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The Bengals Nearly Pulled Off a Super Bowl Run For the Ages. What Comes Next?

Joe Burrow and Cincinnati took the NFL playoffs by storm before falling just short of a championship. They have the foundation to make it back—but the road ahead won’t be easy.

AP Images/Ringer illustration

During the two-week break between the AFC championship game and the Super Bowl, Joe Burrow watched the A Football Life documentary about Kurt Warner. In it, Warner says he wishes that he’d been able to see making the Super Bowls he lost as more of an accomplishment than he did during his playing career.

Burrow found himself thinking about that in the locker room Sunday after the Bengals lost Super Bowl LVI to the Rams, 23-20.

“He said they let it sting too much and they didn’t celebrate what they accomplished,” Burrow said. “So we are going to.”

There is much to celebrate this season in Cincinnati. Behind Burrow, rookie wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase, and an unheralded but talented defense, the Bengals turned a 4-11-1 team in 2020 into the AFC champion and a Super Bowl participant. They overcame roster deficiencies like a weak offensive line to make it within a couple plays—a stop on Rams receiver Cooper Kupp here, a conversion on fourth-and-1 there—of winning a championship. They did it with an unshakable confidence that stemmed from Burrow but permeated the roster and at times made the Bengals seem like a team of destiny. They did it with players who were simply better than anyone outside of their building previously realized. And they did it faster than anyone, perhaps the Bengals included, thought they could.

They seem to recognize this, starting with Burrow. After his first championship loss since high school, the quarterback seemed a bit crestfallen, but at peace. Most Bengals players who spoke with reporters on Sunday mentioned that they have a young team. They think they’ll be back. People process sadness and disappointment differently, but I’ve covered a few Super Bowls, and I’ve certainly seen sadder postgame scenes.

“You like to think that we’ll be back in this situation multiple times over the course of the next few years,” Burrow said. “We’ll take this and let it fuel us for the rest of our careers.”

The Bengals’ first offseason priority this year should be clear: Improve the offensive line. If Cincinnati’s optimism stems from Burrow, any fear for the future should stem from the fact that he has been under siege his entire NFL career, this Super Bowl very much included. When Burrow stepped on the turf at SoFi Stadium on Sunday morning to begin warming up, his black shorts hit just above the spot on his left knee where his two scars from ACL and MCL reconstruction surgery end. By the time the game was over, Burrow’s right knee was hurting after getting twisted awkwardly by a Von Miller sack. That was the Rams’ seventh sack of the day, tying a Super Bowl record.

After the game, Burrow said that he was fine and that he would wait until he was home in Cincinnati to get checked out by a doctor. But he spent a few moments on the ground after that play, holding his knee and screaming in pain. The Bengals’ offensive line finished the Super Bowl with a 14 percent pass block win rate, according to NFL Next Gen Stats, the worst mark by any team in any game this season. Burrow took 51 sacks in the regular season and 19 more in the playoffs; the latter figure is the most sacks taken by any quarterback in a single postseason in at least 20 years. (The previous record was 12.)

All season, the Bengals disliked the narrative that they were an underdog team. If there was a sign that Cincinnati wasn’t expecting its Super Bowl window to open so quickly, though, it was the front office leaving Burrow’s protection unaddressed. Last offseason, the Bengals hit on key acquisitions like Chase, defensive end Trey Hendrickson, outside cornerback Chidobe Awuzie, and slot cornerback Mike Hilton, but did little to shore up the offensive line beyond selecting Jackson Carman in the second round of the draft. Carman struggled to win a job, even at right tackle after Riley Reiff was injured in Week 13. That spot on the right side became Cincinnati’s biggest liability, which a rotation between Carman and Hakeem Adeniji could not solve. While these Bengals had real magic—a secret sauce of confidence and explosive ability that won them games it seemed like they shouldn’t have on their way to the Super Bowl—they didn’t have the talent to hold their own at the line of scrimmage on Sunday. That matchup wasn’t about X factors or intangibles, just All-Pros and stars against backups.

The game was won predictably: The Bengals trailed by three points when they lined up for a crucial fourth-and-1 from the Rams’ 49-yard line with less than a minute remaining. Los Angeles defensive tackle Aaron Donald, arguably the best defensive player in a generation, got pressure on Burrow just 2.2 seconds after the ball was snapped and forced an incompletion. Game over. Donald sprinted around the field pointing to his ring finger. The Bengals, and Burrow, went to lick their wounds. Burrow’s teammates have lauded him for his coolness under pressure, and it’s remarkable that Cincinnati was even in position to win a game in which its quarterback was under such consistent duress. But the need for him to be better protected isn’t just about wins. It’s about Burrow’s future.

“It has been tough,” tight end C.J. Uzomah said. “You don’t want to see your franchise quarterback get hit as many times as he did. That is probably going to be a point of emphasis coming up.”

If there is a silver lining there, it’s that it’s clear what the Bengals need to do for their roster. They have all their draft picks, plus an extra seventh-round pick from the Giants, and $44.8 million in cap space, though outgoing free agents including Reiff, defensive tackles Larry Ogunjobi and B.J. Hill, Uzomah, safeties Ricardo Allen and Jessie Bates III, cornerbacks Eli Apple and Tre Flowers, and guard Quinton Spain may take up some of that. Cincinnati addressed its defense last offseason; now it’s time to focus on the offensive line. From a roster standpoint, the Bengals should still be in position to improve.

It will only get harder to compete in the AFC. The Bengals’ conference is stacked with young, talented quarterbacks like Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen, Lamar Jackson, and Justin Herbert who will try to stand in their way. It’s easy to believe that Burrow is up to the challenge and will be back in the Super Bowl after watching him will a talented but incomplete offense as far as he did. His coaches and teammates certainly do.

“He should have been MVP,” Uzomah said. “He’s a fucking dog. He’s the guy. He immediately makes our team better when he is in the huddle, when he’s calling plays, in meeting rooms, in practice, telling us how to run things, telling us how he wants things run.”

“He’s a fighter, he’s one of the toughest guys I have ever met,” head coach Zac Taylor said. “So much respect for Joe. He’s gotten us to this moment. It’s just unfortunate that we couldn’t finish it off as a team.”

Every year, 30 teams don’t make the Super Bowl; these Bengals were one of the two that did. The Warner quote Burrow mentioned recognizes this: It’s worth celebrating the things that are hard and rare. The unspoken piece of Warner’s message, though, is that not everyone gets back.

One of the quarterbacks who beat Warner in the Super Bowl, Tom Brady, had a few things in common with Burrow when his Pats beat the Rams in his second NFL season. For one, he had competed in big games in college; for another, he had both a confidence and a naivete that took some of the pressure off his circumstances. When interviewed on the NFL’s broadcast announcing its 100th Anniversary All-Time Team, Brady half-joked that he couldn’t see the difference between the Citrus Bowl and the Super Bowl.

“I’m glad I didn’t have the perspective of how hard it actually was to win the Super Bowl,” Brady said.

Burrow has that perspective now. And as much as there’s a clear path to improving Cincinnati’s roster this offseason, the Bengals also need to maintain the confidence that helped push them this far. The means by which they should accomplish that aren’t as obvious, but they’ll have to find a way. It starts with Burrow. He knows how hard it is. It’s just that knowing doesn’t make it any easier.