OPINION: The greatest game you need to see

To say that this season has been wild would be an understatement of nearly criminal proportions. The NFC was a juggernaut, and the AFC was weaker than in years past. Teams swapped the #1 seed in both conferences like a game of hot potato. After starting the season 7-0, the Arizona Cardinals finished 11-6 and had a first-round playoff exit. The Kansas City Chiefs were last in the AFC West at one point but made the AFC championship game. There were scandals (we don’t talk about Vegas), controversy over refs and so much more that would take an entirely different column. Heading into Sunday, Feb. 13, two teams that no one expected would still be here, but before I go into the game itself, we need to look at how we even got here.

The NFC divisional games fit the chaos of the regular season, with a cast of characters that would set up for a perfect script. Aaron Rodgers, a multiple-time MVP, and the Green Bay Packers would play the team that passed on him in the 2005 draft: the San Francisco 49ers, which he had lost to three times in the playoffs before. Down in Tampa, the Buccaneers and Tom Brady played the Los Angeles Rams, who Brady had defeated in one of the most boring Super Bowls ever back in Super Bowl LIII.

Both games set the stage for a Rodgers-Brady NFC championship game that would make everyone tune into the rematch of last year’s championship game. However, the Californians forgot to read the script. The 49ers took victory over the Packers 13-10, marking the fourth time in Rodgers’ career that he had been sent home at the hands of San Francisco (an all-time NFL record). Despite trying their best to throw away a 27-3 lead, the LA Rams, with a brand-new quarterback and bolstered air attack, managed to claw their way to a 30-27 victory over the Buccaneers thanks to a Matt Gay walk-off field goal as time expired.

Meanwhile, the AFC saw two incredible shootouts. Rookie kicker Evan McPherson called his shot in Tennessee, reportedly saying “looks like we’re going to the AFC championship game” before walking onto the field to nail another walk-off field goal to win, 19-16. In Kansas City, the world would be treated to a thrilling shootout between two futures of the league: Patrick Mahomes with the Chiefs and Josh Allen with the Buffalo Bills. The two young superstars fought to the end, but the controversial ending to the game (the overtime rules need to change) saw the Chiefs win on a walk-off touchdown pass to Travis Kelce, 42-36.

The league would witness another day of spectacular football in the NFC conference championship when the Rams took down the 49ers 17-20, and McPherson nailed ANOTHER walk-off field goal (this time in overtime) against Mahomes and the Chiefs in Kansas City, winning 27-24. The stage is now set for possibly the most random (yet fantastic) Super Bowl in years.

The Cincinnati Bengals are a team that came out of nowhere this season and one that has the potential to wreak havoc on their division for years to come. The Bengals were excited heading into the current season, led by 2020 first-round pick and LSU golden boy Joe Burrow. After returning from a devastating knee injury that ended his rookie campaign last year, Burrow set the world alight behind an offensive line made of cardboard, throwing for 4,611 yards and 34 TDs in the regular season despite taking 51 sacks.

This season, the primary target for Burrow was rookie Ja’Marr Chase (his teammate at LSU), who hauled in 1,455 of those yards for 13 touchdowns. The young star on the field is helped by a future great on the sideline: Bengals head coach Zac Taylor. A young mind near the front of recent coaching trends, Taylor has assembled a dynamic team on the offensive and defensive side of the ball that has made the most of big situations and game-breaking plays.

However, the Bengals were never expected to be here. In a division with Lamar Jackson and the Ravens’ offense, as well as the Browns’ and Steelers’ defenses, the Bengals weren’t projected to do much. Ignoring the other teams, Cincinnati had been the definition of disaster. Thanks to mismanagement, they had lost fans, players, staff and any semblance of respect from the rest of the league. A 4-11-1 record in 2021 only solidified the idea that the Bengals were doomed.

