The Bengals Were Close, but No Cigar

Mere seconds and a few big plays from winning the Super Bowl, Cincinnati suffered a bittersweet end to an amazing season. Will it take 33 years until they get another chance?
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No, I am not over it. I will never be over it. Just as I still bleed internally when thinking about Montana to Taylor, about Pete Johnson getting stopped at the one-inch line, about Carson Palmer’s knee and Jeremy Hill’s fumble and all the other excruciating moments in Bengals history, Super Bowl LVI will forever haunt me. All of us, actually.

Yes, the Bengals lost the big one to the Rams, 23-20, as of course you are aware. In one way, it represents progress. The first time Cincinnati made the Super Bowl, they lost by five points; the second time, four. At this rate, three more appearances and we’ll finally capture that elusive NFL title!

The days leading up to game were all Southern California sunshine and optimistic brilliance, the L.A. area overrun by fans wearing orange and black and shouting “Who Dey!!??” from Santa Barbara to Orange County. I maintained a foreboding dread in the pit of my stomach, being conditioned to the Bengals, but it was hard to be properly downbeat while walking on the beach in 80-degree warmth. As for Rams fans, both of them seemed absent.

I was there with my son and his equally knuckle-headed 12-year-old pal, so procuring three tickets (roughly equal to the cost of a starter SUV) in the nosebleeds seemed foolish, especially given my positivity of heartbreak. Instead, I “watched” the game at the home of childhood friends who were kind enough to humor me while I hid out in the kitchen, unable to witness long stretches of the action.

That the Bengals produce a dire physiological effect on my insides is, in its way, a credit to their unlikely excellence. Most editions of Cincinnati teams elicit only blasé, knowing nods at their ineptitude counterbalanced occasionally by a wan smile at the good plays that are mostly exceptions to the rule. But this team had Joe Burrow, Ja’Marr Chase, Tee Higgins, and Evan “Future 10x All-Pro” McPherson and a playmaking, aggressive defense. Most of all, it had karma.

The push/pull between my conditioned response to the Bengals and my awestruck amazement at the way this team blew away those prior failures has chewed at my insides all season, producing multiple (psychosomatic, I hope) ulcers since January, when it all got real. “Same old Bengals” collided headlong with “Why not us?” and the resulting whiplash turned my head from the action often during this postseason, in both disbelief and not wanting to mess with what seemed a dream.

And Super Bowl Sunday was, for much of the game, following the same framework that the past four must-win encounters (both Chiefs games plus the Titans and the Raiders) had: Cincinnati was outplayed for long stretches, seemingly unable at times to even function offensively. But big plays, forced turnovers, Burrow magic, and the pigskin gods at last smiling down upon us with their favor combined to put the Bengals in position to pull off one final, ultimate upset, granting us (finally) that elusive Lombardi Trophy.

Alas, it was not to be.

I’m a big believer in the microcosm theory of seasons, which postulates that whatever a team’s defining flaw is will eventually turn up in the biggest of moments and become fatal. Obviously, in Cincinnati’s case, that was the offensive line; and in the Super Bowl Aaron Donald, Von Miller, A’Shawn Robinson, and the rest of L.A.’s front dominated the Bengals’ O-line. Cincinnati, as it has all season, managed to mitigate the damage for a time, but eventually it had to cost the Bengals. No one can argue that Chase wasn’t the right draft choice, but Jackson Carman’s inability to develop this season may have cost the team a championship. Or, for that matter, the decision not to buy a guard in free agency. Joe Thuney may have been too expensive, but Kevin Zeitler would have made a world of difference.

Because Cincinnati couldn’t run it efficiently and didn’t trust the line to hold out for intermediate or deep passes, the Bengals’ lead was unsustainable for the full 60 minutes. Any points in the final 25 minutes of the game probably changes the result, but Donald & Co. ensured that Cincinnati didn’t score any.

Of course, they might have held Matt Stafford, Cooper Kupp, and the Rams at bay anyway but for a ridiculous holding call on the otherwise superb Logan Wilson (and a blatant false start on the entire Rams line on the same play that somehow went unnoticed). In my imaginings for the nightmares this game might present, a prominent one was an awful penalty deciding the outcome after a season when Cincinnati had the least penalty yardage in the NFL. The call on Wilson didn’t completely decide the game, but it sure helped lose it.

Then there was the final drive. I mean, with 85 seconds and two timeouts, needing a field goal to tie and a touchdown to win the Super Bowl—who wasn’t positive Burrow was going to make that happen? (Well, me, of course.) Then came a third and one near midfield, the same situation that the Bengals faced way back in the season’s opening game, when an overtime battle with the Vikings turned Cincinnati’s way. Just as in that game, the third down run was stuffed for no gain, although this time it wasn’t Joe Mixon, the team’s $48-million bellcow back, toting the ball—it was backup Samaje Perine, a useful player who didn’t need to be getting the rock in the situation.

Against Minnesota, Burrow faked a handoff on fourth down and had time to wait for C.J. Uzomah to break open. The resulting 32-yard gain set up the winning field goal that kickstarted this amazing season.

But on Super Sunday, Burrow had no time to throw on fourth down. Given another second, he would have seen Chase streaking alone down the right sideline, with Rams defender Jalen Ramsey having fallen face first. The storybook finish was right there for the taking. Burrow to Chase for a long six points was the defining identity of the 2021 Bengals, and to win the Super Bowl on a last-second connection would have been historic, iconic, and all-too-fitting.

But Cincinnati’s fatal flaw was exposed at the worst possible moment. Somehow, Donald (who lined up offsides, by the way) was allowed to barrel in practically unblocked between Quinton Spain and Trey Hopkins and take Burrow down. Joe somehow almost shoveled the ball to Perine in an incredible last gasp attempt, but it was not to be. Ballgame. Heartbreak.

The common refrain afterwards was, The Bengals will be back. If only it were that simple. Yes, the future is supernova-bright with Burrow at the helm, and the young talent base isn’t going anywhere. Indeed, the Bengals clearly overachieved to arrive at the ultimate game ahead of schedule. But getting to the Super Bowl—for any team—involves a cascade of good fortune, and Cincinnati received an (overdue) freight container full of it, from the playoff games to their astounding (by Bengals standards) good health to the general falloff of the AFC North.

The idea that it will happen again is folly. Every team that loses the Super Bowl says they’ll be back, and often they struggle to make the postseason the following year. The most likely happenstance of the next few seasons, while Burrow and Chase remain cheap, is that the team is indeed better, but they don’t get back to the Super Bowl, much less be mere seconds and a handful of plays away from winning it.

That’s the simple, crushing heart of the matter: Like 33 years ago, we were oh-so-close to winning it all. God forbid the opportunity doesn’t arrive again for another three decades, but neither can such another golden chance be assumed. Had the Bengals won on Sunday, it wouldn’t have mattered what the future might bring—there would be at least the one championship.

With that, I leave you until April and the NFL draft, much closer than usual after a Bengals season normally ends yet still an eternity away. All eyes will be on the trenches during the offseason, that’s for sure, much like we thought would be the case this time last year (and the year before that). Matters sure took a weird, wonderful turn from last year’s draft to the treasured, if bittersweet, path that none of us will ever forget. Adieu for now, and amen.

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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