LOS ANGELES - Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow, bidding to become the second quarterback in history to win a Super Bowl for a state where he was either born or went to high school, famously dissed the underdog thing in the team meeting the night before they beat the Titans in the Divisional game.
But it sounds like he may have found a new theme as the fourth-seeded Bengals look to turn the last six Burrow starts into an NFL title Sunday against the Rams at SoFi Stadium.
"Ohio," may not mean underdog. In this game, it just may mean style and attitude. Whatever it may be, the home state of Burrow and his Bengals certainly provides a neat foil for the Hollywood-based Rams stacked with stars playing a Super Bowl in their own building built more like an MGM sound stage than a stadium.
There is not only Hall-of-Fame pass rushers Aaron Donald and Von Miller, but Jalen Ramsey, the guy the Bengals believe is the best cornerback in the game, and Cooper Kupp, the guy the numbers say is the best wide receiver in the game.
Could be Ohio vs. Hollywood. Throw in Bengals free safety Jessie Bates III from Fort Wayne and it's Ohio-Indiana vs. Hollywood. Throw in the Collinsworth guys from Northern Kentucky being part of the NBC broadcast and maybe this is Ohio-Indiana-Kentucky vs. Hollywood.
"I like the title," said Bengals cornerback Mike Hilton after Friday's brisk 40-minute final tuneup. "Knowing that they're the flashy guys and we're the blue-collar guys, were getting the best of both worlds with the Super Bowl on the line. They're real flashy for the camera. We're blue collar, get it out of the mud. They're a great team. We're just different."
Hilton is the personification of the muddy Bengals, a team that has won their last two games at the gun and the third at their two-yard line. The team that lost their first 13 straight one-score games under head coach Zac Taylor won three straight of those to get here.
Hilton got here the hard way, too. Undrafted and spurned by the Steelers despite four solid seasons, he brought his steel-trap tackling and single-minded passion to a defense trying to find its way and it turned out to be a perfect match. In the postseason he's been all over the yard with four pass deflections, including the acrobatic steal of Ryan Tannehill in the red zone that saved the Tennessee game.
"They all had it," Hilton said of his team's penchant or dirty work. "They just needed somebody to pull it out of everybody."
Hilton is going to have to have to have a vintage Hilton game in the muck of the slot Sunday. The Rams love to motion and run bunch formations and Hilton is going to have to come down hill in the middle of the field. He knows that's how Burrow runs the offense.
A defensive player at quarterback.
"The way he carries himself and the way he's not afraid of contact," Hilton said. "He's a tough dude. I'm happy he's my quarterback."
Hilton's quarterback handled his final pregame media duties Friday befitting the tone of the game. The throng of cameras and reporters wanted him to go GQ Joe with questions about his dress, hair and even the one sock he always puts inside out.
But like he has all week, he has stuck to Midwest Joe. Athens Joe. Ohio Joe.
They even asked him if he'd like to live out here and he gave them the Buckeye Chamber of Commerce answer.
"No," he said. "I like four seasons."
If the sock fits.
Burrow has proudly this week carried the Ohio banner as the Bengals try to bring home the first Super Bowl to the state and the first NFL title in nearly 60 years. They were the easy answers.
"Being from Ohio, I can relate to the entire fan base. I think that's something rare," Burrow said. "There's not a lot of NFL players that get to play for a team in their home state. I think they can relate to me and I can relate to them."
That's because their quarterback has been grinding like them. Just as Bengals fans persevered 31 years for that playoff win, Burrow still grimly carries Athens' last-minute loss in the 2014 Division III state title game as his childhood friends nearly brought back the ultimate prize for an impoverished region.
Just as Bengals fans' limped with the knee of Ickey Woods and Ki-Jana Carter and Carson Palmer, Burrow gutted out the same terrifying ACL injury with a Comeback Player of the Year that put his team in the Super Bowl.
Just as Burrow climbed off the back of the Ohio State depth chart to win a Heisman Trophy, Bengals fans rebounded from the '90s with eight playoff runs in the last 17 seasons.
"It's exciting for me to see how energized the fans are to see us play," Burrow said. "From a players' perspective it makes you want to play that much harder."
Burrow gets it. So do the fans. They understand when he says Cincinnati is an overpopulated Athens. They get it.
They all should enjoy this one then because it's looking like if the Bengals can continue to grind away with elements from the three previous game (opportunistic defense and a patient, careful, methodical offense) they can wear off the Rams' flash.
The Bengals have to stop the Rams' high-wire Greatest Sack Attack just like the Patriots had to cancel the Rams' fast-break offense known as The Greatest Show on Turf 20 years ago for the upset.
Like the '01 Pats, the '21 Bengals have to muddy the game and slow down the Rams.
"I think you have to establish the run to keep teams with really good pass rushers off balance," Burrow said. "In the playoffs you see the best pass rushers in the league. You need to establish the run game to keep those teams honest."
Like his fans, Burrow didn't just plop down in Hollywood to start a Super Bowl. Even though he's done it in his second season and can become the fourth youngest quarterback to win a Super Bowl (on Sunday he'll be the same 25 years, 65 days Russell Wilson was when he beat Peyton Manning eight years ago), there's some tread on the tires.
In retrospect, he thinks the pain of the knee injury helped get him here. When he began throwing from five feet and basically from scratch during rehab, it gave him a chance to refine his throwing. He worked his hips and his core and when he married that with some changes in his footwork, he has spun the ball faster and more accurately than ever before.
"I come from a small town in Ohio and that's the mindset I play the game with," Burrow said. "I just feel like the toughness that region has, I try to embody it in everything that I do. It's really molded the way I think. Not just about football, but life in general. You're seeing things that not a lot of people see. Poverty, people that are hungry. That helped mold me."
While Burrow worked on his knee, head coach Zac Taylor worked on hauling his program out of a 6-25-1 hole. Burrow wasn't the only guy grinding. Even Taylor has said this week, the miserable close losses and 15-game winless road streak made them better.
"We knew what we had in Zac as a head coach," Burrow said. "Going into this year we knew we were going to have to win. We wanted to go out and win for Zac because he works really hard to put us in position to be successful. He's a great head coach. As a player you feel like you can go talk to him if you have a gripe with something we did that day. Maybe he takes it into account. Maybe he doesn't. But he's definitely going to listen to you."
Hilton was asked if Burrow played defense, what position would he play.
"I like Joe at safety," Hilton said. "He's got some range back there and, of course, he'd be able to set the defense and communicate."
That's the setup. Ohio vs. Hollywood as another grind begins.