The Bengals Answered Our Prayers at Long Last

An improbable win in Kansas City vaults Cincinnati to the Super Bowl, as Joe Burrow fulfills his destiny in just his second season.
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Yes, people, the Cincinnati Bengals—my Bengals, your Bengals, our Bengals—are going to the Super Bowl. These are words I never thought I would write or say aloud again in my lifetime. I hoped for it, prayed for it, offered to sell my first born male son for it, but never truly believed it.

As you all know very well by now, the Bengals came from 18 points down to stun the Kansas City Chiefs 27-24 in overtime on Sunday at Arrowhead Stadium. Evan “Future 10x All-Pro” McPherson made the winning kick, giving him four field goals in all three playoff games (what I call the “Moses Malone” in reference to his famous fo’, fo’, fo’). His 12th field goal in 12 postseason attempts sent the Bengals to the biggest of big games, Super Bowl LVI to be played in SoFi Stadium in Los Angeles against the hometown Rams on February 13.

The Bengals have now won all three AFC title games they’ve participated in, but of course the other two took place back in the Pleistocene Era, two or three generations of fans ago. In the intervening years spent wandering in the wilderness, the Bengals became a punchline, a cautionary tale, an outpost of lawlessness, and a Siberia for NFL players who actually wanted money and success. There were pockets of strong play and excellent players, mainly in the first half of the 2010s, but at no time was there ever serious consideration that the Bengals had a team strong enough to compete for the championship. And when they did creep into the conversation, epically bad luck (2005 and 2015, I’m looking your way) doomed their chances before they really got started.

Even when this momentous month of January 2022 began with the Bengals shocking the Chiefs at Paul Brown Stadium, I don’t know that any of us truly believed things were different this year. The foundation was clearly being laid, yes, but all signs pointed to next season as the breakthrough year.

Instead, the Bengals took the Great Leap Forward that transformational players—in this case, Joe Burrow—are able to make happen. The playoff victory demon fell, then the road playoff victory demon. Last Sunday, it was the idea that the Bengals had no shot against the truly elite, the Patrick Mahomes-led ultra-offense in K.C., and would crumble when faced with adversity at this level.

Indeed, the first 29:55 of the first half seemed to confirm that Cincinnati was overmatched. The Chiefs raced to three straight TDs, taking a 21-3 lead, and were headed to a fourth to answer Samaje Perine’s score on a screen pass. But with no timeouts, the ball on the Bengals’ 1-yard line, and five seconds to play, Mahomes and Chiefs head coach Andy Reid got greedy and went for what they felt was the kill shot. But good pass coverage forced Mahomes to throw it to Tyreek Hill short of the end zone, and a strong tackle by Eli Apple kept the score 21-10 at halftime. You couldn’t help but feel a strong sense of the tide changing.

A quarter later, Burrow had led his team to 11 more points to tie the game and were frustrating Mahomes with eight-man coverages that made him question what he was seeing. It felt like he was chasing that mistake at the end of the first half for the rest of the game and proved a crimp in his usually stalwart mental makeup. That was in stark contrast to the guy wearing No. 9 in stripes.

A key moment came early in the fourth quarter. Burrow made one of his very few mistakes in recent memory, an interception on a sensational play by Chiefs corner L’Jarius Sneed, though he did get away with a hold on Ja’Marr Chase. K.C. nosed into Cincinnati territory, but on third down Trey Hendrickson sacked Mahomes to force a punt. It was a sensational job by the defense, a unit that made a habit of holding off the enemy when put in bad positions all season.

Burrow made up for his turnover with some escape magic on the subsequent drive, and only a missed facemask penalty on one of his scrambles kept the Bengals from perhaps a go-ahead touchdown. Instead, McPherson hit his third field goal to give Cincinnati its first lead of the game.

The Chiefs then held the ball for the last six minutes of the quarter in an eerie callback to the way the Bengals ended the first encounter on January 2. For 14 plays they tortured us with their first sustained offense of the half, along with desperately trying not to let Burrow get a crack at stealing the game at the end in the way Mahomes did the week before against Buffalo.

