Super Bowl LVI will see the Cincinnati Bengals compete in their first NFL championship game since 1988 as they face the Los Angeles Rams for the Vince Lombardi Trophy at SoFi Stadium on February 13. 

The Bengals were as long as +15000 in preseason to win the Super Bowl, and would represent one of the most surprising champions in the history of the NFL.

As we head towards the 56th edition of the Big Game, we've taken a look at the five most surprising teams to reach the Super Bowl.

Where do the 2021 Bengals rank? 

5. Carolina Panthers – 2003

The 2003 Panthers are one of just three teams in NFL history to reach the Super Bowl after owning the league’s worst record two seasons prior.

Having bombed to a 1-15 record in 2001, the Panthers sacked George Seifert and brought in John Fox to right the ship.

Fox did just that in 2002, guiding the Panthers to a much more respectable 7-9 season, although they still missed out on the playoffs by quite a margin.

Next year was a different story, though, as Fox masterminded the franchise’s second trip to the postseason in their short history thanks to an 11-5 regular season record.

Heading into the playoffs as No. 3 seed in the NFC, Carolina beat the Dallas Cowboys 29-10 in the wild card round before a double overtime 29-23 thriller in St. Louis took it to the NFC Championship game.

The fairytale continued against the Philadelphia Eagles, who were playing in their third straight NFC Championship, as a stellar defensive performance, including three interceptions from Ricky Manning, secured a 14-3 win.

Unfortunately for the Panthers, a first Super Bowl trip in franchise history was to end in defeat as a last-second field goal from Adam Vinatieri gave the New England Patriots a second championship in three years.

4. New England Patriots – 2001

New England’s first Super Bowl win had come two years earlier in 2001, the year in which the Brady-Belichick era got up and running.

Entering the campaign on the back of a 5-11 season, the Patriots were not expected to make much noise, particularly after starter Drew Bledsoe was seriously injured in just the second game of the year.

We all know the story after that, though – Bill Belichick and Tom Brady would take New England to an 11-5 record, good enough to top the AFC East and secure a bye as No. 2 seed.

An 16-13 OT win over the Raiders and a 24-17 victory over the Steelers then took the Patriots to the Super Bowl. 

Their biggest test was yet to come, as they faced ‘The Greatest Show on Turf’, the famous St. Louis Rams team led by Kurt Warner, in the Big Game.

Even the Rams couldn’t stop them, though, as another game-winning field goal from Vinatieri gave the Patriots their first Super Bowl in franchise history.

3. San Francisco 49ers – 1981

From the start of one dynasty to the dawn of another.

In 1981, the San Francisco 49ers became the first team in NFL history to win the Super Bowl having had the league’s worst record two years before – emulated later on, as we know, by the 2003 Panthers, and the final team on our list.

After a 2-14 season in 1979, and a 6-10 campaign in 1980, head coach Bill Walsh and Hall of Fame quarterback Joe Montana guided the 49ers to a 13-3 season and the top seed in the NFC.

A blowout win against the New York Giants took them to the NFC Championship, where ‘The Catch’ – a famous last-minute touchdown pass from Montana to Dwight Clark, gave them a one-point victory over the Dallas Cowboys.

San Francisco came up against the Cincinnati Bengals in Super Bowl XVI, where the 49ers were outplayed on offense but came up big on the defensive end to secure a 26-21 win and a first NFL championship.

They would go on to dominate the NFL for much of the 80s and some of the 90s, winning a further four rings in 13 season.

2. St. Louis Rams – 1999

A busy offseason meant things were looking up for the Rams in 1999, following a 4-12 season the year before.

A season-ending injury to starting quarterback Trent Green in preseason seemingly put an end to that, though, with backup Kurt Warner, who had just 11 pass attempts in the NFL to his name, stepping up.

Warner would go on to have one of the best seasons in NFL history, winning MVP while marshalling ‘The Greatest Show on Turf’ – St. Louis’ high-powered offense that led the league in basically every statistical category.

Averaging 32.9 points per game, the Rams would end the season 13-3, before overcoming the Vikings and the Buccaneers in the first two playoff games since the franchise moved to Missouri.

In the Super Bowl, St. Louis beat the Tennessee Titans 23-16, with Warner adding Super Bowl MVP to his regular season award.

1. Cincinnati Bengals – 2021

The 2021 Cincinnati Bengals have become the third team in NFL history to reach the Big Game after registering the worst record in the league two years prior.

After a 2-14 season in 2019 saw Cincinnati draft Joe Burrow first overall, things improved slightly in 2020 before Burrow’s season was ended by a torn ACL.

Burrow returned this season better than ever, and with former LSU teammate Ja’Marr Chase arriving in the draft, the Bengals quickly became a real threat in one of the NFL’s most competitive divisions.

After sealing a first AFC North title since 2015 with a Week 17 win over the Kansas City Chiefs, Cincinnati went on to defeat the Las Vegas Raiders and No. 1 seed Tennessee Titans to set up a rematch with the Chiefs in the AFC Championship.

Despite going 18 points down early, the Bengals mounted a famous comeback before Evan McPherson kicked them to the Super Bowl in overtime.

With their preseason odds to win the Super Bowl standing at 150-1, should the Bengals overcome the Rams on February 13 they will become one of the most unlikely champions in NFL history. 

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