They’ve got a second-year quarterback who somehow seems surprised he is in the NFL, yet plays with the pulse of an assassin. They’ve got a 38-year-old head coach who entered this season with a 6-25-1 record, but calls a game with Belichickian confidence.
They’ve got a defense that has a tendency to get burnt early, but then laughs it off and keeps pulling off fourth-quarter shutdowns.
They’ve got a kicker who never seems to miss, a pass rush that never quits and a mentality that is so detached from a franchise history of torment and tragedy, that everything from a 21-3 deficit to losing an overtime coin flip to Patrick Mahomes is brushed off as nothing.
“We’ve got a special team,” the Cincinnati Bengals‘ head coach, the youthful Zac Taylor, said after roaring back to defeat Kansas City 27-24 in overtime, to send that special team to a Super Bowl no one other than these guys saw coming.
Dey the AFC champs.
Cincinnati follows a dangerous recipe — get down, get tough, get Joe Burrow going. Maybe the hard way is the only way for these guys. A team that had four victories last season has three in these playoffs, including defeating the AFC’s top two seeds, on the road, in consecutive weeks.
You may never find a current team less attached to its past. Everyone else naturally dismissed these guys as the rebuilding Bungles, just a team with two wins two seasons ago. Yeah, they have a heck of a young QB (Burrow) and rookie wide receiver (Ja’Marr Chase), but the offensive line is patchwork, the defense is prone to big plays and the ghosts of playoffs past are floating around.
No matter. These are the new Bengals, Burrow’s Bengals, the Super Bengals.
A group born from the ashes of seasons of losing and losing — “I’ve been pretty miserable the last few years losing so many games,” said defensive lineman Sam Hubbard — sparked by a Heisman-winning, national championship quarterback who always expects to win, but doesn’t mind laughing at himself while doing it.
Burrow grew up a couple hours drive away in Athens, Ohio, wears colorful glasses and marvels that celebrities now know his name. Yet after winning a national title at LSU, he’s one game from taking it all in the NFL. He proudly sported a massive “JB9” jeweled up pendant postgame that he wasn’t sure looked good but he thought was cool. Someone asked if it was real.
“They’re real,” Burrow laughed about the stones. “I make too much money for them not to be.”
This is why the Bengals walk into the championship cauldron of Arrowhead Stadium like they were stopping at their local Skyline to order a four-way. Is that Mahomes over there, leading the Chiefs on three consecutive touchdown drives? No big deal.
“Just settle in, get the jitters out,” said defensive back Vonn Bell. “They are going to make plays. But we are going to make plays too.”
K.C. scored 21 points on its first three drives and then somehow just three on its final eight. Mahomes started 17-of-19 with three touchdowns only to finish 9-of-20 with two interceptions. At one point they went six consecutive drives without scoring, including a goal-line snuff at the end of the first half that Burrow called “the turning point of the game.”
There was also the final Chiefs possession in regulation, when K.C. got to first-and-goal but after consecutive sacks by Hubbard was instead forced to kick a game-tying field goal. Then when the Chiefs got the ball to start overtime, it was Bell picking off Mahomes.
That’s the Cincy defense. It lulls you into expecting mediocrity and then the Bengals turn into the ’85 Bears. They’ve given up just nine fourth-quarter points, and just 19 second-half points, in three playoff victories.
“We have a resilient group of guys,” Bell said. “We were made for that moment.”
What’s the old Mike Tyson saying? “Everybody’s got a plan until they get hit in the mouth?” The Bengals seem to wait until they get punched and then come up with the plan.
“We’ve been a second-half team all year,” Burrow said. “We didn’t want to be, but that’s how it worked out.”
As the defense stiffened, the offense kept plugging along. This is what they do too. In games and across the season. It isn’t dominant, but in the end there they are. A touchdown here. A field goal there. Another third-down conversion. Burrow not only never thinks he’s out of it, but he never plays like he is out of it either.
Taylor has admirable patience. Even down 18 on the road to the Chiefs, in a game that looked like K.C. would score 40-plus, he kept running the ball on first down, trying to piece together long drives rather than risk it deep and took field goals rather than force fourth-down conversions.
“I don’t know if you ever want to get down 21-3 … [its] is not the most exciting position to be in.”” Burrow said.
The key is not letting it change you.
“I never feel like we are out of it,” Burrow said.
They weren’t. Burrow finished with 250 yards and two touchdowns. Joe Mixon grinded out 88 yards on the ground. Tee Higgins had 103 through the air. Evan McPherson booted home four field goals, including the overtime game-winner. He’s now 12-for-12 in the playoffs, the most ever without a miss in a single postseason. McPherson may be a rookie, but he wasn’t above saying he wants to surpass Adam Vinatieri’s 14 field goals in one playoff run.
“We just need three more in the Super Bowl to break the record,” he said.
The Super Bowl? The Bengals?
“Why not us?” Bell asked.
Yeah, why not them?
“I think if you told me before the season we would go to the Super Bowl, I would have called you crazy,” Burrow said. “But then we played a whole season. Nothing surprises me now.”
“One more to go.”