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Excitement builds in Cincinnati as the Bengals prep for the Super Bowl

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I've got the stuff for chili and guac. Heck, I might even make football-shaped cookies. On Sunday, the LA Rams and Cincinnati Bengals are going to go head-to-head in Super Bowl LVI. This is the first championship game for the Bengals in more than three decades. So apologies to Rams fans, but who doesn't love an underdog? Here's Cory Sharber from member station WVXU.

CORY SHARBER, BYLINE: It was only two seasons ago the Cincinnati Bengals were the worst team in the NFL, finishing with only two wins. Now they're one game away from being Super Bowl champions. The excitement surrounding the Bengals this year is both palpable and unexpected. Football fans around the country are rooting for the underdogs this Sunday, and yes, that even includes some fans of the Cleveland Browns, their in-state rivals. A lot of the excitement revolves around Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow. On social media, you can see him wearing funny sunglasses or smoking cigars. On the field, you'll see him leading game-winning drives and commanding the offense. On Sunday, he could become the first quarterback to ever win a Heisman Trophy, a college football championship and a Super Bowl. Bengals radio play-by-play announcer Dan Hoard says Burrow is exactly what the franchise has been looking for.

DAN HOARD: A great leader, a tremendous quarterback and perfect for Cincinnati. The Bengals were fortunate to be really bad two years ago and be in a position to draft Joe Burrow.

SHARBER: The stunning turnaround certainly caught Cincinnati by surprise, and now the city is abuzz for its underdog team. Buildings are lit up orange. People are lining up to buy a limited-edition Bengals beer. And some are even chugging cans of Skyline Chili in the streets. The last time the Bengals were in the Super Bowl was 1989, where they lost by four points to the San Francisco 49ers. That was the last game of Pro Bowler receiver Cris Collinsworth's career, who's calling the Super Bowl for NBC this Sunday.

CRIS COLLINSWORTH: I think for a Midwestern city, when they get this kind of opportunity, when they get the chance to go on the world stage, in many ways, for the first time in over 30 years, that it's just - there's a buzz and an excitement and a coming-together for a city.

SHARBER: The Bengals have only managed nine winning seasons since their last Super Bowl appearance. Katelyn Snyder was born after that season and has been a fan her whole life.

KATELYN SNYDER: You have to just keep telling yourself that next season is going to be the season, that we're going to do better next season. I feel like every season, you know, OK, we're going to do better this season. This is the season.

SHARBER: And this season, not only is the quarterback shining but so is the kicker. The rookie Evan McPherson kicked game-winning field goals in the Bengals' last two playoff games. Shortly before taking his kicks, a nun from Old Saint Mary's Church in Cincinnati knelt and prayed. Sister Marie Cecile says they see how much the Bengals are uniting the city. She saw that firsthand after they defeated the Kansas City Chiefs.

MARIE CECILE: Walking outside on Monday morning, going for a walk, everyone was saying, who dey (ph). They don't even know each other, never seen each other, probably sometimes. But just the joy and reaching out and seeing each other again and recognizing each other, that is something you don't see often.

SHARBER: And it's not just the team's success uniting the city but also its underdog status. Dan Hoard says the team is embracing that.

HOARD: Tight end C.J. Uzomah famously said at the beginning of training camp at a fan gathering, why not us? That kind of became the rallying cry early. And then at the end of the year, Joe Burrow flipped it and said, you know what? I don't like that anymore. We're no longer underdogs. We've proven we can beat anybody on our schedule. So let's change it from why not us to it is us.

SHARBER: Fans here will be cheering on their team in multiple gatherings throughout the weekend. After years of shortcomings and rebuilds, Bengals fans finally get to experience something few expected this year - a shot at winning the big game.

For NPR News, I'm Cory Sharber in Cincinnati.

(SOUNDBITE OF MATT LARGE'S "I'LL TREAT YOU RIGHT")

MARTIN: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin.

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

And I'm Leila Fadel.

MARTIN: Go Bengals. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.