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The path to Super Bowl LVI: Cincinnati Bengals

By Stuart Dick

Published: 14:00, 8 February 2022

Few experts at the start of the 2021 NFL season would have expected the Cincinnati Bengals – led by second-year quarterback Joe Burrow – to be serious contenders for the Vince Lombardi Trophy.

Since then, the Bengals have defeated all-comers in the ferocious battleground that is the AFC North, leaving the Pittsburgh Steelers, Baltimore Ravens and Cleveland Browns in their wake. This is the story of how Cincinnati reached its first Super Bowl since 1988.

Key Moves

The marquee signing of free agency was defensive end Trey Hendrickson, who joined from the New Orleans Saints on a four-year, $60million contract. Hendrickson was one of a number of defensive additions who helped transform the Bengals into title contenders – CBs Chidobe Awuzie, Mike Hilton and Eli Apple all saw considerable playing time as did defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi. Almost half of the starting defense was added in free agency in 2021.

The Bengals then focused on the offensive side of the ball initially in the draft. WR Ja’Marr Chase – a former college team-mate of Burrow at LSU – was selected fifth overall before the franchise picked up offensive guard Jackson Carman in the second round (he started six games in 2021).

Another vital addition through the draft was fifth-round pick Evan McPherson – the University of Florida kicker hit 28/33 field goals in the regular season, including 9/11 from 50+ yards.

The Regular Season

An opening-day overtime victory over the Minnesota Vikings – which included 100-yard performances from rookie Chase and running back Joe Mixon – was secured by a game-winning field goal from McPherson.

Defeat by the Chicago Bears, with Burrow throwing three interceptions, was followed by a comfortable win over the Pittsburgh Steelers and a nail-biting three-point success over the Jacksonville Jaguars.

After an overtime loss to the Green Bay Packers, the Bengals rebounded with dominant wins over the Detroit Lions and Baltimore Ravens. Chase topping the receiving charts against the Ravens with a 201-yard day. Losses to the New York Jets and Cleveland Browns – the latter a rout by 25 points – dropped Cincy to 5-4 heading into its bye.

The Bengals came back strong though as 19 and 31-point wins over the Las Vegas Raiders and Pittsburgh Steelers respectively – with Joe Mixon rushing 58 times for 288 and four touchdowns over the two-game stretch – primed the Bengals for a playoff run at 7-4. Defeats by the Los Angeles Chargers and San Francisco 49ers then left Cincy’s play-off hopes hanging in the balance.

The crucial spell though came next as a three-game winning streak secured a playoff berth for the Bengals. The Denver Broncos, Baltimore Ravens and Kansas City Chiefs – in a prequel of the enthralling AFC Championship game – were unable to stop an offensive juggernaut led by an ever-improving Burrow. Cincy rested their starters in Week 18 in a narrow defeat to the Browns.

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Offensive Star – Joe Burrow

Burrow has helped lift the Cincinnati Bengals from a basement dweller into a Super Bowl contender in just his second season at the controls. This after recovering from the ACL, MCL and PCL tears which ended his rookie campaign early in 2021.

Joe seems to have all the intangibles to be an NFL superstar; the football IQ, the arm, the composure and the leadership qualities very few possess. The former LSU standout threw for 4,611 yards and 34 touchdowns during the regular season – with a terrific completion percentage of over 70%.

The impact of Burrow is clear when you compare his performances in the Bengals wins and losses. When the Bengals win, he is almost flawless, throwing for 2,934 yards, 24 touchdowns and just four picks in 10 games. In seven losses, his TD:INT ratio falls to 1:1 – 10 touchdowns and 10 interceptions.

Burrow also improved as the season progressed as he gained confidence in that knee, and he rekindled his LSU relationship with Chase, who was a huge difference maker in the passing game.

Defensive Star – Trey Hendrickson

Signed in the off-season from the New Orleans Saints, Hendrickson has helped the Bengals become a top-five defense against the run. In four years prior to his arrival, he reached the playoffs with the Saints – he brings some much-needed postseason experience to the table.

Hendrickson was also a pass rushing phenomenon in 2021 with 14 regular season sacks and a further 2.5 so far in the postseason. To put that in context, Cincinnati’s leading pass rusher in 2020 was Carl Lawson with just 5.5 sacks.

Add a further 12 tackles for a loss – good enough for joint leader on the Bengals – and it is easy to see why the Bengals made such a defensive leap. Hendrickson is a particular nuisance as the game goes on – 9.5 of his sacks have come in the second half of games when either the opposing offense wears down or opponents are forced to pass more due to being behind on the scoreboard.

Game of the Season – Cincinnati Bengals 34-31 Kansas City Chiefs (Week 17)

One of the games of the 2021 regular season in the NFL turned out to be a dress rehearsal for the AFC Championship Game.

Cincinnati came in knowing victory could help them secure the AFC North title, but they fell into an early 14-0 hole as Patrick Mahomes threw touchdowns to Demarcus Robinson and Travis Kelce in the first quarter.

Burrow responded with a 72-yard touchdown pass to Chase at the end of the first, but KC quickly restored their advantage with a 4:06 drive in the second period – a one-yard touchdown run from Darrel WIlliams the clincher.

Another Chase TD made the score 21-14 prior to the interval, but there was still time for Williams to rush in for a second score prior to the half. An Evan McPherson field goal reduced the deficit to 11 before the sides departed for the locker room.

Chase added his third touchdown in the third quarter – a 69-yard score – before Tyler Boyd gave Cincinnati the lead for the first time with a five-yard grab from Burrow.

Chiefs kicker Harrison Butker levelled the score at 31-31 with 6:01 to play, but Burrow then led a 15-play, 71-yard drive to set up McPherson for the game winner.

The stats for Burrow and Chase in particular were outrageous – Burrow threw for 446 yards and four touchdowns as he completed 30 of 39 passes. Chase meanwhile set a rookie single game record with 11 receptions for 266 yards and three touchdowns. The victory also gave the Bengals confidence that they could compete with the AFC’s elite. A belief they would soon showcase in the post-season.

Route through the playoffs

  • Wildcard – Cincinnati Bengals 26-19 Las Vegas Raiders
  • Divisional – Tennessee Titans 16-19 Cincinnati Bengals
  • Conference – Kansas City Chiefs 24-27 (OT) Cincinnati Bengals

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