INGLEWOOD, Calif. - In the Hollywood foothills Sunday, the Bengals took an improbable story that would have been rejected by any scriptwriter in town, but couldn't produce their first ever Lombardi Trophy in heartbreaking 23-20 loss to the Rams on the steamy sound stage of Super Bowl LVI.
The Bengals were creeping to rookie kicker Evan McPherson's field goal range with 40 seconds left at midfield on fourth-and-one, but the Rams future Hall-of-Fame defensive tackle Aaron Donald made the signature play when he nearly sacked quarterback Joe Burrow and made him get rid of a desperate throw that had no shot. The play defined how the L.A. pass rush took over the game with a Super Bowl-record tying seven sacks.
The Bengals defense that had supplied so much magic at the end of games in this postseason, couldn't conjure up any more. It incurred three penalties in 10 seconds inside the 10 inside two minutes.
It set up Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford's rolling one-yard flip to wide receiver Cooper Kupp with 85 seconds left to give them the margin of victory. It was Kupp's second touchdown of the game and gave him 92 yards and the Super Bowl MVP trophy against a stubborn defense that deserved a better fate.
With 1:47 left from the 8, linebacker Logan Wilson was called for a hold on Kupp. Then a TD was wiped away by offsetting penalties, a Rams' hold and roughing on Bengals safety Vonn Bell. Again on Kupp. Then cornerback Eli Apple was called for holding Kupp and that put the ball on the Bengals 1.
The Rams pass rush, docile in the first half with just one sack in the last minute, erupted in the second half and their record-tying seventh sack was particularly vicious early in the fourth quarter and sent Burrow limping to the sidelines grabbing his right knee. Rams edger Von Miller and outside linebacker Leonard Floyd broke him in half and twisted on a third-down play that sickened Who Dey Nation. When right tackle Isaiah Prince belted Floyd for the shot on Burrow, it was Prince who got flagged.
But as Burrow waved off trainers and doctors the heroic Bengals defense pitched another stop and Burrow came back on. He finished a very brave 22 of 33 for 263 yards and a 100 passer rating.
The Bengals offense just never did find any consistency Sunday. From his own 40 and the clock ticking under seven minutes, Burrow took a shot at slot receiver Tyler Boyd on a third-down slant and Boyd suffered his first drop since the third game of the year and that set up the winning 15-play drive.
After a lethargic 155-yard first half that put them in a 13-10 hole, the Bengals stepped up as the third quarter team they've all year long in a wild opening to the second half. It only took one snap. Burrow stepped up in the pocket and whipped a long one to Tee Higgins (100 -yard night) battling Pro Bowl cornerback Jalen Ramsey on the left sideline. Ramsey fell down as Higgins outmuscled him and he was off on a 75-yard touchdown play that put them in front 17-13 on the longest postseason pass in Bengals history.
Then on the next snap, cornerback Chidobe Awuzie came up with their eighth interception of the postseason when quarterback Matthew Stafford's pass tipped off the hands of wide receiver Ben Skowronek and in a span off 22 seconds the Bengals had a chance to put in the dagger as the momentum swung visibly to the orange-and-black-clad fans.
But in no particular order, Donald awoke from a first half stupor he didn't appear on the stat sheet and chased Burrow out of bounds for his first of two sacks of the night. But when he pushed Burrow to the ground as he was going out of bounds, the bench objected and the offensive line got in Donald's face.
There were no flags, but fireworks when a fan ran on to the field. Then on third-and-three from the Rams 11, Donald got Burrow again for a sack and as Burrow hopped up he appeared irked one of his receivers broke the wrong way.
McPherson kicked the 38-yard field goal to give them a 20-13 lead, but the sense was the Rams defense had turned the tide just as quickly.
The Rams got a Matt Gay field goal to cut it to 20-16, but the Bengals couldn't answer. Burrow had wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase wide open on third down, but Burrow one-hopped it.
Then on the next series, the Rams rattled off back-to-back sacks. Von Miller, who also had been dormant in the first half, worked a stunt on the right side and came roaring inside to dump him for a 10-yard loss near his goal line.
As the defense had done all postseason it kept them in it as the game veered into the fourth with the Bengals holding an eerie 20-16 lead, the lead they lost in with 34 seconds left in their last Super Bowl 33 years ago.
