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No one is laughing at the Super Bowl-bound Bengals now

Quarterback Joe Burrow and wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase celebrate the Bengals' victory in Sunday's AFC championship game that sent them to the Super Bowl. (Ed Zurga/AP Photo)
6 min

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Forget, for just one moment, that they are the Cincinnati Bengals, and there’s nothing particularly shocking about them being a Super Bowl team. There is an honest-to-goodness franchise quarterback in place. There is a fabulous rookie wide receiver. There is a young, offensive-genius-type head coach. Isn’t that precisely what every NFL team wants?

But there is no putting it aside for too long, of course. There is no way to un-see the distinctive orange-and-black-striped helmet, no way to dismiss that this is supposed to be a woebegone franchise that is more laughingstock than contender.

Yes, the Cincinnati Bengals are in the Super Bowl. And it is astounding, even if these Bengals — the Bengals of quarterback Joe Burrow, wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase and Coach Zac Taylor — are not those Bengals. Not even close. Not beyond the name and logo.

“It was such an incredible moment,” Taylor said as Sunday afternoon gave way to Sunday evening here, reflecting on the celebratory ceremony that had just taken place on the Arrowhead Stadium field following the Bengals’ 27-24 overtime triumph over the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC title game.

“You’re really just looking down on all the players and just the joy on their faces. It’s a moment you’ll never be able to replicate,” he continued. “We may get to do this again, hopefully. That’s the plan, certainly. But I don’t know that it’ll ever be as special as the moment we just had right there. It’s pretty cool.”

Bengals claw back to stun Chiefs, advance to first Super Bowl in 33 years

The Bengals will face the Los Angeles Rams on Feb. 13 in Inglewood, Calif., and the Super Bowl storylines are already forming. Taylor, a former quarterbacks coach for the Rams under Coach Sean McVay, faces his former boss. Burrow and Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford, one young and one not so young, make their Super Bowl debuts. The Rams try to win a Super Bowl on their home field at SoFi Stadium after all their high-stakes roster moves.

But the presence of the Bengals on the biggest stage in sports perhaps supersedes all else. It’s a franchise with a reputation for off-field thriftiness and on-field misery. The Bengals will be playing in their first Super Bowl in 33 years. They’ll be seeking their first-ever Super Bowl victory. Before this postseason, they hadn’t had a playoff win in 31 years.

Even last season, when Burrow’s until-then-promising rookie year was cut short by a knee injury, the Bengals went 4-11-1. At that point, reaching the Super Bowl this season might not have seemed like a realistic aspiration.

“That’s a tough question because you don’t really think about it that way,” Burrow said Sunday. “You just think about it as going into an offseason and working really hard for potential opportunities. And this is what you work so hard for. We didn’t go into [the] offseason saying, ‘Hey, we’ve got to have a great offseason to make it to the Super Bowl next year.’ I think everyone just went into it and said, ‘I have to get better as a player, so we can be better as a team.’ ”

All things are possible in the NFL with a great quarterback, and clearly Burrow is the real deal. That should surprise no one, given that he was the Heisman Trophy winner at LSU and the top overall selection in the 2020 NFL draft. But it has come together quickly. He was the league’s second-rated passer during the regular season, behind only the Green Bay Packers’ Aaron Rodgers, and led the Bengals to the AFC North title.

“He just finds a way to make plays when there isn’t a play to be made,” Taylor said. “Makes my life much easier. It doesn’t have to be the perfect play call. He’s going to figure it out.”

Burrow is plenty comfortable in the spotlight. For his postgame videoconference Sunday, he wore a large “JB9” chain decorated with jewels. When he was asked whether those jewels were real, he said: “They’re definitely real. I make too much money to have fake ones. So they’re real.”

He is finding that NFL stardom is a very different level of celebrity, drawing the attention of prominent musical artists and NBA legends.

“It’s just crazy,” Burrow said Sunday. “The situation that I’m in socially doesn’t really feel real to me because in my head, I’m just the same old guy. But one of my idols growing up, Kid Cudi, reached out to me yesterday. You’ve got LeBron [James] tweeting at me, or whatever he said it was. I mean, that part is surreal. The football part, not so much. But that stuff — that stuff is crazy.”

Even so, Burrow remains properly grounded. He made sure to thank his physical therapist in the postgame locker room in Kansas City. And he and the Bengals are not done, he vowed.

“There’s still one left,” Burrow said. “We’re excited about this one. But we’ll celebrate tonight and then move on.”

This season’s success does not feel particularly like a fluke. The Bengals went with Chase, Burrow’s former college teammate, over left tackle Penei Sewell with the No. 5 overall choice in last year’s NFL draft. And while that decision left the offensive line still lacking — Burrow was sacked 51 times during the regular season and nine times in the divisional-round playoff win at Tennessee — Chase more than justified the move with his 81-catch, 1,455-yard, 13-touchdown rookie season.

The Bengals never wavered Sunday even when falling behind the Chiefs, 21-3. They made a huge defensive stand on the final play of the first half, as time expired with the Chiefs at the 1-yard line, and clearly were the superior team thereafter. The Bengals fully deserved their victory, finally secured on rookie kicker Evan McPherson’s field goal on the second possession of overtime.

“They did a better job than what we did in that second half, for sure,” Chiefs Coach Andy Reid said.

So be amazed that the Bengals are in the Super Bowl. But maybe not surprised.

“It’s a special moment,” Taylor said. “I’m so happy for the city of Cincinnati. They’ve waited for this moment, supported us waiting for this moment. I couldn’t be happier.”

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