But Mahomes was still being vexed by the Cincy D, and it showed on the final two plays. Taken off his initial reads, he tried to playground ball his way into conjuring an open receiver. Instead, he was sacked both times by Sam Hubbard, who was spying him and triggered his rush with impeccable timing. On the second play he not only corralled the Chiefs QB but stripped him of the ball. Had the Bengals recovered to ice the game it would have gone down as the single greatest defensive play in franchise history. But Joe Thuney—no, not him!—fell on it to save the Chiefs. They sent the game to overtime with a field goal, and when K.C. won the all-important toss Bengals Nation groaned. The inevitable would now come to pass, surely: Mahomes would go right down the field with this second chance, redeeming his poor play in the half, and Burrow would, like Josh Allen the week before, not get a chance to match him.

But no! First Apple dropped a pick-six that would have also been the greatest defensive play in team history, and just when Jim Nantz was erroneously comparing that drop to the infamous Lewis Billups error in Super Bowl XXIII the Bengals showed just how different this team really is. Jessie Bates knocked a deep pass out of Hill’s hands and into Vonn Bell’s, a gift from one safety to another. The interception marked the third straight game the unit’s final defensive play was a pick, to go with Germaine Pratt’s saving of the Raiders game and Logan Wilson’s snagging the deflection that wound up winning the Titans encounter.

Once Cincinnati had the ball, there was zero doubt Burrow would come through. He coolly marched the team into easy range for McPherson, and once the ball sailed through the uprights, the pent-up emotions could flow. Tears, unbridled joy, shouts of “hell yeeeaaaaahhhhh!”—whatever your release of choice, they were all appropriate.

Me? I was so overcome I couldn’t even watch the last portions of the game. My knees were jelly, my heart rate in coronary range, my breath far too bated for good health. Instead, I turned off the game, went into another room and read a book, secure that the game was being recorded and that I would surely know if we won it. Indeed, the enormous influx of messages to my phone at approximately 6:25 p.m. told the story. I could then go back and watch, secure in the knowledge that I’d be witnessing only good things while my body was not in distress.

See? Sometimes acts of will are rewarded.

We can get into the sure-to-be-difficult matchup with the Rams for all the marbles in next week’s column. I’m sure some of you are planning the trip to L.A. and desperately trying to determine what personal items you can sell off in order to afford the game’s terrifyingly high ticket prices (currently $6,000 or so for the worst seats in the house). Others are worrying about catering the house party to end all house parties or arranging child care for Monday the 14th, when Cincinnati public schools have already been closed, making Burrow even more of a hero to Queen City children than he already is.

But let’s take this week to fully digest what’s already taken place. A team that won two games in 2019 (two!) and just four last season is one of the last pair standing in 2021. It’s an unprecedented turnaround that in part validates everything Zac Taylor has tried to do since taking the job. His “culture-building” was easy to sneer at when the team was losing 25 of the first 32 games he coached, but we’re seeing the rewards of a tight, ego-less team. Owner Mike Brown could easily have canned Taylor after last year, but his famous patience proved a virtue. Brown wasn’t exactly resplendent up there on the stage accepting the AFC title trophy, but I hoped he enjoyed every second of it. He deserved to.

Give de facto GM Duke Tobin a ton of credit as well. He stood firm on choosing Chase despite the fact that the team still hasn’t fixed the O-line. He flipped sullen, me-first William Jackson into two corners, Chido Awuzie and Mike Hilton, and swapped out oft-injured and spotty Carl Lawson for the relentless Hendrickson. He drafted a kicker in the fifth round who’s been the ultimate weapon all year. Even his smaller moves—like trading Busto Billy Price for B.J. Hill, whose interception on Sunday was a critical moment in the game, or picking up Tre Flowers (who helped blanket Travis Kelce) off the street midseason—have all worked out. Sometimes a plan comes together, to paraphrase Hannibal Smith from The A-Team.

But of course the most important factor has been the quarterback. Burrow has had to endure so much, including the trotting out of an endless series of weak nicknames that fail to capture his essence. I call him “Atlas” because he’s taken the entire franchise on his shoulders and lifted it to new heights. Anything is possible with Joey B. under center.

Including winning the Super Bowl. Next friggin’ weekend. Believe it, my fellow zealots. It is actually happening. Our time is now, at long, long last.

Robert Weintraub heads up Bengals coverage for Cincinnati Magazine and has written for The New York Times, Grantland, Slate, Deadspin, and Football Outsiders. Follow him on Twitter at @robwein.

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