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Bengals’ path to AFC Championship is crazier than you think

No matter how it all ends, this team has made history.

AFC Divisional Playoffs - Cincinnati Bengals v Tennessee Titans Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Zac Taylor said it himself after winning his first playoff game. At most other places, his employment wouldn’t have survived his first two years of losing.

The Cincinnati Bengals decided to be the exception to convention.

Going 6-25-1 in your first two years coaching a team is usually a grim sign. There are a couple Hall of Fame examples of the contrary, i.e. Bill Walsh and Jimmy Johnson, both of whom went 8-24 in their first two years. Those legends are outweighed by a mass of coaches who simply never had what it took to coach winning football.

Winning the AFC North in just his third year was already a great accomplishment for Taylor. To win not one, but two playoff games immediately afterwards is historically insane considering how his first two years went.

Going from six wins in two years to a conference championship appearance has never been done before in the history of pro football. Six wins is the lowest combined win total for the previous two years. I did the research, I just didn’t expect it to be true.

We often use the AFL-NFL merger of 1970 as the birth of football Christ, separating records into Before Merger and After Merger. It makes for a clean cutoff between the old and current age of pro football.

But what the Bengals did stands out across the entire football timeline.

Six wins is the new bare minimum for this kind of three-year turnaround. Nine other teams in the last 102 years have been able to do it after single digit win totals from the previous two years, and four of them won either the NFL Championship or Super Bowl. One of them even beat the Bengals.

Conference Championship Appearances After >=9 Wins In Previous 2 Seasons 

Year Team Previous 2-Year Win Total Result
Year Team Previous 2-Year Win Total Result
2017 Jacksonville Jaguars 8 Lost AFC Championship
2003 Carolina Panthers 8 Lost Super Bowl
1999 St. Louis Rams 9 Won Super Bowl
1981 San Francisco 49ers 8 Won Super Bowl
1979 Tampa Bay Buccaneers 7 Lost NFC Championship
1967 Houston Oilers 7 Lost AFL Championship
1960 Green Bay Packers 8 Lost NFL Championship
1947 Chicago Cardinals 7 Won NFL Championship
1946 Chicago Bears 9 Won NFL Championship

This is obviously specific to the timeline of Taylor commanding the Bengals, but there’s logic to looking at it in a three-year window. Many teams have been able to bounce back from a singular bad year and go far into January. Many more had a bad year one, took a step forward in year two, and then popped off in year three.

Not one team struggled as much as this one for two years and got it all right the next.

Getting it all right and not winning the Super Bowl aren’t exactly synonymous, so what separated the 1999 St. Louis Rams and 1981 San Francisco 49ers from the others? Quarterback play. Kurt Warner led the Greatest Show on Turf and the league in basically every major passing category except for yards (he was second) en route to the Rams’ first and only Super Bowl win. 18 years earlier, Joe Montana kickstarted the 49ers’ dynasty of the ’80s as he led the league in completion percentage while also being sixth in Adjusted Net Yards per attempt.

Coincidentally, those were the first years that Warner and Montana were full-time starters. Now it’s Joe Burrow doing similar things in his first full season.

Burrow is carrying his elite play from the regular season into the playoffs as PFF’s highest-graded passer left standing. His 84.8 passing grade is barely on top of Patrick Mahomes and Matthew Stafford and makes Jimmy Garoppolo’s look crude in comparison. And as we saw on Saturday in Nashville, having the guy at quarterback matters more than anything else.

Beyond the guy under center, nearly everything about this team is performing up to their potential. Look no further than Burrow’s favorite target. Ja’Marr Chase continues to dazzle and match his quarterback by coming up big in the biggest of moments. The complementary skill pieces are all working in unison alongside the centerpiece in Chase, and they’re allowing Burrow to spread the ball around the gridiron.

When he wasn’t able to do that and the offense stalled, the defense continued to seize opportunities and keep the game in check. It’s hard to win nowadays with just 19 points, and forcing three turnovers, stopping a forth-and-one, and a two-point conversion are what’s required to ensure 19 points is enough.

It’s also hard to win when you allow nine sacks. But hey, against that ferocious Titans pass rush, maybe that’s what we should’ve expected from the offensive line.

The theme from the Tennessee Titans game was the transition from “Why not us?” to “It is us!” Cincinnati has a locker room chock-full of players who fully believe in the manifestation of success. You see it from the bravado they walk around with to the coolness they play with in the most high-leverage of moments.

But “Why not us?” Came from an honest premise: This team was the underdog all year. And for good reason. Pass protection issues were just one of many aspects the Bengals had going against them entering this season. To go from six wins in two years to a legitimate Super Bowl contender was literally unheard of. To say they were at least a year away wasn’t hating, it was being honest.

It’s only right to be honest now. This team has made history, and they look hungry to make more.