Super Bowl LVI: After years of disappointment, Bengals fans have reason to believe

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For a week now, I’ve been reading about how the Cincinnati Bengals stunned everyone by advancing to Super Bowl LVI. But I’m here to tell you that not everyone was surprised. This long-time Bengals fan has been absolutely convinced since November that the team would win the AFC Championship. Why was I so certain? Well, for that you’ll have to read on, as I explain how trying it has been to be a fan of this franchise for more than 40 years.

The history of the ineptitude of the Cincinnati Bengals has been well documented. The Bengals have never won the Super Bowl, they had never won a road playoff game before this season, and hadn’t won a playoff game of any kind since Jan. 6, 1991, a span of 31 years.

They haven’t always been a bad team. Just invisible. They’re a team that rarely gets flexed into prime-time (one notable exception, the 37-0 stinker of a loss to the Jets in the 2009 regular season finale), or asked to play on holidays (even the Detroit Lions get their annual day in the sun every Thanksgiving). Heck, the greatest player in team history is an offensive lineman. No disrespect to Anthony Munoz, but name another team whose greatest player played on the O-line. Go ahead. I’ll wait. (OK. Jacksonville and Tony Boselli. Great. Now we’re comparing the Bengals to the equally inconspicuous Jaguars. I’d say that proves my point.)

Years to Forget: Reflecting on Bengals’ lowest moments

Why is rooting for the Bengals so unrewarding? Their first great player retired at age 26 to become a musician (all-pro Mike Reid in 1974.) They had a genius assistant coach who was denied the opportunity to become their head coach, and who then went on beat them in the Super Bowl twice. (Bill Walsh, who was passed over in favor of Bill Johnson for the head gig when Paul Brown retired after the 1975 season). When the Bengals had the No. 1 pick in the 1995 NFL Draft they chose Ki-Jana Carter (passing on among others, Tony Boselli!). This came one year after they drafted Dan Wilkinson with the first overall pick instead of Marshall Faulk.

But it’s more than just an inability to draft right or hang onto top players or coaches. For most of their frustrating history, the Bengals were a bad team, once going 14 years without advancing to the playoffs (1991 to 2004). And when they were good, such as the seven times they made the postseason under Marvin Lewis from 2005 to 2015, they found a way to lose every game, often under inexcusable or insufferable circumstances.

The inexcusable happened after the 2009 season, when the Bengals, fresh off the aforementioned 37-0 pounding by the New York Jets in the final regular season game at the Meadowlands—a game that allowed the Jets to get into the playoffs—lost in the wild-card round to the same Jets, 24-14, this time at Paul Brown Stadium, in a game in which Carson Palmer threw for just 146 yards.

The insufferable came against the Steelers in the 2015 Playoffs. The Bengals pulled ahead of their hated rivals late in their first-round game, overcoming a 15-0 deficit to take a 16-15 lead with 1:50 to play. Ignoring the team’s previous playoff history of not holding onto late leads, many fans, including myself, believed that the playoff victory drought had come to an end, especially after Vontaze Burfict intercepted a Ben Roethlisberger pass on the next Steeler possession. But never underestimate the Bengals ability wrestle defeat from the jaws of victory. A lost fumble gave the ball back to the Steelers with 1:23 to play, and in the closing seconds with the ball near midfield, Burfict committed the most egregious penalty in the history of Cincinnati football, leading with his shoulder to the head of Antonio Brown (after the ball had gone past the receiver), resulting in a 15-yard personal foul penalty. A subsequent unsportsmanlike conduct call against Adam Jones (why, oh why, wasn’t Steeler assistant coach Joey Porter penalized for being on the field!) moved the Steelers into field-goal range. Of course the Steelers won 18-16.

In addition, the Bengals have had ridiculously bad luck. Remember the injury to Palmer in the wild-card round game against the Pittsburgh Steelers after the 2005 season. On the Bengals second offensive play, defensive tackle Kimo von Oelhoffen—a former Bengal, by the way—rolled awkwardly into Palmer’s left leg and knocked him to the ground. As the crowd was cheering a 66-yard completed pass to Chris Henry, Palmer lay on the ground in pain, his game ended by a torn ACL and MCL in his left knee. After that injury the Bengals, had no chance against the Steelers, losing 31-17.

Previous memories of Bengals glory

Despite all the desolation, there have been highlights—times when the Bengals were allowed to have good things and kept you coming back. There was the Monday night win over the San Diego Chargers in 1982, when Ken Anderson completed 40 passes for more than 400 yards; the 61-7 win over the hated Oilers in December 1989; Corey Dillon’s 278-yard rushing performance against the Broncos on a Thursday night in 2000; season-ending wins over the Steelers and Ravens to get into the 2012 playoffs; and the 8-0 start in 2016 before the season turned sour with consecutive losses to the Texans and Cardinals, the latter in a game flexed to primetime. (In retrospect, maybe it’s a good thing Bengals rarely play on Sunday night.)

