The tone for a comeback that erased a 14-point halftime deficit in San Francisco’s 27-24 overtime win over the Rams on Jan. 9 was set in the final 38 seconds of the first half, when the 49ers drove 61 yards in six plays for a field goal to cut the Rams’ lead to 17-3.
The 49ers received the second-half kickoff and scored touchdowns on their next two possessions to tie the score at 17 before winning the regular-season finale in extra time.
The Rams can’t afford a similar letdown in Sunday’s Super Bowl LVI against the Cincinnati Bengals, who are extremely dangerous in the final two minutes before halftime.
The Bengals outscored opponents 80-49 in the last two minutes of the first half in 20 games this season — that’s 80 points in a total of 40 minutes. Their 63 points in that time frame of 17 regular-season games was the fourth highest in the NFL.
Quarterback Joe Burrow has thrived in hurry-up situations, completing 50 of 67 passes for 654 yards in the final two minutes before halftime, and rookie Ja’Marr Chase ranked first in the NFL in receiving yards (248) and catches of at least 20 yards (five), and tied for second in receiving scores (three) in that stretch.
“We have guys who can hit a home run at any time,” running back Joe Mixon said this past week. “Joe Burrow can slice and dice his way through defenses. We have receivers — Chase, [Tee] Higgins, [Tyler] Boyd — who at any moment can be a home-run threat.”
That late-first-half execution contributed to Cincinnati’s strong performance in the “middle eight,” the last four minutes of the first half and first four minutes of the second half.
The Bengals outscored opponents 112-56 in that stretch, tied with Dallas for the NFL lead. The Rams were tied with Indianapolis for third with a plus-47-point differential.
The Bengals also scored 56 points on their first possessions of the second half this season, second in the NFL to Green Bay’s 72 points.
“We’re a very talented offense,” Mixon said. “And when you go through all these little moments in walk-throughs and practice, it’s not surprising or shocking. That’s just us going out there and executing.”
One that got away
Burrow won a national championship with Louisiana State and the Heisman Trophy in 2019 and could win an NFL title in his first Super Bowl on Sunday, but even if the Bengals beat the Rams in SoFi Stadium, there will still be a gaping hole on Burrow’s resume.
When Burrow, 25, was a senior at Athens High School, his team lost the 2014 Ohio Division III state title game to Toledo Central Catholic 56-52 in Ohio Stadium, the Bulldogs (14-1) suffering their only loss of the season and falling short in their quest for their first title.
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Burrow completed 26 of 45 passes for 446 yards and six touchdowns and rushed 10 times for 69 yards in a game that featured a combined 1,217 yards of offense, but he still called that Thursday night in December the “worst day of my life.”
Seven years later, on the verge of Super Bowl LVI, Burrow still feels the sting of that loss.
“Oh man, I think about that game all the time,” Burrow said this past week. “We were so close, and playing with a group of friends for our entire childhood, it was the culmination of a lot of hard work and time we put in together, and we just didn’t get the job done.
“I plan on winning a Super Bowl eventually, if not this weekend, and the state championship in high school is going to be that one that eluded me.”
The loss of Rams tight end Tyler Higbee, who caught 61 passes for 560 yards and five touchdowns, to a knee injury and reserve offensive lineman Joe Noteboom to a chest injury will thrust tight end Kendall Blanton into a starting role and offensive lineman Alaric Jackson into a more prominent role Sunday.
Blanton spent 2019 and 2020 on the practice squad and saw limited action in 2021 before catching five passes for 57 yards in the NFC title game. He and Jackson are among the less-heralded players who have stepped up in the wake of injuries, including defensive lineman Greg Gaines and safety Nick Scott.
“I think it says so much about their approach, being ready for when their moment comes, and also the coaches’ ability to be able to develop the entirety of the roster,” Rams coach Sean McVay said. “That’s why we’re in this position.”
Charity starts at home
Rams receiver Odell Beckham Jr. donated at least 19 Super Bowl tickets to the Watts Rams youth football program.
“The kids are what motivate me to keep going,” Beckham said. “Just being able to give the opportunity to someone else … that could motivate them to chase their dreams and make it to the NFL and possibly play in a Super Bowl of their own.”
Staff writer Gary Klein contributed to this report.