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Joe Burrow, Bengals interrupt Chiefs’ dynasty and now take aim at history

Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow gets a ride off the field after his team upset the Chiefs in the AFC championship game. (Charlie Riedel/AP)
5 min

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — When the coin fell on the grass and showed tails, Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow grimaced beneath his helmet as if it crushed his soul when it landed.

A week earlier on this very field, a different team played the Kansas City Chiefs to overtime. And when the official requested that a visiting player from that team pick heads or tails, he chose tails and was wrong. Moments later, the Chiefs turned that coin flip into a touchdown drive and a rousing, magical win.

So on Sunday at Arrowhead Stadium, with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line, you could forgive Burrow — known for his unflappable coolness — for letting an honest expression slip across his face when his backup chose heads and he, too, was wrong.

But a coin couldn’t hurt Burrow. It seems nothing at this point can stop him and these Bengals. Not the Chiefs and certainly not the decades of doubt and suffering that had tormented this franchise and its city. And because rookie kicker Evan McPherson boots game-winners like they’re chip shots and Burrow, who at this time last year was recovering from a torn ACL and MCL, smokes opponents as if they’re celebratory cigars, the underdogs shocked the standard-bearer of the AFC and created a sentence that seems too silly for anyone to comprehend:

The Bengals won, 27-24, in overtime of the AFC championship game, and they are going to the Super Bowl.

“I wouldn’t call it surreal. I would say it’s exciting,” Burrow said. “I think if you would have told me before the season that we’d be going to the Super Bowl, I probably would have called you crazy.”

Highlights from the Bengals’ win over the Chiefs in the AFC championship game

There were so many moments early in the game when the Bengals’ Super Bowl chances seemed like lunacy. Such as when Patrick Mahomes wiggled out of pressure and then found Travis Kelce in the end zone. Or when he connected with wide receiver Mecole Hardman for the third touchdown and a 21-3 lead.

But crazy turned into a comeback as Cincinnati scored 21 unanswered points and somehow held a 24-21 advantage in the fourth quarter. The rally seemed faintly possible at halftime, after the Chiefs stood on the doorstep of the end zone in the closing minute of the second quarter and failed to put any points on the board.

“That was a big play that our defense made,” Burrow said.

The Chiefs spent the second half in a tailspin but evened the score as time expired. When they won the coin toss, it set up a repeat of last week’s Sunday fun day.

The coin, that tiny, circular weapon that helped take down the Buffalo Bills a week ago, prompted Bills quarterback Josh Allen, watching from home, to tweet one word: “Pain.” It prompted Chiefs fans to make a wave of sound that gushed throughout the stadium.

“Our guys were tired and stretched thin,” Bengals Coach Zac Taylor said of his defense, which already had battled through a six-minute drive to end regulation.

Mahomes shook off his coat as if he was ready to lead the Chiefs to a third straight Super Bowl appearance, then the unthinkable — he almost threw a pick-six. He followed that with an actual interception. Burrow, now displaying his usual visage of calm and control, took the field, and then the Bengals snatched the conference away from Kansas City’s clutches.

No matter how much Burrow hated the narrative — sorry, bud, but the Bengals came into this game as the underdogs — he couldn’t do a thing to change people’s minds about who runs the AFC. The Bengals finished last in their division from 2018 to 2020 and are just two years removed from a dreadful two-win season.

They weren’t supposed to win on this field, the place where postseason upsets come to die. The Chiefs had won six straight playoff games at Arrowhead, which was the longest active home winning streak in the league. And they weren’t supposed to beat this quarterback, the dynamic passer who appeared to be Tom Brady’s successor.

Over the four years in which he rocketed to top billing — no television commercial break is safe without this guy pitching insurance or shampoo — Mahomes had lost to only one quarterback in the postseason. A quarterback who wasn’t really a quarterback at all but a goat masquerading in human flesh.

Only Brady (2019 with the New England Patriots and last year with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the Super Bowl) had bested Mahomes in the playoffs. That was it, the whole list. And now, with the 44-year-old Brady apparently on the way out and Ben Roethlisberger retiring, Mahomes seemed destined to fill the gap as the game’s best passer and brightest star.

But along came Burrow and his 23-for-38 line with 250 yards and two touchdowns. He interrupted the Chiefs’ dynasty and then showed up to speak to the media wearing a black turtleneck, an iced-out “JB 9” necklace (“They’re definitely real; I make too much money to have fake ones,” he said of the diamonds) and the look of a man ready to make the unexpected, the inconceivable and the crazy very much possible.


An earlier version of this article incorrectly said the Buffalo Bills had chosen heads in the coin toss before their overtime loss to the Chiefs on Jan. 23. The Bills chose tails. This article has been corrected.

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