The Cincinnati Bengals have had an interesting few years. Part of what makes sports so beautiful is the unpredictability of it. Throughout the years, the sports world has seen many underdog stories, such as the St. Louis Rams of 1999, rallying behind former store-clerk Kurt Warner.
Sportsbooks will have another such story to add to its famed stories of underdogs. Enter the 2021 Bengals.
You would be forgiven for assuming that the team from the Jungle would just be a punching bag for its 17 opponents. After all, they were given a 1% chance to make it to the big game by FiveThirtyEight.
However, a series of savvy trades and smart drafting meant that the Bengals - the NFL's laughing stock - were one win away from hoisting the franchise's first Lombardi trophy. How did we get here?
The Night is Darkest Before the Dawn
The Cincinnati we know today can be traced back to an unlikely source, the 2019 season.
Following the departure of longtime head coach Marvin Lewis, the Stripes needed a coach who could take over the reins. Enter Zac Taylor. The coach was an influential piece in Jared Goff's 2018 season, the season in which he led the Los Angeles Rams to the Superbowl.
The hire was met with extreme optimism. Fans were excited to see a new era of Cincinnati football, following the stagnation of the team under Marvin Lewis. However, excitement does not guarantee wins. This was learnt this the hard way.
After being given +20000 odds to win the Superbowl, the Bengals started off in nightmarish form. Following a 0-11 start, the worst in franchise history, with veteran quarterback Andy Dalton being benched in favor of Ryan Finley in Week 10.
Cincinnati finished the season 2-14, good enough, or bad enough, for the first overall pick. The decision was a no-brainer: LSU's Joe Burrow.
A Hero Is Born
Burrow had come off arguably the greatest season a college football QB has ever had, posting the highest quarterback rating in the history of college football (this was broken the very next season by Alabama's Mac Jones.)
It came as no surprise to fans when commissioner Roger Goodell announced Joe Burrow as the number one pick. In the second round, Burrow received some throwing support in the form of wide receiver Tee Higgins.
Now, the question was whether the Stripes would be able to utilize the talents they had on their hands, something which hasn’t walways been the their strong point.
When it Rains, it Pours
In the 2020 season, Burrow showed tremendous potential and was the favorite for the prestigious Offensive Rookie of the Year Award. That was until their Week 10 matchup against the then Washington Football Team.
In the third quarter, Joe Burrow was hit by two pass rushers. It was an ugly scene and everyone's fears were realized when he was later ruled out for the season with a torn ACL and MCL.
The city of Cincinnati and the NFL world were shocked. Would the Bengals' front office finally realize the shortcomings of the offensive line and invest in it? Would Burrow's potential be hampered by this very brutal injury?
Cincinnati ended their season with a 4-11-1 record. This gave them the fifth pick in the draft. However, questions were being asked about Zac Taylor's competency. He had gone a combined 6-25-1 over the last two years. Taylor was not given a chance by the NFL landscape to last the full season and was even expected to be one of the first coaches to be fired in the offseason.
When Needs Must
Through free agency, Cincinnati added defensive end Trey Hendrickson, cornerbacks Idobe Awuzie and Mike Hilton, and defensive tackles Larry Ogunjobi and D.J. Reader.
To add to this, veteran offensive tackle Riley Reiff joined the team on a one-year deal to provide Burrow with some much-needed protection.
In the draft, the Bengals had a dilemma on their hands. Should they draft generational talent offensive tackle Penei Sewell, or go for Burrow's former teammate at LSU, wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase? This was also a need for the team, however, it was strongly argued that they should protect Burrow, given the horrific injury he had suffered.
On draft day, the Bengals ended up choosing Chase, which gave rise to plenty of criticism from the media for not prioritizing Burrow's protection. However, they followed up the Chase pick by choosing Jackson Carman in the second round.
The Eye of the Tiger
In the preseason, there were reports of Burrow being in a slump and not playing to the level of the first overall pick. Chase also kept dropping passes thrown his way, with the receiver attributing this to the fact that the balls in the NFL were much darker than the balls present in the college game.
All of this led to FiveThirtyEight projecting the Bengals to go 7-10. They were given their fifth worst odds of taking the Lombardi to Cincinnati. The Bengals were also given a 20% chance to make the playoffs, with a 7% chance to win their division, a 1% chance to make it to the big game, and a 0.5% chance to win it.
So, with their backs up against the wall, how did they perform in 2021? Well, let's just say that they surpassed expectations.
Led by the prolific receiving duo of Burrow and Chase, they won the AFC North for the first time since the 2015 season. Burrow won the Comeback Player of the Year award and was firmly in the MVP conversation, though this was awarded to Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
It is also fair to say that Ja'Marr Chase learned how to catch NFL balls as he was awarded the Offensive Rookie of the Year award and was a top-five receiver throughout the season.
Crouching Tiger, Giant Killers
The Bengals found themselves in an unusual spot. They were now hosting the Las Vegas Raiders at home, hoping to win their first playoff game in 31 years. Neither Burrow nor Chase were alive when Cincinnati had their last playoff victory, beating the Houston Oilers 41-14 in 1990.
In a tight game, the entirety of Cincinnati held their breath as the defense produced a goal-line stand, bringing the Bengals their first win since that day.
Now, the Tennessee Titans. Despite injuries riddling their season, the Titans had managed to become the No. 1 seed in the AFC, ensuring that the playoffs ran through Tennessee. It was expected that the Bengals fairytale would come to an end here.
