Was Sunday the greatest game and/or moment in the history of Paul Brown Stadium? I immediately went in that direction in the flush of the Bengals’ division-clinching, heart-palpitating, fist-pumping 34-31 victory over the Kansas City Chiefs.
There have been plenty of other memorable contests at PBS over the years—most of them losses—but the combination of the game’s importance, excitement, and crazy ending, plus the optimistic sense it provided of a limitless future for Bengals fans, pushed this one right to the top. Given where we were just a few weeks ago, never mind before the season, that’s an amazing development.
Of course, it’s all down to Joe Burrow. And Ja’Marr Chase was incredible on Sunday, too; without hyperbole, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a better game from a wide receiver when you add the importance of his playmaking to the productivity and spectacular athleticism behind his catches. But Burrow is the engine that makes it all work. As we know, his moxie, cocksureness, and amazing ability has thoroughly changed the organization—and its perception—in a very short amount of time. Which of course is why they drafted him first overall.
Forgive me the odd comparison, but I when I see Burrow’s effect on the Bengals I think of the French soccer legend Eric Cantona, a player who came to Manchester United’s club and through his confidence (just this side of arrogance), stylishness (his upturned collar made him a footballing fashionplate), and extremely high level of play turned Man U into the powerhouse we know today. An NFL quarterback is even more critical than any position in soccer, of course, and thus Burrow has been able to pull the Bengals by the nape of the mane into prominence in his—remarkably, almost forgotten—first full season at the helm.
His talents were on full display on Sunday. Despite yet another game in which he was under consistent duress from relentless blitzing, Burrow threw for 446 yards (giving him almost 1,000 yards in just the last two games!), 266 of them to Chase, almost all of them outside the numbers. His ball was on a string on those throws to Chase; yes, the rookie wideout made some sensational plays on those balls, but Burrow put them in precisely the right place for Chase to not just catch them but see them coming.
Check out the ball placement on the amazing third-and-27 conversion that put Cincinnati in a position to win the game. Chase was well-covered by Chiefs corner Charvarius Ward, but Burrow’s throw was so good it enabled Chase to beat Ward to the spot and make the memorable catch. We will be talking about that play for as long as footballs fly through the Queen City air on Sundays.
Count me as one who was all for going for it—repeatedly—at game’s end. Part of the potential results that get factored into the decision to go for broke on fourth down are defensive penalties that earn first downs. As it happened, Cincinnati benefitted twice from them (Joe Mixon scored on fourth down, for what it’s worth), and they were pretty blatant penalties as well. As Zac Taylor put it, you have to go win the division—and the Bengals did.
So Cincinnati wins the AFC North, in part due to excellent play down the stretch and in part thanks to the rest of the division immolating. Burrow won’t play in this Sunday’s largely (but for a small percentage of seed movement) meaningless finale against the Browns, but for all the worry about the beating he’s taken over the last two years, he is the only QB in the division to play every game this season until now. Give Cincinnati credit for taking advantage of the messes elsewhere.
There is also a COVID outbreak hitting the team (Mixon, among several others), which is actually well timed, given the alternative. Next week would be a disaster. And given the state of play in Cleveland—disinterested and banged up—the Bengals’ backups could easily defeat the Browns, which would keep Cincinnati at no worse than the No. 3 seed. The main takeaway is that Cincinnati is in the position to not care—in a good way—about a game that seemed to be do or die a fortnight ago.
That’s why these playoffs are so critical. I know the Bengals have to win one game first to slay that 30-year demon, and I’m not foolish enough to look ahead. But there is an opportunity here. The only AFC team that truly is scary is the one Cincinnati just defeated Sunday. Sure, beating Patrick Mahomes a second time would be immensely difficult, and Bill Belichick, Josh Allen, Derrick Henry, et al will provide unique challenges of their own. More to the point, however, thinking We knocked on the door this season, next season we break it down! is fraught with peril.
For proof, just look across the field at the final regular season opponent. The Browns had a breakthrough 2020, including a playoff victory over the equally loathed Steelers, and were neck and neck against Kansas City (playing a backup quarterback) in the division round. Browns fans were confident (dare I say cocky) that the team was on the verge last year and 2021 would be the season to seize the moment.
Of course, it all went pear-shaped in Cleveland. Injuries, poorly timed COVID breakouts, and underperformance (especially at quarterback) combined to scuttle the promise by the lake. That can happen to any team at any time. Every season is its own novel, and these are the Bengals after all.
The reason for optimism is Joe Burrow, both for this playoff run (why not us?) and beyond. If the Bengals can just protect him, he can make anything—anything—happen. It’s a whole new world for Bengals fans, and Sunday’s game against the Chiefs was the first glimpse over the horizon.