After last Saturday’s divisional round, Bengals players held a meeting where the team captains addressed their teammates. Quarterback Joe Burrow got up and said they should have expected to beat the AFC’s no. 1 seed, the Titans. Football teams often thrive off the idea that they’ve been counted out, but Burrow did the opposite. Earlier in the season, the Bengals had used “Why Not Us?” as a slogan, but Burrow didn’t like it and wanted to retire it. Winning should be expected, not an anomaly. The team decided to change the phrasing: “It Is Us.”
That was the message Burrow wanted his team to internalize. Late in the fourth quarter against Tennessee, with the score tied and rookie kicker Evan McPherson preparing to attempt a 52-yard game-winning field goal, Burrow got some confirmation that his message had been received. He watched McPherson take a couple of practice kicks on the sideline, then overheard him turn to backup quarterback and placeholder Brandon Allen and say, “Ah, it looks like we’re going to the AFC championship.”
It’s a bold prophecy for anyone and not the kind of nerve one associates with a rookie kicker, but McPherson turned out to be spot-on in both his assessment and his ensuing kick. It was the attitude Burrow asked for the night before and it fits with what this Bengals team is: supremely confident, even under pressure. These Bengals always believe they’re going to win. These Bengals have swag.
“I’m tired of the underdog narrative,” Burrow said Saturday after beating the Titans. “We’re a really, really good team. We’re here to make noise and teams are going to have to pay attention to us. We are, like I said, a really good team with really good players and coaches and we’re coming for it all.”
Bengals coach Zac Taylor echoed his quarterback’s comments Sunday.
“All that matters is our team has a lot of confidence right now and we believe that we belong,” Taylor said. “You know, some of the guys made the comment that people have tried to put the underdog card on us. We don’t subscribe to that.”
There are “Nobody Believes in Us” teams every postseason; the Bengals are the rare “Everybody Should Believe in Us” team.
Let us first address why the underdog narrative has been applied to this team. It’s the Bengals. Or the Bungles, if you prefer. Sure, Cincinnati went 10-7 this season and will play in the AFC championship game Sunday against the Chiefs for the right to go to the Super Bowl. But there are storied franchises, there are downtrodden teams, and then there are the Bengals. Entering the playoffs, Cincinnati had gone 31 years without a postseason victory, the longest drought in the NFL; Sunday will be its first conference title game appearance in 33 years. Before last week’s win over the Titans in Nashville, the Bengals had never won a road playoff game.
Led by Burrow, Taylor, and a young roster with stars like wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase and pass rusher Trey Hendrickson, the Bengals are quickly checking off those milestones. They’re as poised for long-term success as almost any other team in the NFL, but the franchise’s ignominious history doesn’t just disappear. Certain facts of the Bengals’ existence mean Cincinnati will always fit a certain underdog profile: It’s a small-market team that operates with one of the smallest coaching staffs and personnel departments in the NFL. In August, Forbes ranked the Bengals as the second-least-valuable franchise in the league. The pro-parity structure of the NFL prevents the league from separating Davids and Goliaths, but if you had to place teams in either category, Burrow would be holding a tiny slingshot.
Apparently, no one has told Burrow this. Cincinnati’s second-year quarterback has unwavering faith in his ability to withstand pressure, make plays, and win games. He’s been sacked 83 times in 26 career NFL starts, including a league-leading 51 this season. But despite the Bengals’ protection problems, he led the NFL in both completion percentage and yards per attempt this season and completed 76 percent of his passes against the Titans last weekend (while getting sacked nine times). To borrow a line from Ringer editor Ben Glicksman, Burrow has the vibes that Baker Mayfield thinks he has. Burrow’s attitude has earned him the nickname “Joe Cool,” which was Joe Montana’s nickname. Joe Montana never did this, though:
Or said this, which is just a solid joke:
Considering retirement after I was informed the football will be slipping out of my tiny hands. Please keep me in your thoughts.— Joey Burrow (@JoeyB) February 24, 2020
Or wore the same sunglasses after a playoff win as HBO star Sydney Sweeney in a recent episode of Euphoria:
Or did this:
Burrow smoking a cigar, NOLA bounce music, and a Natty in one video— Garland Gillen (@garlandgillen) January 14, 2020
You may notice that those last two scenes have a lot in common: Burrow and Chase celebrate a major victory with their teammates while smoking cigars and listening to New Orleans bounce music. The first came at the end of the 2019 college football season when they won a national championship together at LSU. Burrow was drafted the following spring; Chase sat out the 2020 college football season and was drafted by the Bengals last year. The second video is from January when they essentially re-created the first video after clinching the AFC North.