However, massive collapses by both Baltimore and Cleveland (as well as the Steelers, who played a 39-year-old at quarterback) practically opened the door for Cincinnati to run away with the division. It’s a true comeback story for Burrow, whose gruesome knee injury last year put this season in doubt. Last year, if you told a Bengals fan that they would go to the Super Bowl this year, you likely would have been thrown into the Ohio River.

On the other side of the ball is the Los Angeles Rams, led by their electric head coach Sean McVay, who is the start of the coaching tree that started Taylor’s career. He’s been to the Super Bowl before, losing to the Patriots in Super Bowl LIII, but he has the experience that almost no one on the team does.

Two of the Rams’ starting defenders have been in a Super Bowl before this one: Aaron Donald and Von Miller. Donald is a game-wrecking talent on the defensive line and has won three consecutive Defensive Player of the Year awards, and this year has been no exception to his talent on the line. He’s joined by Von Miller, the MVP of Super Bowl 50 with the Denver Broncos, who was added via trade earlier this year.

Speaking of trades, the offense has two big names courtesy of moves made within the last 12 months. Odell Beckham Jr. is an electric wide receiver, famous for his one-handed catches and antics, but his personality has led to numerous off-the-field issues within his teams. After a highly public and messy divorce from the Cleveland Browns, Beckham joined the Rams as a free agent after the Browns were unable to find a trade partner. The move instantly lifted the cloud surrounding Beckham, and he put up incredible numbers in the final half of the season, boosting LA to the division title.

The big story, however, is their quarterback. Trapped in the dark and dreary warehouse of Ford Field, Matthew Stafford saw daylight after an offseason trade that saw the Detroit Lions and LA Rams swap quarterbacks. Stafford made an immediate impact, proving doubters wrong as he displayed what we all knew: Stafford is good enough to be a champion if he has a team behind him.

A breakout star bolsters the Matt Stafford Show at receiver: Cooper Kupp. The 6-foot-2-inch star receiver wasn’t highly mentioned before this year, but this year has seen the player turn into a supernova. He won the Triple Crown of receiving in 2021 with 145 receptions, 1,947 yards, and 16 touchdowns, leading the league in all three categories. The all-star performance put him in the MVP conversation for a short span this season, and he’s a big reason why the Rams are where they are today. On top of all that, the Rams host the game at the brand-new SoFi Stadium, which will be the second straight time the NFC team has hosted the Super Bowl at their own stadium (The Buccaneers did it last year).

After going over all of the facts, it’s easy to mark the Rams as the favorites in this game. They are the definition of LA: young, modern, flashy and good. They are a high-scoring dominant team on both sides, with big names everywhere you look. Stafford, Beckham, Kupp and running back Sony Michel (added in a trade from the Patriots) make up an offensive monster that will torch even the best defenses. Donald, Miller, cornerback Jalen Ramsey and defensive tackle Sebastian Joseph-Day make up a terrifying defensive force that will punish any mistakes by an offense.

However, there’s just something special about this Bengals team. They were underrated, undervalued and underappreciated when heading into the season — and even during it. In back-to-back weeks, they beat the #1 seeded Tennessee Titans in Nashville and then knocked off the Kansas City juggernaut on the road. There’s no denying that this team has the potential to do great things, and it’s easy to get behind them as a fan. They exude confidence — whether it’s Joe Burrow smoking cigars after the conference championship (a nod to when he did the same thing after winning the national championship with LSU), or a rookie kicker saying “let’s go to Kansas City” before nailing a game-winning field goal on the road.

The stage is set for one heck of a story, no matter what side you’re on. A quarterback looking to prove himself after being trapped in Detroit will face off against a young generational talent in his second year, returning from knee surgery. Two offense-driven coaches will look to outmuscle the other, mentor vs. student. A team used to succeeding with the “Greatest Show on Turf” of the 2000s will play a team that won its first playoff game since 1991 this year. For the first time in years, there’s not one clear team to root against. Both sides have a fantastic story, and both sides are just as easy to cheer for. I’m torn but in a good way.

No matter who wins, it’s going to be a fantastic story.