Why Bengals’ playoff win over Raiders is just the beginning of something special

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It sure feels like the Cincinnati Bengals are just getting started.

Saturday night’s win over the Las Vegas Raiders in the wild card round of the playoffs might’ve ended a 31-year drought for the franchise.

But more importantly — no matter what happens in the divisional round and beyond this year — the Bengals sit as one of the best-positioned teams in the NFL.

There’s a bevy of reasons for this line of thinking, so let’s run through those before really turning attention to the team’s divisional-round matchup.

The future, as they say, is very bright.

Cap space

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The Bengals have the most cap space of any team in the playoffs. They’re looking at a projected $59 million in free cap space before any additional moves. That’s one of the benefits of building a roster around a rookie quarterback contract. While an extension (or franchise tag) for a guy like Jessie Bates and re-signing names like Riley Reiff, Larry Ogunjobi and C.J. Uzomah will cost cash, there will be plenty left over to add outside free agents.

Creative ways to make more space

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That $59 million is before making any cap-saving moves, by the way. Cutting Trae Waynes loose before the third and final year of his deal would clear up roughly $11 million more. Cutting Xavier Su’a-Filo, roughly $3 million. That’s $14 million more right there just to help with re-signing other guys. There are other (very unlikely) moves available, such as $6 million more by parting ways with center Trey Hopkins. The cap space should be enormous, to say the least.

Excellent recent history in adding free agents

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Droves of cap space doesn’t mean much if a team makes poor decision when it comes to player acquisition. With the exception of Waynes as a big outlier, the Bengals have been fantastic in adding outside players recently. D.J. Reader has been the defense’s best player. Larry Ogunjoib’s had a career year rushing the passer. Chidobe Awuzie has been a solid No. 1 corner. Eli Apple has rejuvenated his career as the No. 2 corner. Trey Hendrickson looked like a gamble but has been elite. Mike Hilton has been as advertised in the slot. Riley Reiff mostly stabilized the right side of the offensive line. Even B.J. Hill — an afterthought in the Billy Price trade — picked up a sack in the playoff game.

Which is to say, the Bengals have a very good track record and droves of money to spend this offseason, which will only improve a team that is already making it as far as the divisional round.

Free agents will want to join up

One doesn’t have to look far to find big-name players who publicly love Joe Burrow.

Take, Broncos tight end Noah Fant:

Mic’d up sessions have shown how much respect other players have for Burrow. And as a whole, it’s pretty apparent the Bengals are building something special with their program. The front office has shown it’s willing to open up the checkbook too, so no big-name free agent is really off the table anymore.

Age

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Cincinnati currently has one of the youngest teams in the NFL. Burrow’s already 25, but he’s at a position guys can comfortably play until they’re 40 now (the whole AFC North just shuddered at that thought). And get this — Ja’Marr Chase, the guy with 1,400-plus yards and all the records as a top-five wideout already, is only 21 years old.

If you’re running down the depth chart and looking for age concerns…there really aren’t any. Even Zac Taylor, who has continually improved as a play-caller and otherwise, is one of the league’s youngest head coaches. This core has already won at least one playoff game in Burrow’s second year.

Joe Burrow

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We preach this all the time but it’s worth pointing out one more time — Burrow hasn’t had a normal preseason/summer yet. He was prepping for the draft and his rookie year during COVID shutdowns. He was rehabbing his leg while prepping for his second year. He hasn’t played two full seasons after his rookie year got cut short. He’s yet to just really have a normal summer of work to, well, improve.

And in the bigger picture, everything else is irrelevant, you’ve always got a chance to win a title with a quarterback of Burrow’s caliber. You’re never really ever out of a game (as fans saw against the Chiefs), either. And the Bengals have consistently paid up for their starting franchise passers, so no worries there.

Burrow has the Bengals ahead of schedule, with plenty more to come.

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