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5 things we learned from the Bengals’ 2021 season

2021 was the best season in many Bengals fans’ lifetimes.

Syndication: The Enquirer Albert Cesare/The Enquirer / USA TODAY NETWORK

The bad news is that the Bengals lost Super Bowl LVI in the last minute.

The good news is that there is a new standard for Cincinnati Bengals football.

Super Bowl or bust.

The Bengals weren’t even supposed to be in the Super Bowl. At the beginning of the season, their chances of making the playoffs were, at best, good but not great.

Then they won one playoff game. That alone would have been a successful season.

Then they beat the number one seed on the road. Then they beat the Chiefs in Kansas City for the second time.

For most Cincy Jungle readers, this is the best season the Bengals have ever had in their lifetimes. While the Bengals lost the final game, there is far more to celebrate than there is to mourn.

That said, the Super Bowl is no longer a dream. It is the expectation.

The Bengals will have most of their starters return, pending the signing of a few potential free agents. They all have another year of experience and chemistry with each other.

That, combined with over $55 million in cap space for the front office to spend this offseason, means that there is no reason the Bengals can’t be back in the Super Bowl next year.

Here’s what else we learned from the Bengals 2021 season:

The Zac Taylor experiment finally paid off

Over the last two years, I was one of Zac Taylor’s harshest critics. After only winning six games in two years, I thought he was a loser.

I finally changed my mind when he won more postseason games in 2021 than he won regular season games in 2019.

Actually, I had already warmed up to him at that point. From the Week 1 win against the Vikings to the Thursday Night Football comeback against the Jaguars, from blowing out the Ravens and the Steelers, twice, to knocking off the top-seeded Chiefs to clinch the division, I saw Taylor do something I hadn’t seen before.

He won tough games.

Then he did it three more times in the postseason.

My biggest criticism was that he kept finding ways to lose close games. To me, that meant that he kept getting out-coached.

But in 2021, Taylor was the one out-coaching.

He out-coached division rivals and Super Bowl Champions Mike Tomlin and John Harbaugh. He out-coached the NFL Coach of the Year Mike Vrabel. He out-coached Andy Reid twice.

Of course, he’s not perfect. I would like to see him call the last two plays of Super Bowl LVI over again. But I was wrong about him being a loser; he has proven that he is a winner.

Joe Burrow is the real deal

When Joe Burrow was drafted, Taylor described him “as advertised.”

In other words, the quarterback who turned a middling LSU team into one of the best teams in college football history was going to turn around the Bengals.

The Bengals’ revamp was delayed a year, as the Bengals struggled around Burrow until he was forced to end the year with a catastrophic knee injury.

Then, the questions circled around Burrow and his knee. Could the Bengals protect him? Would the injury shake his confidence?

The answer to those questions was 4,611 yards, 34 touchdowns and a 108.3 passer rating, all franchise records. He led the NFL in completion percentage and yards per attempt, and could have threatened to lead in other stats if he had played in all 17 games.

All this while taking 51 sacks.

Taylor might have been wrong about Burrow. He isn’t “as advertised.” He’s even better than that.

Joe Burrow needs as much protection as the Bengals can get

I’m never one to say that a single factor changed the game. Teams don’t lose because of one bad call or a missed field goal. They lose they fail to get one more first down, or score a touchdown in the red zone instead of take a field goal.

So, yes, it’s true that the Bengals didn’t lose because of one sack. They lost because of eight sacks.

The reason the Bengals couldn’t score in the last 25 minutes of the game because Burrow was pressured on nearly every drop back. While the offensive line had the unenviable task of trying to contain Aaron Donald, the All-Pro was only one of five Rams with sacks. Donald did create more sacks than he got credit for, but taking eight sacks in a game is not normal for 31 other teams.

Unfortunately, it’s normal for the Bengals.

The lack of protection nearly got Burrow taken out of the game, and the Bengals have no chance if Brandon Allen has to try to win the Super Bowl.

Then, the Bengals failed to get one yard on two attempts late in the game. Part of the reason they failed was because they took out their $48 million running back and gave the ball to someone who average one yard per carry in the postseason.

But a big part of the reason is that they couldn’t protect Burrow long enough for him to even drop back.

The Bengals have done the bare minimum to address the offensive line over the last few years. It caught up to them last year when the offensive line got Burrow injured. It cost them again when Burrow couldn’t get the ball out of his hands.

That being said...

Ja’Marr Chase was the right pick

The Great Debate of the 2021 Draft was over what the Bengals would do with the fifth overall pick. Would they go with the best receiver in the draft or with the best offensive lineman?

Ja’Marr Chase ended up being the pick. 1,455 yards and one Offensive Rookie of the Year Award later, the decision has paid off.

The Bengals wouldn’t have made it to the Super Bowl without Chase. He kept the defenses worried about the deep ball, and if they covered it up, Burrow could go to Tee Higgins or Tyler Boyd or C.J. Uzomah. Each of them had an important role on this offense, Chase included.

Without Chase, the Bengals’ offense is far less explosive. Given that explosiveness was what got them to SoFi Stadium, they definitely would not have made it there without Chase.

The defense finally returned on the investment

Along with Taylor, I have been harsh when talking about Lou Anarumo.

When the Bengals signed a multitude of defensive free agents, and their defense was as bad as it was, I thought the same thing about Anarumo. He and Taylor were both losers.

Just like Taylor, Anarumo made me eat my words.

Not only did the Bengals’ defense actually play well, most of the individuals had career years. The Bengals got the best out of everyone on defense, including players who have struggled in their careers like Eli Apple and B.J. Hill.

Trey Hendrickson was the only Pro Bowler, but Chidobe Awuzie, Logan Wilson, and D.J. Reader could have been as well.

The Bengals got all their money’s worth out of the defense, plus some.

It wasn’t just the individual performances. It was keeping the Titans to only 16 yards in the Divisional round. It was keeping the Chiefs to only six total points in the third and fourth quarters of both games combined. It was forcing a turnover in overtime to win the AFC Championship.

Then, they kept the Rams to 23 points in the Super Bowl, while forcing two turnovers and setting up the field goal that gave the Bengals a 7-point lead.

It's a shame the offense couldn’t reward the defense for all their hard work.