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Zwiller: Why the Bengals aren’t a Super Bowl Team

| Friday, February 18, 2022

For someone who does not gamble (I am only 20, after all), I certainly was living and dying with every single play of Super Bowl 56. 

The game was an instant classic, with the Rams down by a touchdown in the third quarter, only to complete a game winning drive for the ages to give the Rams their second Super Bowl championship. 

However, if you have been reading my work at all this year, this was not a surprise. I used my trusty ZLO model to predict that the Rams would snag a Super Bowl in SoFi against the Bills in early September. And while I may have gotten the opponent wrong, I was 100% right about the Rams, giving myself (and ZLO) a little more credibility.

However, as much as I want to pat myself on the back for that one, I want to focus on the Rams opponent more than the Rams themselves. 

In ZLO’s preseason simulations, the model gave the Bengals a low chance of winning the division and predicting a final record of 7-10. And to be fair, that take only looks bad with hindsight; at the time, I seriously doubt anyone saw the Bengals as a Super Bowl contender (538 projected the same record).

So, where did ZLO go wrong? Here’s the thing: I do not think it did. While the Bengals certainly had an immaculate run through the playoffs, I 100% believe they exceeded expectations. Here’s why:


For those of you who do not know what DVOA is, it is an advanced metric created by Football Outsiders. DVOA stands for Defense-adjusted Value Over Average, meaning that the ratings it gives each team take into account the quality of the opponent a given team has played. On offense, the higher your number the better, while on defense, the lower the better.

The Bengals were an average team, ranking 17th (0.0%) with their offense ranking 18th (1.8%), their defense 19th (2.9%) and their special teams unit ranking 8th (1.7%). Their estimated wins based on those numbers: 8.4.

According to DVOA, the Bengals were undoubtedly not the worst team to make the playoffs; that honor goes to the Steelers (24th, -10.4%), but they were far from the best (Dallas 30.9%). 

And yes, I know, a lot of good that did them. So instead, let’s look at the Conference Championship contenders. The Rams finished the regular season in fifth (21.6%), the 49ers sixth (19.5%) and the Chiefs ranked seventh (17.5%). By rank, the Bengals are a significant outlier. And that’s not the only way the Bengals are outliers.


EPA is another egghead stat, but one I find helpful. Expected Points Added (EPA) is a way to measure how likely a team is to score in a given drive. EPA measures the change per play in your expected points. Moving forward increases your EPA; moving backward decreases it. 

For example, if you have the ball on your own 25 (according to Pro Football Reference), your expected points would be .607. 

Say you gain 10 yards; your expected points jump to 1.267 for an EPA of .66. 

Now, your QB gets sacked, and you lose five yards. Now it is 2nd and 15, and your expected points drop to 0.0489, meaning you have an EPA of -1.218. 

Another thing EPA does is shows that the Bengals are an outlier team (again). NFELO charts out the EPA/play putting offensive EPA on the x-axis and defensive on the y (see the website to view the graph!).

From the graph, which divides teams into different tiers, the Bengals are simply an average team. Cincinnati has a defensive EPA of -.4 (good!) and an offensive EPA of .01 (average).

Those two EPAs plot Cincinnati in the middle of the pack, making them an average team overall (and arguably the worst division winner and third-worst playoff team overall). The Bengals are in the company of the Browns, Broncos and Vikings, and nobody believed they were Super Bowl teams. 

And I know, I know, those teams did not make the playoffs; the Bengals made the Super Bowl. I am not trying to dispute that; the Bengals made the Super Bowl (and almost won it). 

However, I am trying to dispute the notion that the Bengals are primed to be a Super Bowl team next year. Joe Burrow and JaMarr Chase have undoubtedly opened a championship window for the Bengals, and the franchise will be a severe problem for teams in the AFC next year.

However, just because you make a Super Bowl does not mean you are guaranteed to make it back the following year. Just ask the 2003 Panthers. 

The 2003 Panthers were 11-5 and went on a historic run, beating the Cowboys, Rams and Eagles before coming up short against the Patriots.

According to Pro Football Reference the Panthers were projected to finish 8.6-7.4, but they severely overachieved. They did so mainly because their defense ranked 8th in yards against, with an offense that ranked 16th in yards for. Instead of returning to the Super Bowl the next year, the Panthers finished 7-9, 3rd in the NFC South. 

Now, look at the Bengals. DVOA and EPA suggest that the Bengals massively overachieved this season, with an offense ranked 13th in yards for and 18th in yards against. 

And even if you think that the Bengals are simply a few linemen away from a return trip to the Super Bowl, and are better than the Panthers were, think again.

The 2020 Saints went all-in on winning the Super Bowl. They had both a top-5 offense and defense. Tampa Bay ended their season as Brady cruised to a seventh Super Bowl. Being perfect on paper is not enough; that’s why we play the games.

It is nearly impossible to win a Super Bowl; it takes the perfect concoction of on-the-field talent and luck. Look at Dan Marino, the greatest QB to never win a Super Bowl. He made it once as the MVP of the league and never returned. Burrow could be next. 

I doubt that is going to be the case. The Bengals have a franchise QB and a rapidly improving offense, they are in good shape if they can build a good offensive line and add to their defense. I think the Bengals are incredibly likely to hoist Lombardi in the next handful of years.

But for now, let’s pump the brakes on the Bengals. They were just overachieving and defying probability. And that’s the thing about probability: It always gets you. 

About Thomas Zwiller

Thomas is a sophomore currently in attendance at Holy Cross College, studying Business and Theology He is from Saint Joseph MI, and went to high school at Saint Joe SB, playing both varsity football and hockey. Feel free to contact him about all things NFL and NBA.

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