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Super Bowl 2022's Bengals are worthy underdogs — until they win

Someday, if Joe Burrow becomes the next Tom Brady, we may regret considering him and his Cincinnati brothers underdogs. But not on Sunday.
Image: USA TODAY Sports via Reuters
Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow celebrates after winning the AFC Championship Game against the Kansas City Chiefs in Kansas City, Mo., on Jan. 30, 2022.Jay Biggerstaff / USA TODAY Sports via Reuters

UPDATE (Feb. 13, 2022, 10:00 p.m. EST): The Los Angeles Rams win Super Bowl LVI 23-20, meaning the Cincinnati Bengals will live to be underdogs another day.

Many American sports fans — and many Americans in general — tend to think of themselves as underdogs, even when all available evidence points to the contrary. We are a nation of favorites, of front-runners, of standing on third base and thinking we hit a triple. Of all the phrases other countries would use to describe us, “scrappy underdogs” is low on the list. But we tell ourselves the opposite, to the point of absurdity. Several members of the 1992 “Dream Team” — the U.S. Olympic basketball corps that featured Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, and is widely considered the most dominant sports team of all time — reportedly said when they won the gold medal, that no one believed in them.

And we still search for the underdogs, even at an event like the Super Bowl, a game that in many ways represents everything great and terrible about the United States in extremis.

And we still search for the underdogs, even at an event like the Super Bowl, that in many ways represents everything great and terrible about the United States in extremis.

By definition, if you’ve made it to the Super Bowl, you’ve done something terrific. But over the past few years, we’ve been able to cobble together “an underdog” simply by rooting for whoever is competing against the recently retired Tom Brady, who has played in four of the past five Super Bowls (and won three of them). This year, though, I think we’ve got the closest thing we’ve had to a legitimate, likable Super Bowl underdog since maybe the Atlanta Falcons in 2017 — or maybe even Arizona in 2009. It’s Joe Burrow and the Cincinnati Bengals.

If you want to feel good rooting for the underdog, this is your team. Get on the bandwagon.

To start with, the Los Angeles Rams are currently 4.5-point favorites to beat the Bengals, the largest spread at the Super Bowl since the Colts were 5-point favorites to beat the Saints in Super Bowl XLIV. (Those Colts lost, by the way.) The Bengals won the AFC North this season but were the fourth seed and had to go on the road to beat both Tennessee and Kansas City to reach this Super Bowl. Before the season, oddsmakers predicted the Bengals would win only six games. For those who follow these things, the betting win total over/under for the Bengals was 6.5, which is to say, most gambling prognosticators didn’t even think the team would have a winning record, let alone reach the Super Bowl. It has been many a moon since a team came out of nowhere like this to make it this far.

And by this far, we mean institutionally. There are 12 NFL teams that have never won a Super Bowl: the Titans, Bills, Browns, Texans, Jaguars, Chargers, Vikings, Lions, Panthers, Falcons, Cardinals and Bengals. If that seems like a lot of teams — 12 of 32 teams total — that’s because a few franchises have historically hogged most of the glory: The Steelers, Patriots, 49ers, Cowboys, Packers and Giants have won more than half the championships between them. Any self-respecting fan of an underdog wants to spread the wealth. The Rams won a Super Bowl, back when they were in St. Louis (the city they ruthlessly abandoned so they could have this $5.5 billion stadium in Los Angeles), but these Cincinnati Bengals never have.

And these fans deserve it. The city of Cincinnati made headlines this month when it announced that the day after the Super Bowl was going to be a city holiday, and kids wouldn’t have to go to school. That might seem silly to you, but only if you’ve never been to Cincinnati. The Bengals are an obsession in Cincy — from the “Who Dey” catchphrase to the “Ickey Shuffle” touchdown dance to the iconic “Freezer Bowl," the story of Cincinnati can’t be told without its football team — which is all the more impressive considering the team has been pretty lousy from its inception.

The Bengals’ three playoff victories this season were their first three since January 1991, and the team didn’t have a single winning record from 1991 to 2005. This is a team that has had a listless, sometimes actively damaging ownership group, lousy management and whole seasons in which someone named “Akili Smith” was their quarterback. They’ve been one of the worst franchises in all of professional football — but their fans never once gave up on them. They deserve this.

And you know who else deserves this? Joe Burrow. Sure, he was the No. 1 overall draft pick out of LSU, where he won a national championship. And if the Bengals win on Sunday, he will become the first quarterback in history to win a college football national title, a Heisman Trophy and a Super Bowl. But to see just how much of an underdog Burrow is, you have to go back before all that. More than three years ago, then-Ohio State football coach Urban Meyer — you may remember him from his disastrous run as coach of the Jacksonville Jaguars this year — benched Burrow, ultimately forcing him to transfer out of the school he’d grown up cheering for. Burrow landed at the then-struggling LSU team, where he was widely considered a castoff. And then, out of nowhere … he became the best quarterback in college football. Now he has taken a long-beleaguered franchise to the Super Bowl.

This is someone you want to root for … for now. Because the thing about underdogs is that they’re only underdogs until they win. The biggest Super Bowl upset this century was in 2002, when the St. Louis Rams, the defending champion, came in as 14-point favorites against the unheralded New England Patriots and an untested, unproven quarterback named Tom Brady.

No one will admit it now, but we were all rooting for Brady and the Patriots back then. They were the ultimate underdogs. And then they won. And we’ve been hating them ever since. The nice thing about cheering for the underdog is that we’re always minting new ones. The Bengals are the underdog now. If they win, then we will go find another one. Someday, if Burrow becomes the next Tom Brady, we may regret considering him and his team underdogs. But not on Sunday.