The Cincinnati Bengals: A Hollywood ending for a true underdog story?

Can the Cincinnati Bengals pull off one of the biggest surprises in NFL history to claim Super Bowl LVI? Planet Sport's Paul Higham checks out the team and their chances.

It's not been much fun being a Cincinnati Bengals fan for, well, ever really, with just two previous Super Bowl appearances, no wins, and just a handful of winning seasons since they first took to the field in 1968.

Before this season the Bengals hadn't been to the Super Bowl in 33 years, hadn't even won a playoff game in 31 years and hadn't managed an away win in the post-season ever.

But in one glorious playoff campaign they've crossed off all those records, beating the Las Vegas Raiders in the wildcard round before heading out on the road to take out top seeds Tennessee in Nashville and top dogs Kansas City at Arrowhead.

And don't underestimate just what a shock this is to see the Bengals in the Super Bowl - as 125/1 outsiders at the start of the season they're just the second triple-figure longshots to reach the big game and the second-highest priced contender in the last 40 years.

And with head coach Zac Taylor having won just six games in his first two seasons, this also represents the biggest turnaround in NFL history as no team has had a worse record in the two years directly before making the Super Bowl.

Bright future for Bengals after wilderness years

NFL Hall of Famer Paul Brown set-up the Bengals in the 1960s after being fired by the Cleveland Browns and opting to form a new team just down the road to form an Ohio rivalry - even picking similar colours to play in to the Browns.

The Bengals play in Paul Brown Stadium named in his honour, but although he led Cleveland to great heights, that success has never been replicated in Cincinnati, which has seen some tough times aside from 1981 and 1988 Super Bowl appearances.

They went 14 years without a winning record from 1990, went through numerous head coaches, had top draft picks go bust and suffered widespread ridicule when labelled as "The Bungles" as a result.

Even when getting what looked like decent teams with Carson Palmer and Andy Dalton at quarterback, they suffered humiliating first round playoff exits time and time again - including a run of six in seven years.

That is, until now, with a vibrant young attacking team, full of swagger and gusto that we've never really seen before. They're just one game away from the Lombardi Trophy but more importantly look like they can challenge for some time.

Top pick Joe Burrow turned things around

It's a quirk in many ways that the worst teams in the NFL every season get to select from the best players coming out of college. Some see it as a strength of the game and others a big weakness, but having the top pick is no guarantee of success.

The Bengals picked wisely though with Joe Burrow, an Ohio native who looked destined for NFL greatness. He's picked this team up and placed them squarely on his shoulders.

Burrow was a winner in college, but suffered an awful knee injury to end a promising rookie season. Upon his return, though, he's hardly missed a beat and that knee has certainly not stopped his swagger.

Even aside from all the yards and touchdowns, it's the decisions and desire on the field, and the leadership and confidence off it that make a franchise quarterback - and rarely do you get a winning team without one.

What's really special about Burrow though is his calmness under pressure, his laid-back, unflappable demeanour and the perception he gives off that he has everything under control. That winning play-off games, getting to Super Bowls is all part of the plan.

Joe Cool expects to win

Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow

This is no underdog QB.

"He's is built for this stage," said Bengals coach Zac Taylor about Burrow. "He's played for state championships, he's played for national championships, now he's playing for the Super Bowl."

Even when arriving at the Super Bowl, after what is his first full season in the NFL, Burrow remained cool, calm, and collected, and again the message is that he expects to win.

"I have always been a confident player," Burrow said. "More so now than I have ever been before, because I feel like I've proven to myself that I can play at a high level at this level of football."

"I think as a quarterback, it's really important to exude that confidence, not only in yourself but all of your team-mates.

"The quarterback sets the tone for the culture in the locker room."

Bengals road to the Super Bowl

The Bengals finished 10-7 to win the AFC North, which in itself is a shock given Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Baltimore play in what is one of the toughest divisions in the game.

A 5-4 start saw them suffer two huge losses, to the frankly rubbish one-win Jets and a 41-16 drubbing by Cleveland. From 7-6 they then found their form and their impressive win over the Chiefs punched their playoff ticket.

It's been heart-stopping stuff all the way in the playoffs, as they're the first team to reach a Super Bowl after three one-score wins, starting with a real struggle at home against the Raiders.

They won that thanks to a late interception, before going to Nashville and beating the Titans thanks to another late pick followed by a game-winning field goal from impressive rookie kicker Evan McPherson.

He casually told team-mates "Looks like we're going to the AFC title game then" as he ran on the field BEFORE taking that winning kick. That shows what confidence this young upstart team holds.

And McPherson then repeated the feat by booting the overtime winner in Kansas City to stun a Chiefs team that had dominated in the first half and was looking to make a third straight Super Bowl.

After achieving all that, all that's left is the simple task of beating the Rams, in their home stadium, to make Super Bowl history.

How the Bengals play - comebacks and big plays

They haven't got the star names of the Rams, but the Bengals have got a tremendous team spirit and, especially in the playoffs, have the habit of making the right plays at the right times to get through.

They've been down, but they don't panic, they're a fine second half team and make brilliant half time adjustments. With the extended half time at the Super Bowl that could make them even more dangerous. And when the game gets close they just don't flinch.

Joe Burrow can join Joe Montana and Joe Namath as the only QBs to win a college National Championship and Super Bowl (what is it with the name Joe?) and to do so he'll look for his former college team-mate Ja'Marr Chase.

Cincinnati were widely criticised for picking Chase in the draft instead of a lineman to protect Burrow, but they've been proven emphatically correct with the Rookie of the Year having a record season for a first-year receiver.

Chase's 1,455 receiving yards were impressive, but his league-best five 50-plus yard scores shows what a big-play merchant he can be. The ability to take a short pass 50 or 60 yards to the house is a huge weapon.

Coupled with a 1,000-yard rusher and TD machine in Joe Mixon and two alternative receivers in Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd - with all of the playmakers 26 or under - this team is well set for a good few years of attacking play.

The offensive line is the main area of concern, especially against the Rams, but Burrow showed a slippery elusiveness against the Chiefs and seems to relish the challenge. After all, he was sacked nine times against the Titans and still won.

They're no longer the Bungles, but a confident, capable young team that can be a success for years to come. Burrow and his boys aren't here for the experience, and after a season of upsetting the odds what's one more upset?

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