When the 2021 season began, three of the four teams in the AFC North were talked up as postseason contenders. The Baltimore Ravens had an MVP quarterback and a stout defense. The Cleveland Browns had talent (on paper) on both sides of the ball and enough hype to float a balloon into the ionosphere. There were even those who thought that the Pittsburgh Steelers could milk one more season out of Ben Roethlisberger and ride their stifling D to a postseason run.
Well, as it happens, there will indeed be a team from the AFC North representing the AFC North in Super Bowl LVI. But it's not the Steelers, who were trounced in the Wild Card Round. Or the Ravens, who were ravaged by injuries. Or the Browns, who were the Browns. No, after stunning the two-time defending conference champion Kansas City Chiefs at Arrowhead in overtime, the Cincinnati Bengals are in their first Super Bowl since the 1988 season.
"Who Dey" nation is celebrating for one reason and one reason only—because the Bengals have one thing that no other team in the league does.
The Cincinnati Bengals have Joe Burrow. And if the 2021 season was Burrow's coming-out party, Sunday's historic comeback was something else. It was an ascension into superstardom.
Two years ago, the Bengals were a 2-14 dumpster fire of a football team. However, the team picked a good year to be terrible—possession of the first pick in 2020 gave Cincy the rights to Burrow, who was coming off arguably the best season a collegiate quarterback has ever had. Burrow's rookie year featured bumps in the road and flashes of promise in equal measure before and ACL tear ended it in November. The Bengals finished the year 4-11-1 and entered 2021 with modest expectations.
It didn't take that long to see Burrow and the Bengals were going to exceed those expectations. On Oct. 24, Burrow threw for 416 yards and three scores in a rout of the rival Ravens to lift Cincinnati to 5-2. He went one better against the Ravens in Week 16, throwing for 525 yards and four scores in another beatdown of Baltimore. When he threw for 446 yards and four scores the following week against the same Kansas City Chiefs the Bengals faced Sunday, it brought Cincinnati the AFC North title. Burrow set new franchise records for passing yards (4,611) and touchdowns (34).
Burrow followed that by leading the Bengals to a Wild Card Round win over the Raiders, which was the franchise's first postseason victory since well before he was born. Then Burrow guided the Bengals to an upset of the top-seeded Tennessee Titans that marked Cincy's first road playoff win ever.
But as Geoff Hobson wrote for the team's website, Burrow made it clear before Sunday's game that he had his sights set higher.
"I work really hard for these moments," Burrow said. "If I worked really hard and never got to a position I'm in right now, playing in the AFC Championship Game and a chance to go to the Super Bowl, I think that would be tough for me mentally to work as hard as I do each week in the offseason to come in and go .500 every year and be a fringe playoff team. I work so hard so I can get in these moments and play well."
Now, prevailing wisdom before this game was that for all the Bengals had accomplished this season, the run would end Sunday in Kansas City. The Bengals were seven-point underdogs on the road. This writer will freely admit that he picked the Chiefs to win by double-digits. For all the Bengals had done this year (including knocking off the Chiefs in Week 17), Kansas City was just too good offensively. Too experienced.
And for a time, it appeared that was exactly what was going to happen. While the Bengals struggled offensively much of the first half, the Chiefs found the end zone on their first three possessions. Had Kansas City not botched a goal-line possession at the end of the first half, the Bengals would have trailed by at least two touchdowns at the break.
But Burrow and the Bengals didn't panic. The defense stiffened, allowing just three points in the second half. Burrow got it going through the air, finishing the game with 250 passing yards and a pair of touchdown passes. And after the Bengals picked off Patrick Mahomes and Burrow engineered a nine-play, 42-yard drive that culminated in an Evan McPherson field goal, the Bengals had slayed the AFC's Goliath to reach the franchise's third Super Bowl.
It tied the largest comeback in conference championship game history. It's also the first time in league history a No. 1 overall pick has led his team to a Super Bowl in his first two seasons.
While speaking with CBS sideline reporter Tracy Wolfson after the game, Burrow was quick to credit the team around him.
"Our defense was unbelievable in the second half," Burrow said. "They had a great plan on the defensive side against us. … Usually when you lose a coin flip to those guys you're going home. But our defense really stepped up and made plays in the second half. And on offense we made plays when we had to. I thought our offensive line played really well all day. And we started to run the ball a little bit at the end—that's exciting. Big win for us."
In fairness, he has a point. Running back Joe Mixon was third in the league in rushing in 2021. First-round pick Ja'Marr Chase (a teammate of Burrow's at LSU) shattered the NFL's rookie receiving record this year with 1,455 yards. Free agent acquisition Trey Hendrickson piled up a career-high 14 sacks and has 2.5 in the postseason. McPherson was a phenomenal kicker as a rookie. The offensive line has—well there are five of them.
The Bengals are a good football team. But we saw a good Bengals team make the playoffs five years in a row with Andy Dalton under center. Burrow has three more playoff wins this season than Dalton had over that entire run.
The Cincinnati Bengals are in the Super Bowl because they have a quarterback who rises to the occasion instead of shrinking in the moment. They are in the Super Bowl because they have a quarterback who looks at a 21-3 deficit and says, "Time to get to work." The Bengals are in the Super Bowl because they have a quarterback who finds losing a big game to be as foreign a concept as McDonald's pizza.
Yes, it was a thing. It tasted about like you would expect.
The Cincinnati Bengals are in the Super Bowl because they have a young superstar at the game's most important position.
And with Joe Burrow under center, they may just win Super Bowl LVI.
Long live Joe Brrrrrow. The frostiest young signal-caller in the league.