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Bengals Finally Banish Super Bowl Hangover and Look Like Genuine NFL Title Contenders

Gary Davenport@@IDPSharksFeatured Columnist IVDecember 5, 2022

CINCINNATI, OH - DECEMBER 04: Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow (9) reacts after carrying the ball for a first down during the game against the Kansas City Chiefs and the Cincinnati Bengals on December 3, 2022, at the Paycor Stadium in Cincinnati, OH. (Photo by Ian Johnson/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Ian Johnson/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

For a time this season, it appeared that the Cincinnati Bengals were going to be the latest victim of the "Super Bowl hangover" that has often plagued losers of football's biggest game in the past. The Bengals dropped their first two matchups of the season and were just 4-4 at the eight-game mark.

But something happened after the Bengals were embarrassed by the Browns in Cleveland on Halloween. Maybe it was getting thumped by a mediocre division rival or a matter of things falling into place. But the Bengals dropped a piano on the Carolina Panthers the following Sunday, and they haven't lost a game since.

On Sunday, the Bengals faced their stiffest test of the season as Patrick Mahomes and the AFC-leading Kansas City Chiefs came to town. In beating the Chiefs for a third straight time, the Bengals served notice to the rest of the league.

If there was a hangover, it's long gone now. These Bengals are every bit as good as last year's team and quite possibly better. And what's more, Cincinnati is playing as well as any team in the NFL as we head into December and the stretch run.

As Charlie Goldsmith wrote for the Cincinnati Enquirer before Sunday's rematch of last year's AFC Championship Game, Bengals offensive coordinator Brian Callahan said he expected the same thing most fans and pundits did—an exciting, back-and-forth affair between two of the best young quarterbacks in the NFL.

CINCINNATI, OHIO - DECEMBER 04: Joe Burrow #9 of the Cincinnati Bengals scrambles with the ball against the Kansas City Chiefs during the first half at Paycor Stadium on December 04, 2022 in Cincinnati, Ohio. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
Andy Lyons/Getty Images

"Anytime you get premiere players like Mahomes and Burrow together and in a game, it's just great for competition," Callahan said. "It's great for the sport. If you're a fan, it's got to be exciting to want to go watch that. They're just two really, really talented competitors."

He wasn't wrong. Sunday's game absolutely lived up to the hype, with Burrow and Mahomes exchanging haymakers. For the third time in as many meetings, it was Burrow who was the last man standing.

Outplaying Patrick Mahomes is no small feat, but Burrow did it again Sunday. He completed 25 of 31 passes for 286 yards and two scores while rushing for a third touchdown. Burrow's passer rating for the game was 128.6—over 30 points higher than Mahomes'. Every time the Chiefs appeared on the brink of taking over the game, Burrow calmly put together a drive.

Burrow didn't do it himself, of course.

With running back Joe Mixon on the shelf for a second successive week because of a concussion, reserve running back Samaje Perine came up big with 21 carries, half a dozen catches and over 150 total yards. In his first game since injuring his hip in Week 7, Ja'Marr Chase looked to be as dangerous and explosive as ever, catching seven of eight targets for 97 yards. Tee Higgins, who stepped into the No. 1 role while Chase was out, chipped in three catches for 35 yards and a score. Slot receiver Tyler Boyd posted four catches for 60 yards.

It was a reminder just how loaded the Cincinnati offense is with skill-position talent. But any symphony is only as good as its conductor, and Chase told reporters after the win that there's no one he'd rather have leading the Cincinnati offense than his former LSU teammate.

"He (Burrow) is the best quarterback in the league," Chase said. "That's a fact."

As much as Burrow benefitted from having his full complement of weapons back, the offensive line in front of him may have been even more important. At first glance, the 32 sacks Burrow has taken this season seems like a lot. But 13 of those 32 sacks came over the first two games of the season.

In the nine games since, Burrow has been dropped 19 times, including just once against Kansas City. That isn't great, but it's…average. And average is light-years better than last year's turnstile up front.

CINCINNATI, OHIO - DECEMBER 04: Joe Burrow #9 of the Cincinnati Bengals celebrates with teammates after rushing for a touchdown against the Kansas City Chiefs during the first quarter at Paycor Stadium on December 04, 2022 in Cincinnati, Ohio. (Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images)
Dylan Buell/Getty Images

As he showed Sunday, give Burrow time in the pocket and he will carve up just about any defense he faces.

Cincinnati's defense deserves credit, too. Heading into Week 13, Mahomes had surpassed 300 passing yards in five straight games. In two of those contests, he topped 400 passing yards. He also threw at least three touchdown passes three times over that span.

But just as in last year's playoffs, the Bengals used a lot of eight-man coverage looks against Mahomes on Sunday. It worked yet again, as Mahomes threw for a pedestrian 230 yards with one score. All told, Kansas City had 349 yards of offense—81 yards below their season average.

It was a hard-fought, all-around effort. But while Burrow praised his team's performance while speaking to Tracy Wolfson of CBS Sports, he also insisted that it's just one step in a much bigger journey.

"We just have guys who know what it takes to win," Burrow said. "Who know what it takes every week in practice to grind. To come out here in a moment like this in front of this crowd and come out with a big win. That being said, that's all it is. A big win. We've got several more coming up. It was a fun one, but I know we'll be seeing them again."

Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow (9) huddle with his team as they played against the Kansas City Chiefs in the first half of an NFL football game in Cincinnati, Sunday, Dec. 4, 2022. (AP Photo/Joshua Bickel)
AP Photo/Joshua Bickel

He's right of course. The reality is that if you want to make it through the AFC bracket, at some point you are probably going to have to take on Mahomes and the Chiefs. Cincinnati also has a brutal schedule the rest of the way.

After next week's rematch with the Browns, Cincinnati's last four opponents all made the playoffs in 2022—at Tampa Bay, at New England and then home against Buffalo and Baltimore. That Week 18 matchup with the Ravens could well be for the AFC North title.

But the Bengals team we saw Sunday is capable of thriving in that gauntlet. The Bengals are as balanced as they are loaded on offense. The defense has talent at all three levels, whether it's Sam Hubbard and Trey Hendrickson up front, Logan Wilson at linebacker or Jessie Bates and Vonn Bell on the back end.

And these Bengals are battle-tested after last year's Super Bowl run. They don't shrink in big moments. They also have one of the best young quarterbacks in the NFL—a megastar in the making. As Higgins said before the game, the Bengals believe they will win every time they step on the field.

"I believe in our offense," he said. "I believe in the firepower that we've got."

It's high time we believe in the Bengals, too, and not just as a threat to make it back to the Super Bowl, either.

They're a team that could win it.