The Bengals have the best vibes in football, and they got them by drafting the star quarterback and receiver of the college team with the best vibes in a decade.
Burrow and Chase don’t seem to see themselves as setting a new tone in Cincinnati as much as they see themselves doing what they’ve always done together.
“I never knew there wasn’t good culture,” Chase said Saturday when asked about the impact he and Burrow had on the franchise.
Thaddeus Moss, a tight end on Cincinnati’s practice squad, was also on that 2019 Tigers team. He caught two touchdown passes from Burrow in the championship game win against Clemson. He can assure you that Burrow’s confidence predated that historic LSU season. It’s not something he’s learned and confirmed through victories—it’s intrinsic.
Moss remembers Burrow’s first day of seven-on-seven practice at LSU after the QB had transferred from Ohio State. The defense, which included future pros like Devin White, wanted to test him.
“They were kind of wanting to see what he was about, you know, talking a lot to him and getting in his face and just doing just all the extra stuff,” Moss says. “Joe didn’t flinch one bit. He came back, he fired right back at them talking to them. And then on top of it, his play, he went out there and just torched them. Right then and there I knew that’s what Joe was about.”
Playing with Burrow, Moss says, makes it easy to buy into that belief. Moss is a fairly confident guy himself. “I don’t think football is a difficult sport,” he said within the first two minutes of our conversation. “I think people and their emotions is what makes football difficult.” If that’s the case, Burrow helps his team by staying even, no matter the circumstance. He’s not the loudest or most vocal teammate, but he’s the same after nine sacks as he is on the first play of the game.
“In the toughest moments, in the most critical moments, the moment with the most pressure, he’s still the same,” Moss said. “There’s no difference in him. With Joe, there’s no difference in his anything.”
That poise may be part of Burrow’s connection with Chase, who is similarly even-keeled. The receiver said after the win against the Titans that he didn’t find it particularly exciting, and that what would actually excite him would be an AFC championship and a Super Bowl. On the deep pass down the right sideline with 20 seconds left in the fourth quarter, the play that set up McPherson’s game-winning kick, he mirrored Burrow’s cool.
“What was going through my mind? Win the game,” Chase said. “Win the game. That’s all that’s going through my mind. Keep your poise and win a game.”
The toughest challenge may be yet to come against the Chiefs, who will host their fourth straight AFC championship game in Kansas City. The only quarterback to knock Patrick Mahomes out of the playoffs in his young career thus far is Tom Brady; Burrow is aiming to become the second. It won’t be easy—the Chiefs have the pass rush to take advantage of Cincinnati’s shaky offensive line, and the Bills found out the hard way in the divisional round just how unstoppable Mahomes and the offense can be when they’re clicking. But the Bengals were underdogs when they beat Kansas City in the regular season. Rather, they were considered underdogs by the betting and viewing public, even if Burrow and Co. did not share the same view.
Cincinnati’s self-assurance seems to have spread not only to Burrow’s teammates but to Bengals fans, even those old enough to remember plenty of early playoff exits during the Andy Dalton years in Cincinnati.
Alex Kradin is a bartender at Phebe’s, a bar on the Lower East Side of Manhattan with a Bengals affiliation. Before last Saturday’s game, there was a line down the block even after he sent a full overflow crowd up the street to a sister bar. After McPherson’s kick went through the uprights, the place went nuts.
“Once they won, and you saw that ball go through the uprights, it was just an absolute uproar,” Kradin said. “Me and the general manager and the other bartenders got on top of the bar, pouring shots in everybody’s mouth. It was pretty wild.”
One regular cried.
“The amount of times I had a fan come up to me and tell me that they love me is insane,” Kradin said. “I’ve never had a customer ever tell me that.”
Kradin is from Massachusetts. He’s adopted the Bengals since he works the bar during every game, but he grew up a Patriots fan, so he’s familiar with a football fan base that expects to play in and win big games. He sensed some anxious energy in the crowd at Phebe’s before the Bengals played the Raiders in the wild-card round, but once Cincinnati scored its first touchdown, he saw people take on the team’s signature confidence.
“They’ve got a winner’s mindset,” Kradin said. “I think the first week of the playoffs, you could tell there was a little bit of nervousness. But after they eked out that win, you could tell, you could tell that the next week they were ready. They had a winner’s mindset.”
Kradin got in the mindset, too. He had never placed a bet on sports in his life before last weekend, but he downloaded a sports betting app and placed a wager on the Bengals. He was rewarded, and he too was infected with the team’s self-assurance. These Bengals win. They can also make you believe.
“And I’m sure as hell going to bet them again this week,” Kradin said.