The Cincinnati Bengals’ Cinderella-run came to an end on Super Bowl Sunday. In front of their home crowd, the Los Angeles Rams secured a 23-20 victory over safety Michael Thomas ’12 and wide receiver Trenton Irwin’s ’19 Bengals to claim Super Bowl LVI.
Although Thomas’s and Irwin’s impact was limited in the title game, both made valuable contributions for Cincinnati over the course of the season. After signing with the Bengals earlier this season on Nov. 15, Thomas appeared in eight games, starting in one. Soon after signing, Thomas took on a big role in the Bengals’ special teams unit. The 2018 Pro-Bowler finished his ninth NFL season with 18 total tackles and a pass deflection.
“What prepared me to have any type of success after leaving Stanford — regardless if that’s in the NFL, if that’s with business, being a great father, just being a great citizen in my community — is the type of system that we ran. It was a pro-style,” Thomas said leading up to Super Bowl Sunday. “Once I got to the NFL, the same defense we ran at Stanford is the same defense I see in the NFL.”
Although Irwin did not appear in the Super Bowl, he did finish the season with two receptions for 34 yards. He also returned three punts for 31 yards.
Stanford is one of 28 college programs to produce multiple players on active rosters for the competing teams.
Super Bowl LVI
The Rams struck first, with quarterback Matthew Stafford connecting with wide receiver Odell Beckham, Jr., in the first quarter for a 17-yard touchdown. The Bengals responded with a field goal.
Stafford found Cooper Kupp, the NFL Offensive Player of the Year, in the end zone early in the second quarter to extend the lead to double digits. Rams’ punter/holder Johnny Hekker, however, mishandled the snap on the extra point, keeping the score at 13-3.
The Bengals responded on the ensuing possession with a trick-play touchdown, capping off a 75-yard, seven-minute drive for the Bengals, to make it a one-score game. Bengals’ quarterback Joe Burrow pitched the ball to running back Joe Mixon, who then threw the touchdown pass to wide receiver Tee Higgins.
The next drive could not have gone much worse for Los Angeles fans. Beckham Jr. reached for a pass that was slightly behind him and suffered a non-contact knee injury. Beckham Jr. finished the game with two receptions for 52 yards and a touchdown.
After witnessing the devastating injury to a star wide receiver, the Rams were desperate to extend the lead before halftime. Bengals’ safety Jessie Bates III, however, intercepted a pass intended for Rams’ receiver Van Jefferson in the end zone to give the ball back to Cincinnati.
An unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on the Bengals worsened their field position and eventually led to a punt, which was returned by Rams’ wide receiver Brandon Powell. Powell was able to advance the ball nine yards before being brought down by Stanford’s own Michael Thomas.
After a lengthy halftime break, which featured performances from Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, 50 Cent, Mary J. Blige, Kendrick Lamar and Eminem, the Bengals came out hot. On the very first play of the half, Burrow connected with Higgins for the receiver’s second touchdown of the night. The no-call, which went in Higgins’ favor, was critiqued by some, however, who believed that Higgins got away with offensive pass interference on Rams’ First Team All Pro cornerback Jalen Ramsey.
The Rams’ rocky start to the second half became even worse when Stafford was intercepted by Cincinnati cornerback Chidobe Awuzie on Los Angeles’s first offensive play of the half. The Bengals were able to turn the turnover into three points via an Evan McPherson field goal.
In just about 10 minutes of game time, the Rams had lost one of their top receiving options and witnessed their 10-point lead turn into a seven-point deficit.
Even so, the Rams never looked back following this 17-0 Cincinnati run. The Los Angeles defense, led by Ramsey and fellow First Team All-Pro defensive tackle Aaron Donald, was able to hold a dynamic Bengals offense scoreless for the final 25 minutes of the game. A Matt Gay field goal brought the Rams within four entering the fourth quarter.
A defensive showdown in the fourth quarter allowed the Bengals to maintain their 20-16 lead for the majority of the fourth quarter. But with just minutes to go, the Rams found themselves deep in Cincinnati territory. The Bengals initially thought they had stopped the Rams on third-and-goal with under two minutes remaining, but a holding penalty gave the Rams a first down at the four-yard line. Kupp was then able to beat Bengals’ cornerback Eli Apple for his second touchdown of the night — this one coming with 1:25 remaining in the game — to give Los Angeles a 23-20 lead.
With the season on the line, the Bengals quickly advanced the ball to midfield via receptions by wide receivers Ja’Marr Chase and Tyler Boyd. With under a minute left, Cincinnati needed one yard to pick up a first down and extend their seasons.
On third-and-one, Aaron Donald made a tackle on running back Samaje Perine at the line of scrimmage to force fourth down. On fourth-and-one, with the Super Bowl on the line, Donald was able to get right to Burrow and force an incompletion that sealed the victory for the Rams.
Kupp, who finished with eight receptions for 92 yards and two touchdowns, was named Super Bowl MVP following the game, but Donald’s impact on the game was equally important.
Cybele Zhang contributed reporting.