had to go into the playoffs with a regular season-ending loss to the rival 49ers.

Rams Playoff Run

Photo by Brevin Townsell/L.A. Rams)

The Rams barely broke a sweat in the Wild Card round of the playoffs, feasting on an Arizona Cardinals team that limped into the playoffs. Using a balanced offensive attack, the Rams were able to run the ball effectively and control the clock on their way to a 34-11 win. 

The divisional round would not be as easy, as the Rams had to get past Tom Brady and the defending champion, Tampa Bay Bucs. The Rams got hot early, taking a 20-3 lead into halftime, and extending it to 27-3 soon after. The defending Super Bowl champs did not go down easily, climbing all the way back to tie the game at 27-27 behind Brady’s arm and four fumbles from the Rams offense. A late fumble from Stafford in the final minute of the game nearly gave the Bucs another shot to score in Rams territory, but Stafford recovered and marched the team down the field, with a deep pass to Kupp that got them to the Tampa Bay 12-yard line. From there, the game rested on Matt Gay’s leg, as he successfully connected on a 30-yard field goal as time expired, giving the Rams the victory. 

The Conference Championship game was a chance for the Rams to exorcise some demons against the San Francisco 49ers. Not only had San Francisco beat the Rams in its two regular season meetings, but had won the past six games in a row against Los Angeles. The 49ers took a 17-7 lead into the fourth quarter and it was looking like they had the Rams’ number, yet again. A raucous SoFi Stadium was treated to a comeback win, as the Rams scored 13 unanswered points and the defensive line pushed right through the 49ers on the last drive, forcing a last-minute interception by 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo and sealing the victory. 

“You can’t write this story any better,” Stafford said in a postgame interview with Fox Sports. “Shoot, we’ve got one more at the home stadium, let’s get it done.”

The Rams watched the confetti fall and the fans go crazy, with a chance to do it all again, for the Vince Lombari trophy on Feb. 13.

Bengals Path To The Super Bowl

(Photo by Alexander Jonesi/Wiki)

In theory, the Cincinnati Bengals were a rebuilding team who had the worst record in the league, just two seasons ago, and mustered up only four wins last season. In 2020, the Bengals drafted quarterback Joe Burrow out of LSU (Louisiana State University), hoping they found their next franchise player. 

Burrow suffered a season-ending knee injury midway through his rookie season and came into this season showing a little rust. As Burrow worked to find his groove with rookie wide receiver and former college teammate Ja’Marr Chase, the Bengals continued to grind out wins in close games, with both players showing why they were first-round draft picks. 

The season was not without adversity, as Halloween was the start of a nightmare stretch losing to the last place New York Jets that Oct. 31 and finishing off 5-5 to close the season and crawl into the playoffs. They did manage wins against the Las Vegas Raiders and Kansas City Chiefs in that span, which would serve as foreshadowing for the playoffs. 

Fighting for first place in the NFC North, the Bengals closed the season with a key 34-31 win against the Kansas City Chiefs in Week 16, securing the top spot in the division, followed by another victory against the rival Cleveland Browns.

Bengals Playoff Run

Despite winning their division, the odds were against the Bengals making it this far and challenging for a Super Bowl title. All three of their playoff wins were within one score, getting close wins against the Raiders, Titans and then-Super Bowl favorites, the Kansas City Chiefs. 

The Bengals led through most of the Wild Card Round against the Raiders, but had to fight off David Carr and Darren Waller, who chipped away at the lead, trying to force a comeback. The Raiders fell short, despite making a final push in the last minutes of the game. Carr got them down to the 9-yard line, but the offense could not punch it in the end zone, as Bengals linebacker Jermaine Pratt picked off Carr to end the game.

In a defensive battle against the Titans, the Bengals showed that they could pull off a gritty win against a smash-mouth team. A close game throughout came down to a game-winning, 52-yard field goal by rookie kicker Evan McPherson, who before even stepping on the field for the kick, famously and confidently told teammate Brandon Allen, “It looks like we’re going to the AFC Championship.”

McPherson was right, as his kick led to an AFC Championship battle against the Kansas City Chiefs, who had represented the AFC in the Super Bowl the last two seasons, winning it all in 2020. Surprisingly, this game was a bit of a defensive battle that had to be decided in overtime. Tied at 24-24, the Chiefs won the coin toss and could have sealed a victory with a touchdown. That never happened, as the Bengals made a defensive stop behind a huge interception from Vonn Bell. The Bengals offense was able to promptly get into scoring position, leaving the game up to McPherson, yet again. The confident rookie, who had not missed a field goal in the playoffs, came through again, sealing the win with a 31-yard field goal that got the Bengals to their first Super Bowl since 1982.

Watch The Receivers

(Photo by Jeff Lewis/L.A. Rams)

One of the most unexpected outcomes to this year’s Super Bowl would be a low-scoring game, as both teams have explosive offenses with some of the top playmakers of the year. 

The connections between the two quarterbacks and their star receivers will dictate the pace of the game. 

The Rams will have Matthew Stafford slinging the ball to not only a former Pro-Bowler in Odell Beckham Jr., but the most productive receiver of the season in Cooper Kupp. 

Stafford finished the season just shy of his career high in passing yards with 4,886 and a career high 41 touchdowns. Cooper Kupp accounted for 40% of those yards, ending the season with a league-high 1,947 receiving yards. 

In his first full NFL season, Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow tossed for 4,611 yards and 34 touchdowns, with the bulk of those passes going to star rookie JaMarr Chase and second-year receiver Tee Higgins, both of whom crossed 1,000 yards receiving this season.

Super Bowl LVI will air on NBC this Sunday, Feb. 13, at 3:30 p.m. PST.

L.A. Weekly cover story, February 11-17, 2022.

LA Weekly