The great Anderson, four times the NFL’s leading passer, led them to the Super Bowl during his 1981 MVP season—the first year the team wore their now signature striped helmets—with a memorable win in the Freezer Bowl in the AFC Championship game against the Chargers. That team, anchored by Munoz, also featured a wide receiver from Florida with a strangely spelled first name who gained 1,000 receiving yards as a rookie. Anyone know what happened to Cris Collinsworth?

After the 1988 season, a Boomer Esiason-led Bengal team utilized the controversial “no huddle” offense during playoff victories over Seattle and Buffalo to advance to the Super Bowl once again.

But in both of those Super Bowl seasons, the Bengals reverted to what would eventually be their norm—ridiculous luck with injuries, insurmountable deficits, and unanticipated misfortunes—during the title game.

In January 1982 against the 49ers, Bengals nose tackle Tim Krumrie broke his left leg in four places on the 14th play of the game. Losing one of their best defensive players early led to a—yes, insurmountable—20-0 halftime deficit. And although the Bengals would only lose 26-21, the outcome was never really in doubt.

Seven years later in 1989, again playing the 49ers, one the most unfortunate player absences in the history of the Super Bowl occurred when starting running back Stanley Wilson suffered a drug relapse the day before the game and was removed from the roster. Coach Sam Wyche later opined that the loss of the team’s leading rusher that close to Sunday undoubtedly contributed to the team’s 20-16 loss to the 49ers.

It gets better. Or worse. After a Jim Breech field goal gave the Bengals a 16-13 lead with 3:20 to play in the game, Joe Montana led the 49ers on a 92-yard game-winning drive to give them a 20-16 victory.  Talk about misfortune! They would never get back to the Super Bowl.

Why Bengals fans have a reason to believe

Until this year, that is. Call it the Burrow Effect if you want, but this team feels different. The shenanigans, shall we say, that have contributed to Bengals losses over the last 40 or so years have been mostly absent this year. Heck, the Bengals were even one of the least penalized teams in the NFL this season. It’s only a slight exaggeration to say Burfict committed that many by himself.

The AFC Championship game is a great example of the new Bengals. Down 21-3 at one point, Cincy took a three-point lead with six minutes left in the fourth quarter, giving Chiefs superstar quarterback Patrick Mahomes plenty of time to mount a game-winning touchdown drive. But this wasn’t a replay of the Montana Super Bowl. The Chiefs settled for a tying field goal, and when Mahomes got the ball back to start overtime, the Bengals intercepted him three plays into the extra session. It was almost too easy.

This Bengals team is even getting the breaks. Remember the inadvertent whistle on the touchdown play in Cincinnati’s wild-card round victory over the Las Vegas Raiders? In the past, the Bengals opponents would have scored on such a play, or the score would have been wiped out costing the Bengals a touchdown. This time fortune went Cincinnati’s way. Who knew that could happen?

And injuries? Tight end C.J. Uzomah, hurt in the AFC Championship game, might be able to give it a go in the Super Bowl. At least coach Zac Taylor says the outlook is “encouraging.” No Krumrie or Palmer here.

There’s a confident swagger about this team. The comments rookie kicker Evan McPherson made prior to his game-winning kick against the Tennessee Titans might go down as the cockiest statement made about the outcome of a pro football game since Joe Namath’s Super Bowl III “guarantee.” And Joe Burrow looks like a guy who can’t lose. Remember, too, he has more experience in big games than Matthew Stafford, his Rams counterpart. Burrow is just two years removed from leading LSU to the 2019 NCAA Championship, passing for 463 yards and five touchdowns in a 42-25 rout of Clemson. No stage is too big for Joe Cool.

The previous two times the Bengals went to the Super Bowl they were coming off double-digit loss, last-place seasons. They were 6-10 in 1980 and last in the AFC Central before turning things around under Forrest Gregg to win the division the following year. They were 4-11 in 1987 before going 12-4 in 1988 for another worst-to-first performance. Sound familiar? They were 4-11-1 last year before another turnaround led to their third trip to the Super Bowl.

Personally, however, that’s not why I knew the Bengals would reach SB LVI. Sorry Bengals fans, I knew the Bengals would make the big game, but I’m not counting on a win. You see, I’m also a long-time fan of the Phoenix Suns and the Houston Astros (something about the color orange perhaps). Six months ago the Suns lost in the NBA Finals. Three months ago the Astros lost the World Series. After the Fall Classic, I became certain the Bengals would lose in the Super Bowl.

But I’m trying to believe. Can the Bengals actually win the Super Bowl? I’m hopeful, but I’m wary of the cliché about altering patterns. Have these tigers really changed their stripes? After everything Bengals fans have been through with this team, can you blame me for being pessimistic?

Then again this is my third team in six months to reach its league championship and it’s the third Bengals team to reach the Super Bowl. So ignoring the fact that “bad things tend to come in threes,” I’m reminded of another cliché.

Third time’s the charm.

John Antonini works in the Editorial Research Department for Golf Channel and NBC Sports. Despite growing up in Connecticut, he has been a Cincinnati Bengals fan for more than 40 years.