Bengals knew from kickoff they weren't 200/1 Super Bowl underdog

Lance Pugmire
USA TODAY Sports+

The Cincinnati Bengals’ culture-changing journey from 200/1 eternal longshot to a slight +3.5-point underdog to win Super Bowl 56 has been a bonding, transformational ride.

So many men changed during the ride that they’ve effectively snapped off the rear-view mirrors that would reflect any glance back to who this long-suffering franchise used to be. 

“As a team, we don’t look outside at people who have nothing to do with playing in the NFL or playing in a game," Bengals running back Joe Mixon said. 

MORE:How Joe Mixon changed his game to help get the Cincinnati Bengals to the Super Bowl

The Bengals, a year removed from the good fortune of drafting quarterback Joe Burrow thanks to the indignity of the NFL’s worst record, skidded through a 4-11-1 campaign last season. 

Staring up at AFC North opposition — including former MVP Lamar Jackson and the Baltimore Ravens, the Cleveland Browns and perennial power Pittsburgh Steelers — the Bengals suffered a Week 2 loss to the lowly Chicago Bears and appeared bound to live down to expectations. 

“When you looked at the beginning of the season, nobody would’ve thought the Bengals would be here in this position, but here we are,” Mixon said. “And we’re here, obviously, to seize the moment and seize the opportunity.” 

Veteran running back Joe Mixon's jersey ranked No. 4 for sales at the Bengals Pro Shop this season.

The Bengals surged to rout the Ravens and Steelers on the way to a stunning ride that led them to post their first playoff victory in 30 years, knocking off the AFC top-seeded Tennessee Titans and to rallying from an 18 points deficit at Arrowhead Stadium to defeat Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs in overtime. 

Those 200/1 odds are long gone, except for those rare and fortunate few still holding tickets on the Bengals to accomplish something they never have following two past losses to Joe Montana and the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowls in the 1980s. 

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Oddsmakers immediately set the Bengals as a 3.5-point underdog to the NFC champion Los Angeles Rams, and bettors haven’t swarmed to the favorites as the line remained 3.5 on Monday. 

Bengals linebacker Logan Wilson, charged with pressuring Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford to defuse his interest in elite targets Cooper Kupp and Odell Beckham Jr., said his teammates opted early on to disregard discouraging information such as their staggering odds. 

They focused on their inside information, such as the 100-percent turnout at offseason training activities, the faith the defense had in coordinator Lou Anarumo and the fastening chemistry that emerged through training camp. 

“We only can control what we can control,” Wilson said. “That’s one thing we can’t (control), so we didn’t worry about that stuff. We just worked to collectively get better — not only as a defense, but as a team. 

“Where we are now speaks to the guys Coach (Zac) Taylor has brought in. We have a lot of selfless guys who don’t care about stats. They have one goal in mind, to get a win. So, when you have guys like that, your chances at success are actually pretty good.” 

That internal faith has been abundantly evident in the playoffs, as the Bengals withstood Burrow getting sacked nine times before knocking off Tennessee by intercepting Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill three times. 

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Then, in Kansas City, the defense leaned on Anarumo’s creative three-man front and impressively stiffened twice near the goal line, while Mixon found a big hole in overtime to set up a winning field goal. 

“Our mantra on defense is he’s going to put us in position to be successful,” Wilson said of his coordinator, crediting the coach for a light approach akin to the good-natured style of the charismatic Burrow. “You can’t be serious all the time or the guys start walking around on eggshells,” Wilson said. 

MORE:How Zac Taylor and Lou Anarumo outcoached the Chiefs to win the AFC title

Burrow balked at accepting the premise that, because of that looseness, Cincinnati enters the Super Bowl with less pressure than the Rams, who have invested heavily in their stadium and in personnel to reach this defining moment. 

“Your preparation makes or breaks how much confidence you have in yourself. That’s why I have the utmost confidence in my guys,” Burrow said. 

He’ll need it, confronting the Rams’ defensive star power that includes former defensive player of the year Aaron Donald, former Super Bowl MVP Von Miller and elite cornerback Jalen Ramsey. 

“They’re a very good defensive front, but they’ve worked very hard to be in this position, and I know our coaching staff is going to put them in position to execute,” Burrow said. “Obviously, you see guys like Aaron Donald, Leonard Floyd, Von Miller – those guys are going to get pressure. So, it’s going to be about how I handle the pressure, to get the ball out of my hands and into my playmakers in space.” 

The Bengals know enough about Super Bowl history to understand more substantial pregame underdogs have won, counting the “Joe” who led the New York Jets to Super Bowl III and the 25-year-old quarterback — like Burrow — Tom Brady who knocked off the Rams 20 years ago. 

Mixon has watched so many of those games since the time he started playing football at age 10, dreaming of a day that arrives Sunday. 

"To be here with a team so special, I just need to do whatever I can to seize the moment," he said. “I understand this lack of experience you guys talk about all the time, and I understand this is the biggest game of them all, but I know a lot of guys are ready for this." 

“The bigger the moment, the more we have risen to the occasion, so I’m looking forward to going out there on the biggest stage in front of millions upon millions of fans and playing loose and executing and making plays.” 

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