Pain. Agony. Heartbreak. Repeat. That’s the only way to describe the past three decades for Cincinnati sports fans.
From Carson Palmer’s knee injury during the 2005 NFL Playoffs to the Cincinnati Reds blowing a 2-0 series lead in the 2012 NLDS. Oh, and don’t forget the time Vontaze Burfict and Adam “Pacman” Jones racked up back-to-back penalties and blew a late Wild Card Round lead against the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2016. It has not been an easy three decades for fans in the Queen City.
But that all changed on Sunday evening. The Cincinnati Bengals are going to the Super Bowl for the first time since the 1988 season.
Joe Burrow became the king of Cincinnati in 2020
You can’t look at the Cincinnati Bengals’ miraculous run without going back to April 23, 2020. When all hope seemed lost during the middle of a pandemic, the Bengals drafted their new franchise quarterback, Joe Burrow.
Carson Palmer was supposed to be that guy. Then Andy Dalton. But Burrow’s selection felt different. He was the reigning Heisman Trophy winner who had led LSU to a national championship after growing up in Ohio and previously playing at Ohio State.
It felt like destiny.
“I knew he would provide something that this franchise hadn’t had,” said Bengals fan Austin Elmore, who is a host/producer for ESPN1530 and 700WLW in Cincinnati. “It didn’t take long to realize he was different in the way he elevated those around him. He breathed life into this franchise.”
Burrow got off to a tremendous start in his rookie season. He inherited a team that went 2-14 the year before, but he had it looking somewhat competent. However, a season-ending knee injury cut his rookie year short, and the Bengals went 4-11-1.
Then, came one of the most pivotal offseasons in franchise history and a debate that turned more heated than “Skyline or Goldstar?” (Skyline. Always Skyline.) Who were the Bengals going to draft with the No. 5 overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft? Wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase or offensive lineman Penei Sewell?
Ja’Marr Chase has taken the team to new heights
Ahead of the 2021 NFL Draft, the debate around town was between Chase and Sewell. The former was Burrow’s top weapon at LSU, while Sewell would have given the quarterback the protection he needed (and still needs).
“I was on the Chase train in the preseason,” said fan and Locked On Bengals podcast host Jake Liscow. “I thought Chase could transform the offense and unlock Burrow’s deep game. I thought Sewell would be a fine player but wouldn’t make as big of an impact.”
As you likely know, the Bengals drafted Chase in what has become one of the front office’s all-time great decisions.
The explosive wideout has taken Cincinnati’s offense to new heights. With Burrow healthy this year, the former Tigers have dominated their competition. Burrow should have been a Pro Bowler with 4,611 yards, 34 touchdowns, and 14 interceptions, while Chase, who seems to break records every game, proved to be the most explosive rookie from his class with 81 receptions for 1,455 yards and 13 touchdowns.
Those two, along with the team’s other weapons in Tee Higgins, Joe Mixon, and Tyler Boyd helped the Bengals have one of the most explosive offenses in the NFL this season. And defensive stars like Trey Hendrickson, Logan Wilson, and Jessie Bates III complemented the offense perfectly to lead Cincy to a 10-7 record and an AFC North title.
The Bengals broke their playoff curse and are finally on a deep postseason run
The Bengals hadn’t won a playoff game since the 1990 season. Fans called it “The Bo Jackson Curse.” But Joe Burrow and company put that to bed in the AFC Wild Card Round with a 26-19 win over the Las Vegas Raiders. They then beat the No. 1-seeded Tennessee Titans 19-16 in the Divisional Round behind a game-winning field goal from rookie Evan McPherson (it’s always wise to draft a kicker).
But going up against the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC Championship Game was an entirely different challenge. It was KC’s fourth consecutive appearance in the game, and the team had played in the last two Super Bowls.
So, it was rather worrisome to see the Chiefs take a 21-3 lead.
“Not going to lie, I was worried down 21-3,” said Nicole Zembrodt, a writer for Sports Illustrated’s All Bengals. “However, this Bengals team is different. Hope was not completely lost with Burrow leading the way.”
If anyone in Cincinnati learned anything this season, it was to never count Burrow out. The former Athens High School quarterback helped the Bengals rally and take a 24-21 lead before winning 27-24 in overtime behind yet another kick from McPherson.
“You never feel out of a game with Joe,” said “Bengal Jim” Foster, who the team named its Fan of the Year in October. “…No panic from the team, no panic from the fan base. We are never out [of it as] fans with Joe and this group.”
The Bengals are finally going back to the Super Bowl. And fans can put the years of heartbreak and torment behind them.
Generations of Bengals fans can finally celebrate
It has been 33 years since the Cincinnati Bengals last played in a Super Bowl. Many fans had spent their entire lives watching them lose.
“It’s massive for the fan base. I was born in 1988. The last time the Bengals went to the Super Bowl, I was half-a-year old,” Liscow said.
Others have waited decades to watch a winning team again.
“It’s amazing; it has been so long,” said Tony “Da Tiger” Brooks, who has been to every Bengals game this season and is known amongst fans for painting his face like a tiger. “The team, fans, and city needed this. It was emotional, exciting, and OMG all at once.”
Sure, the heartbreaking moments were tough, but they have made this run that much sweeter.
“When I think about this, I think about my dad, and how I always wondered if he’d have the chance to see the Bengals in the Super Bowl again, and even more so the chance to win one,” Elmore said. “What this organization has done on and off the field over the last 12 months is nothing short of remarkable.”
To put it simply: This means “everything” to the city, according to Emily Witt, who previously took photos of the Bengals as a live content coordinator for the NFL.
“Drafting Burrow, I knew the organization was both ready for a change, and we were going to start seeing some winning seasons soon, but I didn’t expect anything this immediate,” she said. “… Everything that’s happening right now is for the city and for the fans. I’m 27, so i’ve never seen any of my teams go this far.”
Now, it’s time for Joe Burrow and company to do the unthinkable. It’s time for the Bengals to bring the Vince Lombardi Trophy to Cincinnati.
Stats courtesy of Pro Football Reference