The Cincinnati Bengals are one win away from one of the biggest turnarounds in NFL history. A 150-1 long shot to win the Super Bowl before the season began, a Super Bowl victory by the Bengals on Sunday against the Los Angeles Rams would match the 1999 St. Louis Rams as the team with the longest odds to win the Super Bowl since the AFL-NFL merger.
Cincinnati didn't just get there thanks to the play of Joe Burrow and Ja'Marr Chase. The Bengals made a flurry of moves this past offseason that led them to the AFC North title and AFC championship. A high-powered offense with skill players across the board was the catalyst toward Cincinnati playing in Super Bowl LVI (after winning four games last season), yet there were moves that few blinked an eye at that contributed to the Bengals playing for a championship.
These are the under-the-radar moves that have Cincinnati in Super Bowl LVI -- and why its important not to take any transaction lightly.
Signing Eli Apple in second wave of free agency
Who would have thought a first-round disaster like Eli Apple would have played such a vital role in the Bengals' playoff run? The Bengals signed Apple days after their big spending spree on the first day of free agency when they landed Trey Hendrickson and Larry Ogunjobi. (Apple was the third cornerback they signed after Chidobe Awuzie and Mike Hilton.)
Apple wasn't expected to end up starting for the Bengals, but Trae Waynes suffered a hamstring injury at the end of the preseason -- forcing Apple into the starting lineup. Apple never looked back after that, playing his best season in a career that was labeled a bust before he signed with Cincinnati.
Targeted 78 times in 617 coverage snaps this season, Apple has allowed just 52.7% of his passes targeting him to be caught for 512 yards and three touchdowns. As the primary defender, Apple has allowed just a 60.8 passer rating when opposing quarterbacks have targeted him -- with just four defensive pass interference penalties.
Apple's postseason numbers haven't been as great in coverage, allowing two passing touchdowns and a 101.9 passer rating when targeted. He still made the key tackle on Tyreek Hill at the goal line to prevent the Kansas City Chiefs from scoring a touchdown at the end of the first half in the AFC Championship Game, giving the Bengals all the momentum to mount their second-half comeback.
The Bengals went from 32 pass touchdowns allowed in 2020 to 26 in 2021. Apple has played a huge role in the decrease.
Trading Billy Price for B.J. Hill
Cincinnati's offensive line has been the weak link of its roster throughout the year. Price wasn't helping matters much this preseason before the Bengals decided to move on from a former first-round center that started just one game for them last year. Price wasn't going to be cut because of his deal, but his time with the Bengals was coming to an end after the year. Getting anything for him was a win.
Leave it to Cincinnati general manager Mike Brown to actually land an impact player for Price in B.J. Hill. Not considered a fit in Patrick Graham's 3-4 defense in New York (Hill played defensive end), Cincinnati decided to slot Hill behind Ogunjobi at the three-technique in a 4-3 defense and the results were imminent.
Hill finished with 28 pressures and 5.5 sacks this year, eventually taking over the starting defensive tackle job after Ogunjobi suffered a foot injury in the wild card playoff win over the Las Vegas Raiders. He stepped up his game this postseason in place of Ogunjobi, having 10 tackles, eight pressures, and 1.5 sacks in three playoff games.
As for Price? He started 15 games for the Giants and allowed two sacks, 18 hurries, and 22 pressures for one of the worst offensive lines in football. The Bengals easily won that trade.
Drafting a kicker
The Bengals have let all of social media know they were the only team to draft a kicker in this year's draft. Thanks to Evan McPherson, many other teams may be considering selecting a kicker this upcoming April.
Cincinnati took McPherson in the fifth round (No. 149 overall) of this year's draft, a decision that made the Bengals known in the postseason because of his clutch kicking. He went 28 of 33 (84.8%) on field goal attempts and 46 of 48 (96.4%) on extra point attempts in the regular season, and he has come up huge in the stretch run. Since missing both his field goals in a Week 5 loss to the Green Bay Packers, McPherson is 35 of 37 on his field goal attempts -- an astonishing 94.6%. He's missed as many extra points as field goals during that stretch.
McPherson's 12 field goals made are the most from 50 yards in a single season in NFL history. He's 22 of 22 on field goals on the road this season, including 10 of 10 from 50-plus yards.
McPherson is 12 of 12 this postseason, the most field goals without a miss by any kicker in a single postseason in league history. He already was the first player in NFL history with four field goals made in multiple games in a single postseason, and he added four more in the AFC Championship game victory over the Chiefs.
If it wasn't for McPherson, the Bengals wouldn't be playing for a championship. Drafting a kicker is a risky move, but fortune favored the bold in Cincinnati.