No sports season would be complete — or exciting — without a good ol’ fashioned underdog story. The Cincinnati Bengals rewrote that narrative during their 2021 Super Bowl campaign, but the Saint Peter’s Peacocks added their own chapter to the history books on Sunday night.
No one believed a perennially-tread-on AFC doormat could make it to the Super Bowl in 2021, but no one believed a 15th-seeded NCAA team could make a deep run in March Madness, either.
And then they both did.
In February, the Bengals, who won just four games in 2020, shocked the nation by reaching the Super Bowl. A little more than a month later, Saint Peter’s, who averaged just 546 fans per home game, shocked the nation (and busted brackets everywhere) by landing in the Elite Eight. Spot the similarities?
Peacocks coach Shaheen Holloway sure sounds a lot like Zac Taylor when he talks about proving the doubters wrong.
Passion. Grit. A fighting, clawing, won’t-go-away, we-can-beat-anybody underdog mentality. Among other things, these traits bring the Bengals and Peacocks closer together in the lineage of epic sports victories.
Yet there are distinct differences, too, particularly in the scale of each team’s string of upsets. St. Peter’s, a small Jesuit university of roughly 2,500 students, had to compete against some of the most well-funded and talented programs in college basketball, but they quickly captured the hearts of fans across the country.
The Peacocks’ first-round date with Kentucky had “blowout” written all over it up until the teeny tiny school from New Jersey produced a spectacular shooting night and sank the No. 2 seed’s tournament hopes. For reference, Kentucky’s head coach’s annual salary ($8 million) exceeded the expenses of the entire St. Peter’s athletic department ($7.6 million).
If the Bengals beating the Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium registered as a mighty 6.0 upset on the Richter scale, the Peacocks beating Kentucky in the Round of 64 was an earth-shattering and unbelievable (truly, unbelievable) 10.0. Even when Cincy battled the top seeds in the league, the odds were never stacked that high against them.
A tale of two Cinderella runs: Saint Peter’s and the Bengals’ postseason dreams came true this year
Whereas the Bengals had reached the Super Bowl twice in franchise history (1982 and 1989), the Peacocks had never won a game in the NCAA tournament prior to this season.
Saint Peter’s saw Cincy’s playoff success and raised them one never-before-achieved appearance in the Elite Eight when they became the first 15th-seeded team in history to reach the men’s tournament’s round of 8.
The NFL-NCAA men’s basketball crossover doesn’t match up perfectly, and in the bigger picture, Saint Peter’s run arguably eclipses that of the Bengals. After all, the Peacocks gave a whole new meaning to the words “underdog” and “impossible” in the ever-fickle NCAA postseason, fearlessly dancing their way to wins over Kentucky, Murray State, and Purdue.
Zac Taylor danced his part in Cincinnati bars during the Bengals’ Super Bowl run, but his team had to jump over relatively smaller hurdles in the gritty Raiders and toothless Titans. Yes, they also routed an AFC powerhouse in the Kansas City Chiefs, but they were greatly helped by Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs’ unexplainable breakdown.
Rather than debate whose Cinderella run was more “Cinderella-ier,” sports fans can laud both teams as upset kings who stormed out of irrelevance and demanded respect on their name.
Next year, Saint Peter’s hopes to return to the Elite Eight and beyond will be high, but not as high as the Bengals’ hopes to win a ring.
After their sore loss (for Joe Burrow, literally very, very sore) to the Los Angeles Rams, Cincinnati shelled out millions of dollars to address major positions of need, something Saint Peter’s could never afford with their athletic department budget.
Led by a young nucleus of Joe Burrow, his holy receiver trifecta, and an elite defense, the Bengals have the means and firepower to get even better and pave a surer path to the Super Bowl in 2022, perhaps finally achieving their fairytale ending.
Led by fan-favorite “Doug”, the Peacocks will more than likely sink back down to mediocrity, their moment of glory since faded away.
But wasn’t it fun while it lasted?
In each team’s unforgettable journey, one common thread may be drawn — a warning, if you will, to the blue-blooded sports organizations that have dominated season after season: Hold fast to your crowns, for a new generation has arrived.