After a heartbreaking loss in Super Bowl LVI, the Cincinnati Bengals are headed home, but not without some much-needed experience, and a conference championship to boot.
The Bengals scratched and clawed with the Los Angeles Rams for 60 minutes in an absolute back and forth thriller of a Super Bowl. Although the final score of 23-20 was relatively low, the game certainly did not disappoint. The Bengals kept it close, covering a +4 spread and limiting a Rams offense who had averaged 27.1 points per game during the regular season.
However, the game itself was not nearly as remarkable as the Bengals’ improbable come-up story that led up to it.
With a permanent seat in the basement of the National Football League (NFL) in the late 2010’s, Cincinnati was on the hunt for an answer at the quarterback (QB) position after years of mediocre play from former franchise QB Andy Dalton. In turn, the Bengals were… well… garbage. losing franchise cornerstones A.J Green and Geno Atkins en route to a 2-14 record and last in the American Football Conference North (AFC North) nothing seemed like it was going to get them out of the cellar.
Routinely ridiculed as “The Bungals”, Cincinnati had no hope of Super Bowl contention within the next decade, let alone the next two years.
Yet as the Bengals fumbled over and over again, there was undoubtedly something special brewing down in Baton Rouge.
Led by star quarterback and wide receiver duo Joe Burrow and Ja’Marr Chase, the Louisiana State University Tigers went 15-0, cruising to a National Championship in the 2019-2020 season. Totaling 60 touchdowns and 6,039 yards through the air, Burrow was the undisputed number one overall pick for the 2020 NFL draft. Holding that very pick, Cincinnati would be forced to wait for him in what would become nothing short of a football hellhole.
Eventually, the Bengals would get their man. You would think that in a perfect world the young athlete from Ohio who grew up miles from Cincinnati would immediately turn the franchise into success in his rookie year.
Unfortunately, we do not live in a perfect world.
The Bungals still Bungal’d, going 4-11-1, securing a second straight last place finish in the NFC North. Though despite the poor year record-wise, it was not the wins and losses that proved the most disappointing for Bengals fans. Unfortunately, the “chosen one” sent from the heavens tore his ACL and MCL in a week 11 game against Washington. Even still, before his catastrophic knee injury, Burrow was not all that remarkable. The LSU product accumulated 2,688 yards and 13 touchdowns through the air, consistently being outperformed by the second quarterback taken in the draft, Los Angeles Chargers Justin Herbert.
All was not well in Cincinnati.
Given their horrid record in 2020, their 2021 draft position set them up for great success. The need was clear: protect Joe Burrow with star offensive lineman out of Oregon, Penei Sewell. After slipping to number six, it was almost a foregone conclusion the Bengals would pick the generational lineman.
They would not.
Instead, the Bengals chose the other half of the famed LSU duo, wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase. As a result, they instantly became the butt of NFL Draft jokes for months, even more so when Chase struggled with drops to start the preseason.
Soon enough, however, the Bengals hit their stride and rode a wave of Raven injuries and excellence from their reunited duo to their first NFC North title since 1988.
Despite not drafting Sewell, the offensive line remained sub-par over the course of the year, ranked 20 by Pro Football Focus, a leading football statistician website. This was just enough for Joe Brrr to make a playoff push.
However, “just enough” does not pan out too well in the NFL Playoffs.
Joey Franchise was sacked a record nine times against the Tennessee Titans in the Divisional Round and seven times against the Rams in the Super Bowl, signaling a clear need for an upgrade on the offensive line, and explaining why the star-studded Rams were able to pull out such a close win.
However, it is worth noting that Ja’Marr Chase’s 1455 yards and 13 touchdowns definitely softened the blow of not drafting Sewell. If it was not for this pick, the Bengals would not have been in the position to win it all in the first place.
Overall, it was a great year for the Bengals and a feel-good story for the NFL. Cincinnati’s future appears bright, despite their front office and coaching staff having proven incompetent in years prior. It will be a tedious road back to the Super Bowl for them, but not an impossible one.
Dear, Head Coach Zac Taylor and General Manager Mike Brown: you have a young team with generational potential. For the pleasure of all NFL fans, please do not mess this up.