LOS ANGELES (AP) — It’s been nearly three decades since the city where the Super Bowl began last hosted the big game. The year was 1993 and, if you’re looking for an indication how much times have changed, O.J. Simpson did the pregame coin flip and Michael Jackson thrilled the country with a spectacular halftime show at the Rose Bowl.
The Rams weren’t in the game, not even close. They finished 6-10 on the season and owner Georgia Frontiere was busy plotting the team’s escape from Southern California, eventually landing in St. Louis in what may have been the worst move ever by a modern-day sports franchise.
The Rams eventually returned, though it cost them a generation of fan loyalty. That means the new Rams are still a work in progress in a city where they once reigned supreme — as evidenced by the mass of San Francisco faithful who just might have outnumbered the locals at the NFC championship game in the imposing new stadium that cost current owner Stan Kroenke a reported $5 billion to build.
Still, nothing builds love more than a Super Bowl championship. And now the Rams of Los Angeles not only have a chance to win their first Super Bowl but do it Sunday in a home stadium that no other city can come close to matching.
“There’s a lot of reasons for this city to be excited about this team,” Rams coach Sean McVay said. “We’ve got great players. It’s a fun brand of football that you’re seeing them play, and then you got this iconic venue that we’re able to play out. And oh, by the way, that’s where the Super Bowl is, even though we’re the away team.”
Being the away team shouldn’t be much of a problem for the Rams. This is a team, after all, that was away from 1995 until 2016, when Kroenke brought them back for the same reason they left: more money and bigger profits.
They have a long, fractured history in Los Angeles, a city that embraced them warmly when they moved from Cleveland the year after World War II ended. But the fact remains the only Super Bowl won by a team with horns on its helmets was won in 2000 when the Rams were, yes, in St. Louis.
In a way it’s fitting that the team standing in the way of that championship is form another city that has never celebrated a Super Bowl win. The Bengals for the most part have been hapless over the years, aside from a couple of Super Bowl runs in the 1980s that didn’t end well.
Now they have Joe Burrow and, two seasons after winning just two games, are within 60 minutes of capping off an improbable playoff run themselves.
Oddsmakers don’t like their chances, making them a 4-point underdog to a Rams team loaded with star talent. But the city is abuzz, with residents shooting off fireworks and honking horns after the Bengals beat Kansas City in overtime in the AFC championship game.
“The best way to describe it for the city is it’s like waking up from a long nightmare,” said Joe Kay, a retired Associated Press sportswriter who covered the team through 40 seasons. “It had been more than 30 years since they even won a playoff game.”
The easy narrative would be to cheer for the underdog team from a working class town. Unlike LA, Cincinnati has no movie stars, no beaches, no perfect weather and certainly no $5 billion stadium.
But it does have iconic chili. It does have Joe Burrow.
And, soon, maybe a lot more Joes.
“I would imagine nine, 10 months from now, there’s going to be a lot of babies named Joe. … That’s the impact he’s had on Cincinnati,” Bengals coach Zac Taylor said.
Indeed, the fit between the city and its star quarterback couldn’t be better. Burrow grew up in a hardscrabble area of Ohio, just a few hours from Cincinnati, though in his hometown of The Plains fans rooted mostly for the Pittsburgh Steelers or the Cleveland Browns.
“Growing up, it was nobody really ever talked about the Bengals too much,” Burrow said. “And I think it’s exciting for us, exciting for the city that, you know, the Bengals are starting to, you know, people are starting to realize that we’re really good team and an exciting team as well.”
The same thing could be said about the Rams and their city, so maybe in the end these teams and their towns aren’t so different.
That will change Sunday night when only one can proudly claim they’re Super Bowl champions.
Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org or http://twitter.com/timdahlberg