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Joe Burrow’s Bengals Are Built for Something Bigger

Cincinnati beat Kansas City on Sunday. It also might have taken Kansas City’s title as the most fun offense in football.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The gall. Late in Sunday’s game against the AFC-leading Chiefs, the Bengals faced a third-and-27 from Kansas City’s 41-yard line. The game was tied, and the prudent plan would have been for quarterback Joe Burrow to play it safe: Throw a short pass, gain about 10 yards, and get into field-goal range.

But Burrow’s Bengals don’t believe in “prudent.” They think you can take your field goal and shove it up the bowels of Cincinnati’s Paul Brown Stadium. Instead, Burrow took a shot down the right sideline and completed a 30-yard pass to rookie receiver Ja’Marr Chase. First down, Cincy. By now, you know what happened next. Twice, the Bengals faced fourth-and-goal just inches from the end zone, but rather than kick a chip-shot field goal to take a 3-point lead and give the ball back to Patrick Mahomes, they went for the touchdown both times. Penalties offset both attempts—the flag on the latter play came after a questionable Kansas City foul on cornerback L’Jarius Sneed that gave Cincinnati a first down and finally set up the game-winning field goal.

When asked about the pivotal third-down conversion to Chase after the game, Burrow referenced … a Patrick Mahomes meme.

“Everyone knows that meme,” Burrow said about the play after the game. “F it, Ja’Marr’s down there somewhere.”

So much stands out from Cincinnati’s 34-31 win over Kansas City. Burrow and Chase have transferred their astonishing, record-smashing chemistry as LSU teammates to a record-breaking first season together in the NFL. The Bengals clinched the AFC North for the first time in six years and established themselves as a legit AFC contender. They all but eliminated their division rivals—the Ravens, Steelers, and Browns—from the playoff race, and look poised to contend for the division title for years to come. But what stands out most from watching Cincinnati this season is its “F it” attitude.

Despite having one of the youngest offenses in the NFL, Cincinnati fears nothing and nobody. Sometimes, that boldness is to its detriment. More often, it’s been a successful recipe. This squad has absorbed Burrow’s unflappable, unwavering, and occasionally reckless confidence and infused it with the finesse and swagger of one of the league’s best skill groups. It’s a downright intoxicating combination. Fans looking for surrogate squads to root for in the playoffs might not have a better pick than Cincinnati. Not only did the Bengals beat Kansas City on Sunday, but they may have also taken Kansas City’s title as the most fun offense in football.

No matter what happens in the playoffs, Cincinnati’s season has been an unmitigated success. The Bengals are playing with house money heading into the postseason, which is exactly what makes this young, talented team so dangerous.

Midway through Sunday’s game, Burrow’s nameplate was ripped clean off of the back of his jersey.

It looked odd, but proved the old cliché about the name on the front of the jersey mattering more than the one on the back. Besides, everyone knows who Burrow is by now.

After tearing his ACL halfway through a middling rookie season in 2020, Burrow has spent this season delivering on the promise that made him the no. 1 pick. Burrow has surpassed Andy Dalton’s single-season franchise records by throwing for 4,293 yards and 34 touchdowns this season. He has 971 yards (!) over his past two games, which is 3 yards shy of the most ever in a two-game span, while becoming the first quarterback in NFL history to have back-to-back games with 400-plus passing yards, four touchdown passes, and zero interceptions.

In the first of those two games, he passed for 525 yards against Baltimore, the fourth-highest total in NFL history. In the lead-up to the game, Ravens defensive coordinator Wink Martindale was asked about the difference between defending against Aaron Rodgers and Burrow. Martindale said Rodgers was a Hall of Famer but that it wasn’t time to “buy a gold jacket” for Burrow yet (a pretty reasonable comment). But cue the Michael Jordan meme—Burrow took Martindale’s response personally. The Bengals ran up the score on Baltimore in a 41-21 win—Burrow took a few deep shots late in the game to secure his 525 passing yards. Burrow, of course, refused to attribute his prolific outburst to anything Martindale had said: “I wouldn’t say I was offended by it,” he said after the game. “I’m in year two. Who knows what’s going to happen down the road? I didn’t think it was a necessary comment.”

Amazingly, Burrow’s 525-yard performance was his highest passing total at any level, including his lone season as a starter at LSU, in 2019, when he set the single-season record for touchdowns. After winning the College Football Playoff championship that year, Burrow and his teammates celebrated with victory cigars. He did so again on Sunday after the Bengals clinched the AFC North.

