For the first time since 1989, the Cincinnati Bengals are headed to the Super Bowl.
And after playing in the Super Bowl the previous two seasons, the Kansas City Chiefs are headed home.
Rookie kicker Evan McPherson made a 31-yard field goal in overtime Sunday, capping an 18-point rally by the Bengals en route to a 27-24 upset of the host Chiefs in the AFC Championship Game.
Cincinnati, which had the worst record in the NFL two seasons ago, overcame a 21-3 first-half deficit against Patrick Mahomes and Kansas City, holding the high-powered Chiefs to three points after halftime.
Joe Burrow threw for 250 yards and two touchdowns, and McPherson went 4-for-4 on field goals for the fourth-seeded Bengals, who will face either the Los Angeles Rams or San Francisco 49ers in the Super Bowl in Inglewood, California, on February 13th.
“We’ve got a special team, and we’ve overcome a lot of deficits this year,” Bengals coach Zac Taylor said. “We always believe in all three of our phases. Everyone stepped up. We’re not done yet.”
Mahomes passed for 275 yards and three touchdowns, with two interceptions, for Kansas City. The second seeded Chiefs, who got the ball first in overtime last weekend and drove for the winning touchdown against Buffalo in the divisional playoffs, again won the overtime coin toss Sunday.
However, Mahomes was intercepted on the third play on a deep ball that was broken up by Jessie Bates III and intercepted by Vonn Bell. Burrow and Joe Mixon helped move the ball deep into Kansas City territory, and McPherson made his kick with 9:22 left to stun the home crowd.
“Usually when you lose a coin flip to those guys, you’re going home,” Burrow said. “But our defense really stepped up and made plays in the second half.”
With the game tied 21-21, McPherson snuck a 52-yard field goal inside the left upright with 6:04 to play in the fourth quarter, giving the Bengals their first lead of the game.
That, of course, left more than enough time for Mahomes, who drove the Chiefs inside the Cincinnati 10 with a chance to tie or win.
On the next-to-last play of regulation, Mahomes attempted to buy time deep in the pocket before he was stripped of the ball by Cincinnati’s Sam Hubbard. Kansas City recovered, but it forced Harrison Butker to attempt a 44-yard field goal, which he drilled as time expired to force overtime.
Mahomes threw first-half TD passes to Tyreek Hill, Travis Kelce and Mecole Hardman, helping the hosts build a 21-3 cushion.
“When you’re up 21-3 in a game, you can’t lose it,” Mahomes said, “and I put that on myself.”
The Bengals finally generated momentum in the final 65 seconds of the first half, beginning with Samaje Perine taking a screen pass 41 yards for a touchdown to get the visitors within 21-10. Then after the Chiefs drove to the Cincinnati one yard line, the Bengals tackled Hill inbounds on the final play of the half, causing the typically crisp Kansas City offense to leave points on the table.
“I was hoping we could get the ball in the end zone,” Reid said. “I probably gave them the wrong play. ... I probably could’ve given them something better than that.”
Cincinnati’s defense opened the second half strong, as well. The Bengals forced punts on the first two Chiefs possessions and then got within 21-13 on a 31-yard McPherson field goal.
Two plays later, 303-pound lineman B.J. Hill tipped a Mahomes pass and intercepted it, leading to Burrow’s TD strike to Ja’Marr Chase on third-and-goal from the 2. The ensuing two-point conversion pass to a wide-open Trent Taylor tied the score at 21.
Even after Burrow was intercepted by L’Jarius Sneed, Cincinnati’s defense forced another punt, sacking Mahomes on third down for the second consecutive drive.
“We gave up three touchdowns,” Bates said. “We go into halftime, like, ‘Hey, we gotta get it together.’ We know what we’re about. Defense wins championships, and we did that today.”
Home Super Bowl
Matthew Stafford never won a playoff game in 12 seasons with the Detroit Lions.
Freed from Detroit last offseason, the 33-year-old quarterback’s first season with the Los Angeles Rams will conclude in the Super Bowl.
Stafford’s desire to play for a winning team reached new heights on Sunday night as Matt Gay’s 30-yard field goal with 1:46 remaining gave Los Angeles a 20-17 victory over the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC Championship Game.
It will be the Rams’ second Super Bowl appearance in four seasons, with the first in that span coming with Jared Goff at quarterback. Goff was sent to the Lions in the deal for Stafford.
“You can’t write this story any better,” Stafford said after Sunday’s game. “I’m at a loss for words. I’m just having a blast playing ball with these guys and, shoot, we have one more at the home stadium.”
That’s true. Los Angeles will face the Cincinnati Bengals in Super Bowl LVI at SoFi Stadium in Inglewood.
The Super Bowl appearance will be the fifth in franchise history for the Rams - two coming when the franchise was located in St. Louis.
Los Angeles lost 13-3 to the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl after the 2018 season.
Rams coach Sean McVay made it known the return trip wasn’t because of him.
“The players pulled it off,” McVay said. “I love this group. We got one more ... I’m so proud of these players.”
Stafford completed 31 of 45 passes for 337 yards, two touchdowns and one interception.
“I have the opportunity to be in a game that I’ve always wanted to play in,” Stafford said of the Super Bowl.
Travin Howard recorded the game-clinching interception with 1:09 left as Los Angeles snapped a six-game losing streak against the 49ers. Cooper Kupp caught 11 passes for 142 yards and two touchdowns.
Jimmy Garoppolo completed 16 of 30 passes for 232 yards and two touchdowns for San Francisco, which blew a 10-point lead in the fourth quarter. Deebo Samuel and George Kittle caught scoring passes, and Jimmie Ward had an interception.
“Losing in the Super Bowl probably (stinks) a little bit more,” Kittle said, referring to the 49ers’ 31-20 loss to the Chiefs two seasons ago. “I haven’t had a chance to process this one yet. But I will.
“Football is a game of the highest of highs and the lowest of lows.”
Gay’s game-winning boot was set up by Stafford’s 25-yard completion to Kupp to the 49ers’ 12-yard line.
After the score, San Francisco couldn’t move the ball, and Aaron Donald’s pressure forced Garoppolo to make a desperate underhanded toss that Howard picked off to seal the victory.
Odell Beckham Jr. caught nine passes for 113 yards for Los Angeles, which outgained the 49ers in total yards 396 to 282 and had big edges in offensive plays (76 to 50) and first downs (25 to 16).
The 49ers led 17-7 after Garoppolo spotted a wide-open Kittle in the end zone and connected on a 16-yard scoring pass with 1:59 remaining in the third quarter.
Los Angeles responded with Stafford tossing an 11-yard scoring pass to Kupp to cut the deficit to three with 13:30 left in the game.
The 49ers had a chance to deflate the Rams’ comeback with just under 10 minutes left, but safety Jaquiski Tartt dropped a sure interception.
“No excuses!! I deserve all the criticism my way!,” Tartt said on his Twitter account. “Opportunity I dream of I came up short!!! Let my brothers down!! It Still won’t define me as a person/player. Only will get stronger and better... #Believdat”
The Rams capitalized by tying the score at 17 when Gay booted a 40-yard field goal with 6:49 left.
San Francisco led 10-7 at halftime courtesy of Robbie Gould’s 38-yard field goal as time expired. Gould has converted 21 of 21 field goals in the postseason during his career.
The Rams struck first when Stafford hit Kupp for a 16-yard touchdown on third-and-13 with 8:46 left in the half. The score capped an 18-play, 97-yard drive that took 9:33 off the clock.
The 49ers knotted the score when Samuel caught a receiver screen from Garoppolo and shed four tackles along the way to a 44-yard touchdown with 6:10 remaining in the half.