LOS ANGELES_ The Bengals ended the longest season in NFL history as one of the last two standing. The honor belonged to superstar defensive tackle Aaron Donald and his Rams after he threw Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow to the SoFi Stadium grass and forced a desperate incompletion with 39 seconds left on fourth-and-one with a tying field goal just maybe another first down away.
In the postseason, the last few minutes had been gold for Burrow and his Bengals. But the Rams and Donald's ferocious pass rush hijacked the last 11:38, starting when a sack shared by edgers Von Miller and Leonard Floyd injured Burrow's right knee and induced a punch from right tackle Isaiah Prince for 15 more yards they lost.
There were things that happened in those last 11:38 that the Bengals had avoided most of the season and certainly in the postseason. Start and end with the penalties.
FLAG DAY: The least penalized team in the league took big ones. Four in the fourth quarter and one when inactive cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III rushed the field on free safety Jessie Bates III's interception.
That one particularly heated Bengals head coach Zac Taylor.
"A lack of discipline," he called it.
The last three penalties were up for debate. Well, maybe the first two. Here's the least penalized team in the league getting hit with three in a span of nine seconds.
All with the Bengals a stop away from the Super Bowl title, up 20-16, inside two minutes and the ball on their 8. It looked like Vegas and K.C. all over again. A defensive stop and then Burrow could fittingly take a knee with the most famous knee in football.
Particularly when middle linebacker Logan Wilson defended MVP Cooper Kupp in the middle of the field on an incompletion that would force the Rams to win it on fourth-and-eight with 1:47 left.
But the flag flew and the reason the Bengals were mad is because the refs hadn't called it all night.
"We got some questionable calls, I'm going to be honest, but that's name of the game," slot cornerback Mike Hilton said. "We shouldn't have been in that situation when we had opportunities to get out the field on third and fourth down.
'They were letting us play all three quarters and when it got down to that fourth they started being a little more flag happy. It's just the name of the game and we just have to find ways to win."
Wilson thought it was clean.
"Cooper came up to me and tried to push off of me and I thought I made a good play on the ball and the refs saw otherwise so, it's a tough call," said Wilson, who caught cornerback Eli Apple's tip to set up the Tennessee win.
It was a tough sequence for past playoff heroes. On the next snap from the 4, the Bengals couldn't take advantage of a Rams holding call when strong safety Vonn Bell was called for what looked to be a nebulous roughing penalty against Kupp. Then when Apple was called for what looked to be a hold, the magic had run out.
Taylor kept it classy.
"I thought it was a really well officiated game to be quite honest with you," Taylor said. "Sometimes it comes down to moments like those. I didn't have a great look at it, but I thought the officials did a nice job."
LAST DRIVE: And the thing was, Kupp scored the winner on a one-yard flip from quarterback Matthew Stafford running a route to the outside with leverage on Apple on a play usually designed for Odell Beckham Jr. But Beckham hadn't played since the second quarter with a knee injury.
That's how Kupp got the MVP. The Bengals, helped by the Beckham injury, were able to track the record-setting Kupp better than most. Going into the last drive he had a touchdown, but just four catches for 53 yards. Yet the Bengals were trying to explain how he got loose for four catches for 39 yards (and a seven-yard run on fourth-and-one from his own 30).
Start with the guy's good.
"It changed big time," Hilton said of the coverage when Beckham went down. "It changed for them offensively. As you can see, Kupp was a lot more outside than he was inside and they were finding ways to get him the ball on quick passes instead of downfield. We knew once Odell went down, all our focus would be on (Kupp) and that's what we expected."
Rams head coach Sean McVay, who became the youngest head coach to win a Super Bowl against one of his old assistants, thought he got good play out of his offensive line on that 15-play drive after being manhandled by the Bengals much of the night.
"We were able to go tempo, kind of regulate them and be able to play some zone," McVay said. "A lot of the third down situations, they were doubling (Cupp). Especially once Odell went out, they were able to hone in on him. Matthew and Cooper made the most of their opportunities in the most important and critical times."
SHORT STUFF: In the end, the biggest game of the year came down to short yardage. The Bengals couldn't pull it off multiple times and the Rams converted a hellacious fourth-and-one on their own 30 with five minutes left when McVay ran Kupp to the right edge on a seven-yard rush. The Rams had done nothing all night on the ground and even with that they had just 43 yards on 23 carries.
"You know what, sometimes you go with a gut feel," McVay said. "I felt like based on the way they had played some of those short-yardage situations that Kupp would have a chance to circle the defense. They defended it really well, but it was a great player making a great play. We don't make that play, we're not sitting up here winning."
And the Bengals don't have the Lombardi because they opened and closed the game failing to convert third-and-one and fourth-and-one. One of the hot stove questions already developing is where was Pro Bowl running back Joe Mixon on those four snaps. Also in the mix was right guard Jackson Carman (back) unable to go, except for four special teams plays and Hakeem Adeniji taking all the snaps.
The Bengals had great field position at their own 42 on their first series of the game. On third-and-one, running back Samaje Perine got nothing on a play after Mixon barely got two yards. Then on fourth-and-one Burrow went out of shot gun and couldn't get a completion to the double-covered Ja'Marr Chase. The Rams took advantage and went up, 7-0.
Swing back to the game's last series and the Bengals, down 23-20, with 48 seconds left from the Rams 49. They took a deep incomplete shot to Chase on second-and-one, then Perine again got stopped on third-and-one with Donald going over right guard.
"They were getting a little softer, we thought we could steal a first down there and then come back and take some shots at the end zone," Taylor said. "Just didn't work out."
Then on fourth-and-one, Donald shot past left guard to force Burrow into a desperate heave to Perine.
"We had made a third-down stop. Fourth down, I thought they would run, but they dropped back to pass," Donald said. "Found a way to get the chop-club and bend the edge and found a way to get to the quarterback and make him threw an errant pass. I actually tried to get the ball out, but he threw it up so I was a little nervous at first."
MAC ON DECK: Certainly rookie kicker Evan McPherson wasn't nervous if he needed to force overtime. He was thinking 65 yards, one off the NFL record.
"I think we could have taken a shot from I don't know, maybe 65 or so, if it was the last play of the game or if it was fourth-and-10 and we didn't feel like we could get a first down there," McPherson said. "I know I'm going to trust the coaches. They're going to put me out there for whatever they believe I can hit. We just didn't get into range. We might have been a couple yards away."
The rookie kicker had kicked two field goals earlier in the game to tie Adam Vinatieri's record of 14 field goals in a single postseason.
"I had the goal to break that record," McPherson said. "I am honored to be up there with Adam and everything that he has accomplished, and you know all his records are kind of what I'm striving for in my career. It is a cool moment for me but it sucks we didn't win."
McPherson had the added perk of seeing the halftime show since he wasn't needed in the locker room.
"It is a once in a lifetime opportunity really and so in football, I feel like we have to compartmentalize a lot of things," McPherson said. "So I thought I was able to compartmentalize the game from the halftime show. Those are some of my favorite artists. Like I said, it is a once in a lifetime deal and I thought it was pretty special."