The Bengals’ success this season isn’t entirely attributed to Burrow and the offense. Free agent pass rusher Trey Hendrickson has been a revelation. He’s helped lift Cincy’s defense from dead last in sacks in 2020 (17) into the top 10 this year with 41. In the secondary, the Bengals signed cornerbacks Mike Hilton, Chidobe Awuzie, and Eli Apple this offseason, and the moves have paid off fantastically. Their defense has gone from 23rd in PFF grading in 2020 to 13th this season.

But the biggest change was selecting Chase with the fifth pick in this year’s draft. Cincy got a lot of criticism for taking a receiver instead of Oregon left tackle Penei Sewell, but Chase is a special player. He has 1,429 receiving yards this season, the most for any rookie in NFL history, surpassing the previous high set by Justin Jefferson in 2020 … who was teammates with Chase and Burrow at LSU. (No wonder they went 15-0.)

Chase’s third-and-27 catch was his final reception on a record-setting day. His final stat line: 11 catches, 266 yards, three touchdowns. If 266 receiving yards looks like a misprint, that is because it is just the 15th time that number has been reached in an NFL game. It’s the most receiving yards in a single game for a rookie ever. It’s also the most receiving yards in a game in Bengals history (and this is a franchise that used to employ Chad Johnson and A.J. Green). Chase is just 11 yards shy of the Bengals’ single-season receiving record, set by Johnson in 2007. He has more yards this season than Green has had in any single season in his 10-year career.

Chase is just the second player ever to have 1,200 receiving yards and 12 touchdowns at 21 years old. The only other player in that club is Randy Moss. It’s usually unfair to compare young players to future Hall of Famers, but, well, have you seen Chase play? Moss isn’t the best comparison for Chase. Look at this photo of his first touchdown against the Chiefs: It resembles Larry Fitzgerald’s Super Bowl slant-and-go.

Not only did Chase score on this play, but he wasn’t even touched.

A player who has that kind of acceleration isn’t usually able to also outmuscle defenders for deep balls. And yet, watch Chase score his second touchdown by boxing out a defender. It’s Fitzgeraldesque. His third was a deep bomb where he just outran everyone on the field for a 69-yard touchdown. His touchdowns Sunday were like an NBA player who can score every kind of way: weaving through five defenders in a full-court transition layup on one possession, slam-dunking on the next, and then drilling a pull-up 30-foot 3-pointer. Chase is like if Ben Simmons could shoot 3s.

Chase can obviously dominate NFL cornerbacks. Experience and consistency are the only things separating him from top-tier wide receivers like Davante Adams, Cooper Kupp, and Tyreek Hill.

The same can be said for the Bengals. Chase and Burrow are just getting started. Hell, Tee Higgins, who was drafted out of Clemson with the first pick of the second round in 2020, caught 12 passes for 194 yards and two touchdowns in Week 16. Chase, Higgins, and Tyler Boyd comprise perhaps the best receiving corps in the entire NFL at the moment, considering the injuries in Minnesota, Dallas, and Tampa Bay (not to mention Tampa Bay’s, uh, halftime resignations). And unlike those teams, the Bengals have time on their side. Burrow just turned 25 last month. Running back Joe Mixon is 25 too. Higgins is 22. Chase is 21. Boyd, the eldest member of this group, is 27. And this team has already won more games this season than in their previous two years combined.

Also consider the state of the AFC North. The Steelers are in the market for a new quarterback. The Browns will have to make a tough decision on Baker Mayfield. The Ravens have had an extremely disappointing end to their season for the fourth consecutive year. The Bengals might have the most promising and sustainable core in the division. This team will try to win its first playoff game in 30 years, and with all the youth and talent on this roster, that doesn’t seem like a long shot.

“We’ve gotten to this point so many times and failed to capitalize,” Bengals defensive end Sam Hubbard, a Cincinnati native, told The Athletic on Sunday. “That’s kind of the narrative that’s been the Cincinnati Bengals. To get an opportunity to clinch the division and actually take advantage of it and have this momentum going into the playoffs, it’s something that’s uncharacteristic of the Bengals and it signifies what we’ve been talking about for a while about how things are changing and the direction we’re heading as a franchise and as a team. It’s really special.”

Going from the no. 1 pick to no. 1 in the division in two years is the type of turnaround fans dream about. Expectations will increase in Cincinnati after this season, but the future is of little concern to Burrow’s Bengals. Their defining quality seems to be how concerned they are with right now. Their gall.

“We can go as far as we want to,” Chase told reporters after the game. “We just won the AFC North.”

No team will want to face Burrow in the playoffs—especially since Ja’Marr’s down there somewhere.