That Super Bowl Was, Officially, One for the Books
In a lifetime of writing about football, I have found one truth and it this: It is humanly impossible to fairly officiate a professional football game. Impossible. There are too many players. They are moving much too fast. They are in constant, violent combat. The rules are way too subjective. Officiating an NFL game is a bit like playing the word game “Absurdle,” where the AI repeatedly changes the word in question in order to elude your guesses.
Every close NFL game — every single one — will come down, at least in part, to a shaky call or series of calls by the referees.
That was the destiny of Super Bowl LVI, Bengals vs. Rams, whichever team won, whichever team lost. I suppose this is the closest thing to justice in pro football, the integrity of both teams getting screwed, the winning retort that goes something like, “Yeah, OK, but what about the call they messed up earlier?”
But before we get to the messed-up calls — this was a weird Super Bowl, wasn’t it? I mean, the whole week felt weird. There’s something that sometimes happens during March Madness that you might call “the Cinderella Hangover.” What happens is that there are a whole bunch of thrilling, electrifying early-round upsets — down go Duke and Kentucky and North Carolina and Kansas and all of those superpowers — and everybody loves it, everybody’s buzzing.
And then you look up and the Final Four is filled with inspiring but not-so-great teams that you don’t really care too much about, and the games aren’t all that great, and it’s like: Ah, well, that didn’t work out quite as well as I had expected.
It was definitely exciting to have new blood in the Super Bowl — this was the first Super Bowl in almost 20 years that did not feature one of these five players:
You will notice, all five of those guys played in the AFC — the NFC has been much more wide-open over the last two decades — and so it was really the Bengals who turned this NFL postseason inside out. They are a thrillingly flawed team with a brilliant young quarterback, superhero playmakers at wide receiver, a Swiss cheese offensive line and a you-never-know-what-you’re-getting defense that relies just a bit too much on Eli Apple, who we will get back to in a minute.
Sure, it was super fun watching them shock everybody in these playoffs. They won that Raiders game after the referees refused to admit they inadvertently blew their touchdown pass dead. They won the Titans game despite Burrow getting sacked nine times; it helped that Titans coach Mike Vrabel and his staff created a complicated gameplan that seemed specially designed to lose. They won the Chiefs game despite falling behind 21-3; that was when the aliens came and replaced Mahomes with Jamarcus Russell in disguise.
But then, the Bengals were in the Super Bowl, and as happy as I felt for my friend Chardon Jimmy and other lifelong Bengals fans … it just felt off. That’s not to say that I thought the Bengals were overmatched; I actually picked them to win.
But that’s only because the Rams hardly seemed like the most compelling Super Bowl team either. Yes, they were in the Super Bowl three years ago, and again, I’m super happy for them, particularly happy for Matthew Stafford, who had spent a lifetime getting sacked and putting up mega-numbers for the hopeless Lions, particularly happy for Aaron Donald who might just be the best defensive football player I’ve ever seen. But, I don’t know, all week leading up to the game, Rams-Bengals just didn’t feel like a Super Bowl. It kind of felt like a Thursday night game in October.
And then the game began, and the Rams’ yellow clashed hard with the Bengals’ orange. It just LOOKED off.
Of course, all of that is just pregame perception. The game itself was compelling. The Rams seemed the better team for most of the first half — their defensive front manhandled that makeshift Bengals offensive line (shutting them down on fourth-and-one, for example), and Stafford threw touchdown passes to Odell Beckham Jr.* and Cooper Kupp.
*The OBJ touchdown pass was particularly galling for Cleveland Browns fans, who have mostly come to the conclusion that he purposely flopped and dropped and loafed his way out of Cleveland, leaving mayhem in his wake. There’s probably some truth to that — he clearly wanted out of Cleveland — but I still blame the coaches and the quarterback at least somewhat for never figuring out a way to integrate the guy into the offense. He’s undoubtedly a perplexing and challenging personality, and it isn’t easy, but the Browns gave up two high draft picks for him, and he was in Cleveland for two and a half seasons, and in the end they felt like they had no choice but to just cut him. That’s an organizational failure on the highest level.
The Rams led 13-3 — they botched an extra point which, weirdly, might have won the game for them — and it seemed like this one would not end up being close.
But the Bengals are resilient. They scored a touchdown near the end of the first half on a halfback pass from Joe Mixon to Tee Higgins — always fun to see those Super Bowl trick plays. They scored another touchdown on the first play of the second half, and we’ll get into that one in a minute. Then they got an immediate interception and kicked a field goal to take a 20-13 lead.
And suddenly it was the Rams who seemed in big trouble.
The Rams seemed in big trouble because that Bengals defense — which was middle-of-the pack or worse in most defensive categories this season — decided to transform in the 1985 Bears, particularly against the run. By the way, let me show you exactly what I mean about the Bengals’ defensive stats for the season:
Points allowed: 17th in the NFL.
Yards allowed: 18th in the NFL.
Forced turnovers: 16th in the NFL.
Passing yards allowed: 26th in the NFL.
But one thing the Bengals have been able to do all year is stuff the run — and this game was a Ted Talk on the subject. Time and time again, the Rams would try to break through the line, and Bengals linebacker Logan Wilson would blast through with his best Dick Butkus impression, or defensive end Sam Hubbard would run around his man and get to the ball at the same time as the running back, or massive D.J. Reader would stand up three blockers, creating an impenetrable wall.
The Rams managed a field goal before the end of the third quarter, but that took us into the fourth quarter with the Bengals up by four and both team’s defenses ready to make the final stand.