The Bengals made the Rams punt three times in a row as their front play just as dominant as the Rams did. Nose tackle D.J. Reader ended one drive on a sack. Edge Sam Hubbard dropped running back Cam Akers for a two-yard loss to end another. Then Wilson and cornerback Mike Hilton combined for a tackle to stop another drive. The Bengals were immense in the run game, holding the Rams to 43 yards on 23 carries.
The first half didn't go the way the Bengals drew up it, but they had to feel fortunate that by the time Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg took the halftime stage at SoFi Stadium, they only trailed the Rams, 13-10, and were getting the ball to start the second half.
When running back Joe Mixon throws your only touchdown pass of the half for his first career touchdown pass in the biggest game of all, you know your offense isn't operating high octane. Burrow couldn't get in a groove as the Bengals managed just 155 yards in a half they really only put together one good drive.
At that point the Bengals had done a nice job controlling Donald. Neither he or Miller was on the halftime stat sheet.
Burrow was 12 of 18 for just 114 yards while Mixon ripped off 40 yards on seven carries but they couldn't string anything together. Still, down 13-3, Burrow put together a nice 12-play touchdown drive hitting all of thee of his receivers and a nice swing pass to Chase for a four-yard rush on third-and-two in the red zone.
Then Mixon became the first non-quarterback in four Super Bowls to throw a touchdown (Eagles tight end Trey Burton courtesy of the Philly Special) when he took a pitch wide, ran, then straightened and lofted a ball over safety Nick Scott when he came up on the run and Higgins had a six-yard touchdown catch. Higgins had three catches for 25 yard in the half that included a nifty 14-yard YAC.
Their only penalty of the half hurt them. It came after free safety Jessie Bates III made an end zone interception on a third-and-long, but Vernon Hargreaves III, who was inactive, came off the bench to celebrate. It left Burrow with the ball at the 10 instead of the 20 with three timeouts at the two-minute warning.
In all three playoff games the Bengals had scored in the final two minutes of the half. But they couldn't get anything going. On one snap, Miller and Donald chased him into an incompletion and the the first sack the Rams got was a coverage sack for Floyd with about a minute left in the half.
The Rams got the ball in good field position, but on third-and-one Lions quarterback Matt Stafford took a deep shot to wide receiver Van Jefferson and Awuzie was draped all over him. Stafford played OK, but not good enough to become the 32nd quarterback to be Super Bowl MVP. He had three touchdowns and he survived Odell Beckham Jr.'s devastating knee injury in the second quarter. But he also threw two picks and completed just 26 of 40 passes for 283 yards.
The lethargic Bengals offense got a spark from, who else? Burrow to Chase. Chase got by Pro Bowl cornerback Jalen Ramsey, something you don't usually see, and Chase responded with a catch you don't usually see, a diving one-handed catch for a 46-yard play.
After the big play, the Bengals were snugly in the red zone at the Rams. But Burrow threw three straight incompletions and McPherson went 13-for-13 on a 29-yard field goal to cut the lead to 7-3.
View the best game action photos as the Bengals faced the Los Angeles Rams in Super Bowl LVI.
The passing game just didn't click all day. Miller leaped over left tackle Jonah Williams to knock down the first down pass. On second down, Burrow went to Mixon in the flat, but there was nothing there. And on third down, with Ramsey on Higgins and not getting much room. The ball was a tad behind Higgins and broken up.
Bengals edge Trey Hendrickson blew up the first series of the game with a sack when Rams running back Cam Akers knocked left tackle Andrew Whitworth off the block on second down and on third down tackle B.J. Hill hauled down Akers for nothing to complete a dominant first defensive series. It was a harbinger of the defense's effort the rest of the way, but the offense couldn't get to the magic 24 points.
It seems like for the first time this postseason the Bengals didn't play complementary ball on the Super Bowl's opening sequence. The offense faltered despite terrific field position at their own 42. But head coach Zac Taylor opted to go for it on fourth-and-one at midfield, they didn't get it and the Rams cashed for the game's first touchdown.
The Bengals couldn't get three yards on three snaps after Burrow hit Boyd slanting underneath for seven yards on first down. On second down Mixon barely got two up the middle and backup running back Samaje Perine got nothing in the same place on third down. Then on fourth-and one, Burrow spread them out and it looked like he had Higgins open on the right sideline, but he went back to the middle where Chase was bracketed and the ball was defended by inside linebacker Ernest Jones.