Despite getting sacked 9 times, Burrow and company kept the game close, requiring rookie kicker sensation Evan McPherson to kick them into the AFC Championship Game. When he heard his name called, McPherson turned to the bench and said:
The Bengals were now one game short of the Superbowl. In their way stood the league's best team: the Kansas City Chiefs. The Chiefs had also hit form at just the right time. They had just won one of the greatest games in the history of the sport against the Buffalo Bills, responding equally ferociously to anything the Bills did.
At halftime, the odds seemed justified. The Bengals were trailing the Chiefs 10-21. The Chiefs were on fire, especially Mahomes, who had a perfect half. This seemed destined to happen. The Bengals' luck had to run out at some point.
As the teams came out of the tunnel for the final half, it only seemed a formality that the plane to Los Angeles would be reserved for the Chiefs. However, the unthinkable happened.
They started scoring. A field goal by McPherson, followed by a Burrow touchdown and a successful two-point conversion. This meant that the Bengals were now tied in Kansas City.
However, the more notable story took place on the Chiefs' offense. Mahomes, who had had a stellar first half, had a less than ideal second half, to say the least. He had posted a near-perfect quarterback-rating in the first half at 149, but fell away in the second half seeing his rating fall all the way down to 34.
With the two teams trading a field goal each in the fourth quarter, the game was tied at 24 each heading into overtime.
In the coin toss, like their previous game, the Chiefs won the toss and elected to start. Yet again, the Bengals had their backs against the wall. The stadium, sensing a home team victory, started their celebrations.
Fickle are the gods of football, and we should never take for granted what we haven't yet achieved. On the third play of overtime, Mahomes took a deep shot to Hill. The pass was deflected and Vonn Bell caught it. The Bengals now had the chance to book their first trip to the Super Bowl since 1989.
Cincinnati, in stark contrast to the Chiefs, carefully ran plays, driving the ball all the way to the Chiefs' 12 yard line.
McPherson heard his name called. This time, the stakes were higher. Exponentially so. The stadium got louder as the pressure built. The season had all led up to this moment. Here was a chance to rewrite the wrongs of the history of the Bengals. The franchise was most associated with bungling when there was a glimmer of hope, giving rise to the nickname the Cincinnati Bungles.
The kick was good. The Bengals went to the Superbowl. Back in Cincinnati, fans went crazy. Against +15000 odds, the city of Cincinnati was now 60 minutes away from finally being Super Bowl champions.
The Final Showdown, The Superbowl
Although the Rams were favored by 4.5 points, the NFL had taken notice of these Bengals and the narrative had changed. All of a sudden, picking the Bengals to beat the Rams would not make you a madman.
What the Super Bowl hinged on, was whether the Rams' star-studded defense would prove too much for the Bengals' offensive.
Through the first 3 quarters of the game, the answer was a firm no. Aaron Donald was ineffective, his frustration was very visible.
By the start of the 3rd quarter, the Bengals led the Rams by 4 points. Their first Super Bowl win was getting more and more lpossible. The offensive line was winning the battle at the line of scrimmage, Burrow had all the time in the world to find his targets. It didn't feel real.
Dreams are for waking up. Donald found his steel. Von Miller stepped up to the plate. Burrow was now running for his life. The offense stagnated and the Bengals lost the momentum they had.
The game stagnated. Punts were traded like cards. Cincinnati still leading 20 - 16. Burrow was hammered at the beginning of the fourth quarter, causing him to limp off the field in visible distress. He played on, though the injury clearly affected his performance. It was later revealed that he had suffered a sprained MCL.
The Bengals continued to go nowhere on offense. With 6 minutes left on the clock, this was the time for the Rams to retake their lead. The ball was placed at their 21-yard line.
On the first play, Stafford found a wide-open Brycen Hopkins for a gain of 9 yards. Two unsuccessful attempts followed and the Rams were suddenly facing a do-or-die fourth down.
Stafford took the snap and tossed it to All-Pro wide receiver Cooper Kupp. Kupp met no resistance and he gained the first down and then some.
The Rams continued marching down the field. The Bengals fought hard but fatigue was clearly a factor.
Three penalties delayed the inevitable. Two plays later, Stafford threw Kupp a pass which resulted in the go-ahead TD.
Although the Bengals managed to cause a minute scare in the final 46 seconds, their possession ended in the most predictable manner. Burrow getting sacked by Aaron Donald, causing a turnover on downs. Donald stood rampant, the Rams were champions and the Bengals had fallen at the final hurdle.
Tomorrow is Another Day
In the media, Burrow is labeled as the next Dan Marino. Despite his obvious talent, it was always certain his offensive line would limit his development. He was sacked 70 times throughout the 2021 season, third-most in the history of the NFL. He was sacked 7 times in the Superbowl, tying the record set by Roger Staubach's Dallas Cowboys.
The odds are stacked against the Bengals. The opening line favored them to win fewer than 10 games. In recent weeks, the oddsmakers have given the team +2200 odds to win the Super Bowl, the 11th highest odds, and are longer than those of their division and state rivals, the Cleveland Browns.
On the bright side, the Bengals have beefed up their offensive line by adding Alex Cappa, La'El Collins, and Ted Karras. in my opinion, this makes this offensive line an average one at the very least. The draft could bring in Georgia defensive linebacker Devonte Wyatt, Florida's cornerback Kaiir Elam or even Auburn's cornerback Roger McCreary, all of whom would be home-run picks.
With the season now roughly 4 months away, the Bengals, find the odds set against them. Can they go one further and win the Super Bowl? Or is it back to reality for the Cincinnati fanbase?
Sources: FiveThirtyEight, DraftKings, Vegas Insider
Poll : Will the Cincinnati Bengals return to the Super Bowl this year?