The Cincinnati Bengals lost Super Bowl LVI to the Los Angeles Rams, and there were myriad reasons that can be attributed for their defeat.
Among them …
Here’s another one we can’t forget: Winning the turnover battle — by two, no less! — and not taking better advantage of it.
Matthew Stafford threw two interceptions, and the Bengals turned those into a combined three points. The Bengals did not give the ball away all game.
Bengals coach Zac Taylor agrees that the turnover advantage should have played in their favor more.
If there’s ever a game where the turnover margin has been a big deal historically, it’s the Super Bowl. The Rams became just the third team in 56 such games to lose the turnover battle by two or more and win. (Even teams that were minus-1 in the turnover margin were a mere 4-8 in Super Bowl history.)
Coincidentally, the last Super Bowl team to lose the TO margin by two or more and win was the 1979 Steelers … against the Rams. The game was played just down the road from SoFi Stadium at the Rose Bowl, too, for what that’s worth.
And Super Bowl teams that committed zero turnovers in the game? They were 19-2 coming into Sunday. The Bengals made it 19-3.
Here’s another odd coincidence: The last zero-turnover Super Bowl team to lose before Sunday? The Tennessee Titans, who dropped Super Bowl XXXIV to … the Rams. (Of course, the Rams also had no turnovers in that game.)
But the Bengals still have themselves to blame
On the surface, it’s fair to say the Bengals had zero turnovers. No interceptions plus no lost fumbles equals no turnovers. Simple math.
But if you really want to count empty possessions — i.e. handing the ball over to the opponent not via a punt — then we need to consider two other results: missed field-goal attempts and fourth-down stops.
The Bengals were 2-for-2 on FG tries. But they were 0-for-2 on fourth downs. Both fourth-down failures were big, too.
The first one came on the Bengals’ opening possession. Facing a fourth-and-1 at the Los Angeles 49-yard line, Joe Burrow’s pass attempt to Ja’Marr Chase was incomplete. Suddenly, it was Rams ball in great field position, and six plays later they converted it into a 7-0 lead.
The final fourth-down failure, of course, came on the final drive. Burrow was hit by Aaron Donald, forcing the ball to hit the turf at the feet of Bengals running back Samaje Perine.
And on both fourth-down stops, Perine was stuffed on third-and-1 the play before. Those two non-conversions loomed large, to say the least.
We understand by Perine was in the game both times — at least in theory.
For one, he has been used as the team’s short-yardage back from time to time. Although the question is why. This season, Perine ran the ball nine times with 2 or fewer yards to go; he converted only four of those and had a long run of 2 yards.
Joe Mixon, who had a strong Super Bowl, converted first downs on 28 of his 46 runs this season with 1 or 2 yards to go. Of his failures in those situations, only nine came on third or fourth down (and on one of those plays, Mixon made up for his third-down failure by converting on fourth).
Mixon is the better player, the better short-yardage runner and was having a good game. Taylor was asked about giving it to Perine on the final third down, although he was not asked about why Mixon didn’t get the ball there.
“Yeah, they were getting a little softer and we thought we could steal a first down there and come back and take some shots at the end zone,” Taylor said. “Just didn’t work out.”
Our best guess on why Perine got it instead of Mixon: The Bengals were in their hurry-up offense at that point and could not substitute. Although it’s fair to wonder why Mixon wasn’t in there to start the final drive. He played 44 of the 61 offensive snaps and touched the ball 20 times in the game, but … it’s the last possession of the Super Bowl, you know?
Taylor’s point is that the Bengals should win most games when they’re plus-two in turnovers. Then again, he of all people should know — history notwithstanding — that the turnover margin isn’t some end-all, be-all metric.
The Bengals had lost two prior games this season when winning the turnover margin by two-plus this season — road losses to the Browns and Jets — and were only 3-3 in such games this season.
What might have been on the final play
Adding insult to injury, the Bengals had a shot to win at the end.
Trailing 23-20 and facing a second-and-1 at the Los Angeles 49-yard line with 56 seconds remaining, the Bengals were given a 31.64% chance to win, according to Pro Football Reference. Even after an incomplete pass on second down, the Bengals’ win probability fell to only 27.64%.
Getting stuffed on third down hurt badly, especially after losing a timeout because of it. That dropped their chances to a mere 13.75%.
Had they protected Burrow on fourth down, perhaps the Bengals could even have scored.
Burrow had no realistic chance to get the ball to him, but Chase beat the Rams’ Jalen Ramsey on the Bengals’ final offensive play, streaking wide open downfield with no safety nearby. The Rams appeared to be in Cover 1 (single-high coverage).
In an alternate universe, we were this close to Chase catching a 49-yard TD with about 35 seconds remaining and the Rams likely needing to go for six for the win.
Yet it wasn’t meant to be. Donald pressured Burrow, his last pass was incomplete, and that was that.
Forcing two more turnovers than you commit certainly gives your team a great chance of winning. Teams achieving that in the 2021 regular season were a combined 98-14-1.
But missing on two fourth-down conversions, especially when one could have been a touchdown, must be factored in. The Bengals can add that to the list of reasons why they lost the Super Bowl.