Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs came incredibly close to making it back to the Super Bowl for a third straight year. But instead of the Chiefs, the Cincinnati Bengals will represent the AFC in Super Bowl LVI after shocking the two-time defending AFC champions 27-24 in overtime.
Over the past month, the Bengals ended the franchise's 31-year-old playoff win drought. They also won the franchise's first-ever road playoff game. On Sunday, Cincinnati advanced to the Super Bowl for the first time since January 1989 and they accomplished the feat in historic fashion, overcoming an 18-point deficit.
The Bengals also join a small list of surprising Super Bowl participants. Let's take a look at where this Bengals team ranks as far as the most surprising teams in Super Bowl history.
5. 2003 Panthers
Carolina joined the '81 49ers as the only teams to reach the Super Bowl after owning the league's worst record two years prior. The Panthers improved to 7-9 in 2002, John Fox's first season as coach. They went 11-5 in 2003 behind a hard-hitting defense and an offense that was led by quarterback Jake Delhomme, Pro Bowl running back Stephen Davis and wideouts Steve Smith and Muhsin Muhammad. The Panthers and Patriots engaged in a classic Super Bowl, with the two teams scoring a combined 29 points in the fourth quarter. Unfortunately for the Panthers, they became the second team to fall victim to a last-second Adam Vinatieri field goal at the end of a Super Bowl.
4. 2001 Patriots
New England had fallen back to mediocrity five years after advancing to Super Bowl XXXI. But led by Tom Brady and several key holdovers from the Patriots' 1996 squad, the Patriots shocked the football world by upsetting the heavily favored Steelers in the AFC title game. For an encore, they upset Kurt Warner and the Rams' "Greatest Show on Turf" offense in Super Bowl XXXVI. In what would become a pretty common occurrence, Brady led the Patriots on a game-winning drive that was capped off by Vinatieri's game-winning field goal. It was the first of six Super Bowl wins for the Brady/Bill Belichick-led Patriots.
3. 1981 49ers
Bill Walsh's team became the first squad in NFL history to win the Super Bowl after having the league's worst record two years earlier. A 6-10 outfit in 1980, the 49ers started the season 1-2 before finishing with a 13-3 regular-season record. Along with Joe Montana and the 49ers' West Coast offense, the 49ers' quick turnaround was due to the emergence of three rookie defensive backs, led by future Hall of Famer Ronnie Lott. San Francisco was the recipient of Dwight Clark's iconic catch against the Cowboys in the NFC Championship Game. They had a massive lead over the Bengals in Super Bowl XVI before holding on for a 26-21 victory.
2. 1999 Rams
There was some optimism in St. Louis heading into the '99 season. The team had traded for Pro Bowl running back Marshall Faulk, acquired former Washington quarterback Trent Green and drafted receiver Torry Holt. That optimism came crashing down, however, when Green suffered a season-ending injury during the preseason. The injury led to the improbable rise of Warner, who took the league by storm that season while leading the Rams to a 13-3 record.
Warner and the Rams led the Titans 16-0 in Super Bowl XXXIV before needing a 73-yard touchdown from Warner to Isaac Bruce and a game-saving tackle by Mike Jones on the game's final play to prevail in one of the most competitive Super Bowls ever played.
1. 2021 Bengals
Cincinnati joined the '81 49ers and '03 Panthers as the only teams to reach the Super Bowl after owning the league's worst record two years earlier. Playing in one of the NFL's most competitive division, the Bengals overcame the odds behind the play of Burrow, wideouts Ja'Marr Chase, Tee Higgins, Tyler Boyd and running back Joe Mixon, and a defense that could rush the passer and stop the run, while also coming up with big plays in big moments. The Bengals' defense made a slew of big plays during the playoffs, none bigger than Vonn Bell's interception of Mahomes in overtime that set up Evan McPherson's game-winning kick.
The Bengals captured the AFC North and then knocked off the top-seeded Titans and the two-time defending AFC champion Chiefs. They also overcame the franchise's stigma of being a team that always came up short in big moments. Cincinnati did that in spades to become the most unexpected Super Bowl team ever.
Bengals AFC Champions gear now available
The Bengals are going to the Super Bowl for the first time since 1989. Celebrate the historic win by picking up official Bengals AFC Champions gear. Shop shirts, hoodies, hats and more here.
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