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OK, let’s go back to the Bengals’ touchdown to start the second half. Joe Burrow dropped back, scrambled away from pressure, and unleashed a bomb to Tee Higgins, who was being blanketed by Los Angeles’ all-world cornerback, Jalen Ramsey. On first look, the two seemed to be hand-fighting, Ramsey fell down, Higgins reeled in the pass and ran untouched the rest of the way for a touchdown.
On second look, it was clear that Higgins had grabbed Ramsey’s facemask and flung him to the ground with the ball in the air, which is illegal in about 27 different ways. It was the sort of blown no-call that doesn’t seem possible — what are they watching? — until you realize that they are watching 22 players crash into each other at ludicrous speed and are probably missing five flagrant penalties on every play.
So when it looked like the Rams were going to lose, it was this blown officials call that figured to make its way through history. Rams fans would never forget.
But with 6:13 left in the fourth quarter, the Rams got the ball back, and it was win-or-lose time. The Rams faced fourth-and-one from their own 30; a jet sweep to Cooper Kupp picked up seven yards and the first down.
The Rams faced third-and-two from their own 45. A short Stafford pass to Brycen Hopkins picked up six and the first down.
The Rams moved the ball into Cincinnati territory, and then it was that guy Kupp again — first catching a bullet pass over the middle for 22 yards and then a quick pass for 8 more, taking the ball to Bengals 16.
A quick word about Cooper Kupp: How does that guy get so open all the time? He just had the most ridiculous statical season in NFL history — I mean look at these numbers: 178 catches, 2,425 yards, 22 touchdowns. But how? Cincinnati’s Ja’Marr Chase calls him magical, which makes sense — great magicians respect great magicians. The guy just reads defenses a little better, runs slightly better routes, makes every kind of catch in any sort of traffic, and is uniquely dangerous after the catch.
OK, after Cam Akers broke off an 8-yard run — the Rams’ longest of the day — the Rams had first-and-goal from the Cincinnati 8.
On third and goal, Stafford tried to hit Kupp over the middle, but the ball was batted away by Logan Wilson. A flag was thrown. Holding was called on Wilson, giving the Rams a first down.
Was there holding on the play? I don’t see it. I mean, there’s some contact there, Wilson definitely was using his hands, but it sure didn’t look like holding. But more to the point, in a game where the officials were basically letting everything like this go, it was an astonishing and terrible call in that moment.
But here’s an even crazier part — the play should have been blown dead before it ever happened because the Rams had committed a clear and unquestionable false start. Pretty much THE ENTIRE RAMS LINE moved before the ball was snapped.
And now you could sense that it was the Bengals’ fans who would be stuck griping about bad officiating for all eternity. On the play after the phantom holding, Cooper Kupp caught what looked like the go-ahead touchdown. But the Rams’ Rob Havenstein was called for holding; and I guess he was holding as he tried to prevent Sam Hubbard from closing in on a scrambling Stafford, but there had to be 25 more egregious holding penalties during this game that weren’t called.
Anyway, that holding penalty was offset by a Vonn Bell unnecessary roughness call in the back of the end zone. And that one, people seemed to agree, was the right call — and it might have been the right call. I think their helmets crashed. But on replay, slowed down, it looks like Bell mostly hit him with his shoulder and was trying to knock the ball free.
But that’s pro football, right? Who even knows what a penalty is?
On the next play, Eli Apple was called for pass interference, and that one seemed like the right call … or anyway it seemed more glaring than the other calls.
It still wasn’t as bad as the missed facemask fling play.
Anyway, Cooper Kupp beat Apple for the touchdown on the next play, leading basically a whole bunch of people around the NFL to taunt Apple on social media. Apple has said some stupid things — like the nasty and unprovoked attack on the city of New Orleans — and it seemed like a whole bunch of people were just waiting for him to screw up in a big way. Getting beat for the game-losing Super Bowl catch seemed to suffice. Lots of people mocked Apple, staring with Chiefs receiver Mecole Hardman:
And then working all the way through the NFL and eventually getting to Lamar Jackson.
The Bengals still had a good chance to tie or win the game — they got the ball back with 1:25 left and two timeouts. And Burrow connected with Chase for 17 yards, then with Tyler Boyd for 9 to move the ball into Rams territory. It seemed all but certain that the Bengals would at least give their rookie assassin kicker Evan McPherson a chance to tie it.
But then this happened:
2nd down and 1: Burrow tried to throw a deep ball to … nobody. The play just looked off from the start.
3rd down and 1: The Bengals tried to run Samaji Perine toward Aaron Donald in an effort to pick up the first down. I don’t know what play would have been less likely to work. Samaji Perine is a 26-year-old backup running back on his third team who had gotten one run in the game and been stuffed for no yards. Aaron Donald is probably the greatest defensive tackle in NFL history. Maybe there’s stuff I don’t know. Maybe starter Joe Mixon was hurt. Maybe Perine ran the wrong way (it did look blocked pretty well to the left).
Whatever, the conclusion was as predictable as a Senate vote; Donald shed the blocker and stopped Perine short of the first down.
4th down and 1: Joe Burrow dropped back and was immediately swarmed by, who else, Aaron Donald. He flailed and spun and catapulted the ball in the general direction of a receiver, but it had no chance.
And that was the game. It was everything that NFL football is — exciting, frustrating, exasperating, thrilling, violent, valiant, overwrought and inundated with crypto commercials. Bengals fans will always feel they were cheated. Rams fans will always feel that, in the end, justice was served.
Oh, and on that fourth-and-one play? Aaron Donald lined up offside.