After a string of five Super Bowls featuring either Tom Brady or Patrick Mahomes, on Sunday, two new quarterbacks, Cincinnati’s Joe Burrow and the Rams’ Matthew Stafford, made sure that trend didn’t continue.
Two weeks from now, the Cincinnati Bengals will face the Los Angeles Rams at SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, Calif., in the Super Bowl on Feb. 13. It will be only the second time that two quarterbacks who were No. 1 draft picks will face off in the championship game (Peyton Manning and Cam Newton were the first pair in 2016).
Both quarterbacks survived close calls on Sunday to get there. Burrow led the Bengals to a second-half comeback against Kansas City in the A.F.C. championship game to advance to his first Super Bowl, the third in Cincinnati’s franchise history. A few hours later, the Rams advanced to their second Super Bowl since the 2018 season after getting past San Francisco in the N.F.C. championship game.
In just his second season as an N.F.L. starter, Burrow made the Bengals’ postseason aspirations a reality, despite the franchise going 31 years without a playoff win. Cincinnati finished the regular season with a 10-7 record and one of the league’s hottest offenses, powered by Burrow’s poise, a record-setting season by the rookie receiver Ja’Marr Chase and a career rushing season from running back Joe Mixon. Chase, who topped 1,400 receiving yards in the regular season, caught a game-tying touchdown in the A.F.C. championship game on Sunday.
The group, which is as young and inexperienced as any team in the postseason, got past Derek Carr and the Raiders in overtime in the wild-card round. Then the Bengals used a walk-off field goal against the A.F.C.’s top-seeded Tennessee Titans to win the divisional round. On Sunday, the team stunned Kansas City, the A.F.C.’s perennial conference champion, in the conference title game — keyed by a defense that stifled Mahomes, Kansas City’s superstar quarterback.
Burrow’s success in his final season at Louisiana State foreshadowed the successful and electrifying N.F.L. quarterback he had the potential to be. His confidence was lauded by teammates, and he has been credited with implemented a winning culture in Cincinnati, despite not even playing a full season his rookie year.
After he tore multiple ligaments in his left knee in Week 11, he faced a test of how he would respond.
“I’m sure there was a lot of uncertainty on his end,” Bengals Head Coach Zac Taylor told reporters this week. “He wanted to respond the right way.”
The Rams’ general manager, Les Snead, brought in Stafford during the off-season after the team decided that Jared Goff, who led the Rams to a Super Bowl a couple of seasons ago, was not its best quarterback for the future. Stafford, who was known for his big arm, had built a formidable reputation as the Detroit Lions’ quarterback. Yet he had never made the postseason, something that many credited to a lack of talent around him.
In Los Angeles, he forged a connection with one of the most productive receivers in football, Cooper Kupp, and found another burgeoning weapon in receiver Van Jefferson. After the deep threat Robert Woods tore an anterior cruciate ligament during the season, Stafford found another reliable target in Beckham, who was one of the most talented receivers in the N.F.L. but had been a clear mismatch with his previous team, the Cleveland Browns.
Snead’s methods of putting together this Super Bowl-caliber team have been unconventional and aggressive. He decided to forgo draft picks for established, impactful players like Beckham, who gave Stafford a dependable second target to replace Woods. Los Angeles also plucked a former Super Bowl Most Valuable Player, Von Miller, from the Broncos to play alongside the dominant defensive end Aaron Donald. Then the Rams added Sony Michel, a former Patriots running back, when Cam Akers tore an Achilles’ tendon before the season.
That all added up to a team that many predicted had too much talent not to reach this stage.
Los Angeles’s road to the Super Bowl was not without bumps, however, as Stafford piled up late-game turnovers down the season’s stretch. But after throwing 17 interceptions during the regular season, he has turned the ball over just once so far in the playoffs.
The Rams glided past Arizona in the wild-card round and survived a Tampa Bay comeback attempt in the divisional round, with Stafford using a long pass to Kupp late in the game to set up a winning field goal. Then, on Sunday, Los Angeles outlasted the 49ers in a close N.F.C. championship game.
The Super Bowl matchup appears to favor the Rams, who indeed opened as a 4-point betting favorite in sports books. Taylor, who has been the Bengals’ head coach since 2019, was the Rams’ quarterbacks coach under Head Coach Sean McVay before that. He was with the team from 2017 to 2018 and was a part of Los Angeles’s Super Bowl run at the end of the 2018 season.
Los Angeles seems to have the advantage at the line of scrimmage, with Donald, Miller and Leonard Floyd waiting to face Cincinnati’s much-maligned offensive line.
The Bengals allowed the most sacks (51) during the regular season, but that only made Burrow’s elevated passing numbers all the more impressive. He had 4,611 passing yards and 34 touchdowns during the regular season, then tacked on more than 800 yards and four touchdowns in the postseason.
Stafford, after throwing for 41 touchdowns in the regular season, had four passing touchdowns in the playoffs, including two straight 300-yard passing games.
After Sunday’s conference championship games had concluded, both quarterbacks donned commemorative hats that celebrated their victories.
“This is a whole lot better than what I thought it was going to be like,” Stafford said after the Rams’ win.