The Cincinnati Bengals have dabbled in horrible football and amusing football, tiresome football, and effective football over the last three decades or so, but it wasn’t until this playoffs that they were able to play the style of football they desired most.
The Bengals have now won three times in two weeks after spending 31 years without a playoff victory, a streak of futility unrivaled in major professional sports. Their most recent and strangest conquest was a second-half comeback against the defending A.F.C. champion Kansas City, which the wonderful people of southern Ohio and adjacent areas will remember for eons.
And Sunday’s final score — 27-24 in overtime, achieved on Evan McPherson’s 31-yard ( goal — will stay on their tongues as well, numerical proof that the Bengals’ newfound knack for winning football has led them to the Super Bowl. Since Ickey Woods shuffled, Boomer Esiason tossed lefty passes, and David Fulcher patrolled the secondary in the 1988 N.F.L. season, Cincinnati has never made it to the season’s last game. The team has yet to win a championship.
«This is a special squad capable of extraordinary things,» Coach Zac Taylor stated, «and we believed in ourselves from the beginning whether or not others did.»
The team that took fourth-seeded Cincinnati to the Super Bowl against the Los Angeles Rams is led by a cigar-smoking, Cartier-wearing, diamond-pendant-wearing quarterback who doesn’t feel pressure or discomfort.
Joe Burrow, the first quarterback picked No. 1 overall to reach the Super Bowl in his first two seasons, drove Cincinnati into a frenzy by leading his team to 21 straight points in the second half, overcoming a 21-3 halftime deficit. Burrow grew up a Kansas City Chiefs fan and went to high school in Athens, Ohio, some 150 miles east of Cincinnati, where the Bengals lost three of their eight straight playoff games.
He drove the Bengals 42 yards downfield in overtime after Patrick Mahomes’ interception on the first possession, setting up McPherson’s fourth field goal of the game and preventing another crushing defeat.
«I knew it was in Joe’s hands after we got that first stop,» defensive end Sam Hubbard said, «and we were okay.»
This was McPherson’s 12th field goal in a straight in the playoffs, and unlike last week, when he assured backup quarterback Brandon Allen before his game-winning kick at Tennessee that the Bengals were on their way to the A.F.C. championship game, he kept his confidence to himself this time. But the shot was certainly sailing through the uprights, he claimed Sunday night.
After going 6-25-1 the previous two seasons and finishing last in the AFC North after Burrow tore knee ligaments in Week 11, the Bengals capitalized on his unflappable demeanor to rip through the conference bracket. Afterward, he expressed amazement that one of his favorite rappers, Kid Cudi, had contacted him — and that another Ohio native, LeBron James, had congratulated him on Twitter — rather than the outcome on Sunday.
Burrow stated, «That portion is bizarre.» «Not so much the football part.»
Burrow spoke just over an hour after handing Mahomes his first postseason loss to a club that wasn’t led by Tom Brady. He was dressed entirely in black, with the exception of that pendant.
«The jewels that spell JB9 on my chest are undoubtedly real,» Burrow replied, beaming. «I earn too much money to have phony ones, so these are genuine.»
And so was everything else that happened throughout the 3 hours and 14 minutes of pure chaos. To begin the game, Kansas City scored three touchdowns in three drives. Late in the third quarter, defensive tackle B.J. Hill’s deft interception set up Burrow’s 2-yard back-shoulder pass to former Louisiana State teammate Ja’Marr Chase for the game-tying touchdown.
The hordes of Cincinnati supporters who gathered in the lower bowl, wearing Bengal-striped shawls and jerseys of heroes past and present, to attend the presentation of the A.F.C. championship trophy, named after Lamar Hunt, the franchise’s founder and initial owner.
After a shaky start to the season, Kansas City had only lost one game since Halloween — a 34-31 loss to the Bengals at Cincinnati on Jan. 2 — and history suggested that Sunday would be the polar opposite. It had won all five rematches against teams it had fallen to earlier in the season in the previous three years, averaging more than 39 points per game.
Last week, Kansas City staged an incredible comeback — a three-play, 44-yard, 13-second field goal drive — to tie Buffalo at the end of regulation before winning the divisional-round game in overtime at the same site.
Kansas City won the overtime coin toss, as it had done previously. On Sunday, though, instead of driving for the game-winning score, Mahomes hurled an interception — his second of the game — that looked to carom off the hands of Hill and Cincinnati’s Jessie Bates and into the hands of defensive back Vonn Bell.
Eleven plays later, McPherson nailed a long and true field goal, depriving Kansas City of a third consecutive Super Bowl appearance and sending his Bengals teammates flooding onto the field, practically reenacting the clubs’ Week 17 clash.
The game on Sunday followed the same pattern as the last one, with Mahomes displaying his spectacular, improvisational, and unstoppable brand of football in the first half before the Bengals recovered their compass.
And, like in the previous game, Kansas City built a first-half advantage that it finally surrendered. Kansas City led 21-10 at halftime on Sunday, and the margin might have been — should have been? — larger if it hadn’t been for a strange play call and outstanding tackling by Bengals cornerback Eli Apple.
Coach Andy Reid, ignoring the near field-goal attempt with five seconds left in the first half and the ball at the Cincinnati 1-yard line, attempted to blowtorch the Bengals out of commission. After committing the pass-interference penalty that put Kansas City the ball near the goal line, Mahomes flipped a pass to Hill at the 5-yard line, and Apple stood him up to preserve the 11-point deficit.
It was the first of the Bengals’ six straight defensive stops, as they limited an offense that had scored 84 points in the previous two weeks to just three points after halftime.
«We were born for this,» Bell stated.
Last week, Burrow expressed his displeasure with the Bengals’ «underdog narrative,» insisting that the team be taken seriously. He’d already modified the team’s slogan from «Why Not Us?» to «It Is Us,» and his teammates agreed.
Last week, left tackle Jonah Williams remarked, «That’s not really the idea you want in your head when you get into the ring.» «The question isn’t, ‘Why can’t I knock this guy out?’ ‘I’m going to knock this guy out,’ it says. It’s a far more powerful mindset to adopt.»
The most indisputable truth in the NFL had a habit of surfacing around this time of year: no matter how Kansas City played early in the season, and now no matter how Kansas City plays in the middle of the season, its home slate always ends in the AFC championship — and, the last two years, in rapture.
This year, however, will be different. The Bengals, who were once plagued but are now the greatest in the A.F.C., are headed to the Super Bowl.