The Cincinnati Bengals are on to the AFC title game. Some all-encompassing thoughts before we turn to previewing that game as the team sits one game removed from the Super Bowl.
— D.J. Reader’s one of the most underrated players in football. We overlook the big run-stuffers these days, especially because they don’t even put up big snap counts. But there’s a reason J.J. Watt was mad the Texans let him get away in free agency. He’s been elite over his two seasons in Cincinnati and just helped hold Derrick Henry to 3.1 yards per carry in the playoffs — before sending some fun trash talk his way.
— Evan McPherson doesn’t have any right to be as good and calm as he is. He’s got a career as a public speaker lined up after his playing days already. The kid hasn’t missed a kick in the playoffs, kicked the longest field goal in Bengals history this season and before his game-winner in Tennessee, he guaranteed the win to his teammates.
— I think anybody mocking the Bengals for the state of the offensive line against the Titans just hasn’t paid much attention. They tried to properly address guard with second-rounder Jackson Carman. He can’t get on the field, and that’s on the organization, but let’s not pretend the effort wasn’t there. Starting right tackle Riley Reiff is out with an injury. And most importantly, if the Bengals did what everyone wanted and took a tackle in Round 1:
A. That player wouldn’t have started over Jonah Williams or Riley Reiff and there’s no guarantee they work out at guard.
B. Ja’Marr Chase isn’t there to prop up the offense. They don’t get to this point for you to see how bad the line is in a playoff game if they don’t draft Chase.
— The conversation for coach of the year is over, at least in spirit. Mike Vrabel and Matt LaFleur did some amazing things with their respective teams. But the Titans and Packers both just went down. And even if the Bengals hadn’t outlasted them, Zac Taylor’s overcome so much more than both. The Bengals were a stagnant franchise going on nearly 20 years with the same head coach before he came in and in a matter of three years, won 10 games and ended a 31-year drought with two playoff wins in seven days.
— Conversation for Comeback Player of the Year is over too. It’s Burrow. Or it should be. He’s thrown for 525, 446, 244 and 348 yards and 11 touchdowns against one interception over his last four starts. He’s yet to have a normal summer due to COVID and his injury. He’s a top-five passer already and the Cowboys and Dak Prescott ducking out of the playoffs early sure didn’t hurt.
— There was a lot of chatter before the game about how exploitable the Bengals defense looked. But if you’ve watched every snap this year, you knew the unit carried the offense quite a bit. That just didn’t make the headlines. The defense always had the potential to carry the offense through a slow start and did. And getting gritty and nasty against an elite running game isn’t anything new for a team that resides in the AFC North.
— That’s a fun thing about these Bengals — they’re malleable. Want to play smashmouth? They can do it. Want to get in a shootout? Burrow can outduel Patrick Mahomes. They’re not just built to beat the old-school ways of the AFC North…they’re built to win in modern ways. That’s a big reason they’re still alive.
— Future is bright. Take a step back and look at the ages of key players from Saturday night: Joe Burrow (25). Joe Mixon (25). Tee Higgins (23). Tyler Boyd (27). Ja’Marr Chase (21). D.J. Reader (27). Trey Hendrickson (27). Logan Wilson (25). Jessie Bates (24). The front office also boasts a top-10 cap number this offseason.
— I think the best free-agent offensive linemen in the NFL watched that game last night and called their agents:
Every soon to be free agent o-linemen looking at the bengals pic.twitter.com/vl0bV1eixQ
— Chris Roling (@Chris_Roling) January 23, 2022
— The fact the Bengals got this far with that miserable offensive line play the world saw on Saturday is stunning, right? Imagine what the offense looks like when (Burrow gets a normal offseason to develop) they plop a big free-agent signing or two on the right side to stabilize things.
— I think the struggles of the line and a key season-long star like Chidobe Awuzie flopping hard — but the team overcoming it against a No. 1 seed — speaks to the character of the guys in the building, as well as the longevity of the success they’re about to have regardless of how this season ends.
— Bengals can hang with either Kansas City or Buffalo in the AFC title game. They already beat the Chiefs. Buffalo’s beatable too, due to that malleable nature of the team mentioned already. Doesn’t mean it will happen. But with a Burrow, anything can.
— I think it’s only right the Bengals get the Bills, then a Super Bowl rematch against the 49ers. For full curse-ending purposes.
— There’s going to be a lot of “don’t fire your head coaches early!” going on while looking at these Bengals as a blueprint. But that line of thinking requires a team to find a Joe Burrow. And there’s only one. He’s with the Bengals for the next decade-plus, so enjoy it.
— I think nobody deserves this run more than Bengals fans. There’s an entire generation of fans who literally never saw their team win a playoff game. Now they’ve won two in seven days and a Lombardi Trophy is still in play. The championship window isn’t close to shutting, either, not with Burrow still developing and all that cap space.