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The Bengals Are in the Super Bowl. How Is That Possible?

We’ve been trying to figure out Cincinnati all season. Now they’re playing for the championship.

AP Images/Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The Cincinnati Bengals will play in the Super Bowl in two weeks. Quick, and without cheating, how many of their defensive starters can you name off the top of your head?

The Bengals came from out of nowhere. They came from out of nowhere in the AFC championship game against the Kansas City Chiefs. They were down 21-3 in the second quarter and entered halftime with a win probability of 2 percent. They came from out of nowhere in these playoffs, narrowly avoiding defeat in each of their first two games. The Titans had the ball with two minutes left in a tie game in the divisional round; the Raiders had a first-and-goal with a game-tying touchdown in sight in the wild-card round. Cincinnati came from out of nowhere in this season—this team had a preseason projected win total of 6.5. In late September, head coach Zac Taylor was the betting favorite to be the first head coach fired.

It’s been a dizzying ascension for Cincinnati’s young and unrecognized team. It was a stunning move to let star pass rusher Carl Lawson depart in free agency last year, only to give big money to ex-Saints defensive end Trey Hendrickson. Hendrickson was a menace in the second half against the Chiefs on Sunday, with his 1.5 sacks coming on third downs in the fourth quarter. Free safety Jessie Bates III, who admitted that not getting a contract extension from Cincinnati last offseason disrupted his play early in this season, generated the pass breakup that became a tip-drill interception in overtime. Lou Anarumo, the coordinator of this no-name defense, dropped eight players into coverage on almost half of the Chiefs’ second-half pass attempts and held them to three total points.

Anarumo has received one head-coaching interview this cycle, with the Giants. They didn’t hire him. He isn’t getting much run because nobody in the league quite knows how to react to the Bengals’ stratospheric run. Taylor is about to coach in a Super Bowl, like Bruce Arians and Andy Reid and Sean McVay and Bill Belichick and Kyle Shanahan have in the last few seasons. Would anyone rate Taylor among those coaches? Will Bates get that big second contract? Where does Hendrickson rank among the elite defensive ends in these conference championship games like Von Miller and Nick Bosa?

Perhaps the greatest surprise on the Bengals is rookie wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase. He was the 2019 Biletnikoff winner as a true sophomore with Joe Burrow as his quarterback at LSU. Chase was undoubtedly a great college wide receiver and an awesome NFL prospect, but he was far from a slam dunk pick to go as high as no. 5 in last year’s draft. There was plenty of debate among NFL teams in the pre-draft process about the best wide receiver prospect. Chase, who sat out all of the 2020 college season, was contending with Alabama receivers Jaylen Waddle and DeVonta Smith, the latter of whom won the Heisman Trophy. Even in Cincinnati, where Chase was presumably the team’s favored wide receiver because of his chemistry with Burrow, there was some question as to whether the Bengals should select Oregon offensive tackle Penei Sewell to shore up a struggling offensive line.

Well, Chase is the 2021 Offensive Rookie of the Year by a country mile. He’s also the record holder for most single-game receiving yards by a rookie (266, set against the Chiefs in Week 17), and holds the Bengals’ single-season record for receiving yards with 1,455. At 21, he’s the youngest player in league history with multiple 100-yard games in the postseason. He’s two years younger than Kansas City defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo’s entire NFL coaching career. He hasn’t just established himself as Cincinnati’s WR1—he’s dictating coverage, drawing safeties, and creating from nothing.

It’s early in Chase’s career, but his play warrants star status. But Super Bowl teams are usually constellations: contenders built on a scaffolding of stars. The Bengals seem to have only two: Chase and Joe Burrow. And somehow, Burrow’s star is bright enough to account for the lack of famous names around him. He’s more than good; he’s more than great; he’s more than clutch; he is elite. In his second pro season, Burrow seems similar to this entire Bengals team: predestined, predetermined, blessed by some divine grace that gives him all the right plays at all the right times.

Burrow’s postseason run has been defined by the walls that he’s found himself backed up against. Against the Raiders, the Bengals were 2-for-5 in the red zone; Taylor’s 21 running plays on first and second down had a success rate of 19 percent. It didn’t matter: Burrow took every one-on-one the Raiders gave him, feeding Chase on the sideline. His completion percentage over expectation was plus–11.2 percent. Against the Titans, Burrow was sacked nine times—the most by a winning quarterback ever in a postseason game. The offense again struggled to finish drives, scoring a touchdown on one of four drives inside the Titans’ 30. It didn’t matter: Burrow found Chase on a teardrop corner route against the sideline to set up the game-winning field goal. His completion percentage over expectation was plus–6.4 percent.

Against the Chiefs, Taylor’s early-down rushes again put Burrow behind the sticks. The Bengals were 8-for-14 on third down and 7-for-13 on called passes, as Burrow beat the Chiefs with his arm and legs alike. His completion percentage over expectation was minus–1.8 percent. A defense had finally held Burrow’s uncanny accuracy to average levels. And it still didn’t matter.

The Chiefs’ late-season surge was eerily familiar. After their stupendous win over the Buffalo Bills in the divisional round, that groan of inevitability returned. Mahomes and the Chiefs were like Brady and the Patriots—a team that, no matter how poorly they played in the regular season, or even for stretches in a playoff game, was always going to come out on top. We called the Bills-Chiefs shootout the game of the year, the functional Super Bowl, and we meant it. At 21-3 on Sunday, it looked like we’d made the right call.

But somehow, someway, Bengals inevitability superseded Chiefs inevitability. This scrappy little 4-seed, with its moxie quarterback and no-name defense and we-all-thought-you-were-gonna-get-fired head coach, clawed its way back into another game and secured another win.

The Bengals may have come from out of nowhere, but now, every other AFC team has faded into the same haze from which they emerged. It’s been a crazy NFL season, one that deserved a crazy Super Bowl berth. Your AFC champion, Super Bowl–bound Bengals, are the fruit of that madness; they are that crazy team.