The Bengals aren’t a cute upstart story anymore. Cute upstarts in the NFL don’t win five playoff games in 54 weeks, don’t embarrass the preseason Super Bowl favorites in their own stadium and in their own weather. Joe Burrow is not a cute upstart. He is the Paulie Walnuts of NFL quarterbacks, able to rip the guts out of the Allens and Mahomeses without changing expressions, without feeling one pang of sorrow for the vanquished.
I’m sure Kansas City isn’t scared of the Bengals coming to Arrowhead Sunday for a rerun of last year’s AFC title game. But I’d also bet a lot of money that, deep down, Kansas City wanted Buffalo, even if it meant playing the game in Atlanta instead of Arrowhead. What KC must feel for Cincinnati is deep and abiding respect after losing to the Bengals three times in three games in the last 13 months. Home-field might not be absolutely meaningless in the AFC Championship Game Sunday, but it’s damn close.
There are so many places to start with what Cincinnati did in chopping the Bills down Sunday, but I think the best place to start is at left tackle.
When incumbent Jonah Williams became the third starting offensive lineman to get ruled out of the lineup last week, the Bengals turned to a mostly disappointing second-year lineman, Jackson Carman, who’d be starting his first career game at left tackle. The old man of the line, center Ted Karras, told me post-game, “I told the guys this week, ‘The pressure’s off, guys. No one thinks we can do it. We have a chance to go be heroes.’ And we did.”
Then Karras thought for a second. “Well, gotta give a shoutout to the defense as well. Come on, holding Josh Allen to 10 points? At home? In the playoffs? In the sleet? With that crowd against us?”
Good points. But the Achilles of the Cincinnati team was supposed to be, left to right, Carman, Cordell Volson, Karras, Max Scharping and Hakeem Adeniji. And so what happened? Burrow tightened up his game, throwing the ball at a breakneck average of 2.50 seconds from the time of snap in 39 pass drops; on one throw (I’ll explain), he hit Ja’Marr Chase in a startling time of 1.10 seconds after taking the snap—the fifth-fastest time for a third-down conversion this season, per Next Gen Stats.
Even though Burrow was quick off the draw, the line held up well, and illustrated how big the loss of Von Miller to ACL injury in midseason was to the Bills. Carman especially. In Burrow’s 39 dropbacks, Carman allowed just one pressure on Burrow. “In this league,” Karras said, “that’s a big, big deal. That’s taking advantage of a massive opportunity. After the game, I told him how proud of him I was. I think he proved that he’s a tackle in this league.
“And you know, on the biggest stage of all of our football careers up to this point, he performed when it counted the most. He’s had a transformative year and this was a transformative day for him, being in the spotlight and performing at the highest level.”
My first job in the NFL business was covering the Bengals for the Cincinnati Enquirer in 1984. Tremendous experience. I can’t say enough about it. Watching training-camp practices with the founder and owner, Paul Brown. Living in the players’ dorm during training camp, with Boomer Esiason and Cris Collinsworth using the landline phone in my cinderblock dorm room when the two pay phones in the dorm were taken. Spending hours in the head coach’s suite, with Sam Wyche doling out his imaginative offensive gimmickry. I left for New York in 1985, and the Bengals were good and interesting and highly competitive, and I went back often and covered the Boomer Bengals a lot.
I have a feeling this current iteration of the Bengals will be the best ever. A few reasons for that, but the biggest is Burrow. Imagine what Ted Karras, who has been in Cincinnati for one season, must think of this guy to talk about him like he’s some young Brady. This is Burrow’s third year, and you need to be careful about making him the second coming, but a player who completes 69 percent of his throws in the first three seasons, and who is 5-1 in his first six playoff games, and who is not afraid of anything – well, such a fellow is dangerous.
“This,” Burrow said after the game, “might be our most complete game of the season as a team. We’re a more complete team this year. Our offensive line is better. Our running game is better. Our defense is better.”
All of which should sound a clarion call in Kansas City this morning. I don’t know if the Bengals will win Sunday, but I do know these are not the same old Bengals, as this franchise was for years. Decades. These are Joe Burrow’s Bengals, and everything is possible.
Read more in Peter King’s full Football Morning in America column