Somebody has to lose for a champion to be crowned. It’s a fact of sports and most aspects in life, but the inevitability can’t overtake one’s mindset as a competitor.
The confidence required to perform at the highest level takes preparation, repetition, and commitment. The kind of confidence that’s required to win championships can’t just be adopted out of thin air.
Confidence is earned. The Cincinnati Bengals earned theirs.
If the only way to properly obtain the bravado and swagger this Cincinnati team possessed was to first win a Super Bowl, then only the Los Angeles Rams would have the freshest samples. What are the Rams doing right now other than pondering how they’re going to put together a winning season in the next five years?
What have you done for me lately has its rightful place in any sports conversation. The Bengals’ recent success adds a monumental layer of perspective for anyone who cares to listen.
Since the start of the 2021 season, the Bengals have won a combined 27 regular season and postseason games. Only the Kansas City Chiefs and San Francisco 49ers have won more or as many games than them in this timespan. The next closest two-year win total in Bengals history is 22, which was achieved twice in a 26-year span.
The Bengals won back-to-back division titles and won multiple playoff games in back-to-back years. Not only had they never accomplished the former, they had never won just one playoff game in consecutive seasons before. Three of their five playoff victories since last year came on the road, and they’re the only three in franchise history. The five playoff victories also match the club’s total from its first 53 years of existence. The 10-straight games they won this season was a franchise record.
That’s a lot for a team that “hasn’t won anything.” That’s real, tangible progress at a lightning-fast rate.
Say you didn’t know all of that. Say you’re unfamiliar with how much things have transformed in such a short time on the banks of the Ohio River. Most fanbases have an idea of who the Bengals are, and what their recent history has been. Most wouldn’t include the word successful when describing it.
If you’re of the opinion that Bengals players—specifically Eli Apple—and fans have gone over the top in recent weeks, it’s because you’re just aware of the past. You haven’t lived it.
Now far be it from me to think Bengals fans have a monopoly on longstanding misery; the Cleveland Browns are just a four-hour drive up I-71. But the degree of which torment and ridicule have been administered from the outside is unique in many ways. Not only have the Bengals been bad, they held a record for the longest postseason victory drought in major American sports. They’ve been embarrassingly frugal, oftentimes choke artists, and in a few cases, dirty on and off the field.
All things that general sports fans could rightly point to when discussing the Bengals’ reputation. Most of the time, the world Bungles was used. To be a punching bag in more ways than one for the better part of three decades, to then enter a whole new stratosphere of accomplishment in such short notice—that’s a recipe for extreme reactions.
Standing by a team that gave you nothing to feel legitimately proud of for a generation, and then witnessing another deep playoff run on top of a Super Bowl appearance earns you at least some leeway to talk your talk.
But this is just focusing on the fans. The players are an entirely different factor in all of this. They may be aware of what the Bengals were before they arrived, but their own journeys give them more than enough reason to stand tall and boast. Apple, who’s had bridges burned behind him at previous stops, is just the loudmouth tip of the iceberg. From career underdogs like Mike Hilton, veterans who didn’t receive interest from their former teams like Vonn Bell, and playmakers buried on past depth charts like Hayden Hurst, this team is built on characters who have been counted out in one way, shape, or form. Tyler Dunne’s fantastic piece for Go Long dives into this exquisitely.
The foundation of eternal disrespect is there. Let’s add on another year’s worth of doubt and underestimation on top of it.
The concept of the Bengals competing for a Lombardi Trophy isn’t what it was three years ago when media analysts were discussing whether or not Joe Burrow should force his way out of being drafted to Cincinnati, nor when Burrow went down with a devastating knee injury after dropping back 453 times behind a hazardous offensive line. Burrow’s comeback from reconstructive surgery was clouded with further doubt concerning the team’s ability to protect him going forward, and that persisted throughout a season that resulted in him overcoming figurative and literal pressure.
What the Bengals achieved in 2021 was so impressive, most talking heads didn’t think it was even remotely replicable. In some ways, they were coming from a place of logic. The offense was far too reliant on explosive plays and had to work around a subpar offensive line. Burrow was taking too many sacks, including nine in a road playoff game that was won in the final seconds, and the defense’s ability to provide insanely clutch turnovers late in the season didn’t appear sustainable.
There was enough to make a case for regression, if that’s where your homework stopped. And once the season was underway, the surface-level observations dominated the discourse. The Bengals were 4-4 and appeared to confirm many priors about them. They couldn’t protect Burrow. They couldn’t find stability on offense. They were a fluke who caught lightning in a bottle.
Cut to 10 games later. The Bengals didn’t lose another game and were on their way to a second consecutive AFC Championship game.
What had happened was every item on the team’s offseason agenda started to click in unison. Cincinnati made an effort to turn the offensive line from a weakness to an asset, and it eventually played like one in the back half of the year. The offense as a whole found symbiosis between a shotgun run game, and a diversified pass game that capitalized against soft zone coverage. Burrow also made massive improvements in preventing pressures from turning into sacks.
And while all of this was happening, the only thing people would talk about is how daunting of a schedule they’d have to overcome just to get back to the playoffs; a nine-game stretch filled with contenders and intimidating quarterbacks.
And thus, “They gotta play us” was born.
These Bengals were fed up. They were fed up about the low expectations attached to them after being one drive away from a Super Bowl title. They were fed up about being the doomed team in the face of a supposed gauntlet of elite opponents. They were fed up about the NFL giving them the AFC North title without actually giving them the benefits that come with that. They were fed up about potential coin tosses, and especially about a neutral site for a playoff game that seemed to already be planned. And each win in spite of the doubt only fueled their fire.
So yes, you’ll have to excuse this locker room for feeling themselves a bit towards the end of a season not many on the outside thought was possible.
The Bengals have nothing to apologize for. They had spent the last two years grinding against constant scrutiny and skepticism, and produced incredible results in the face of it all. They’ve more than earned a level of respect that took a long time to arrive simply because of the franchise’s reputation.
Don’t lump Cincinnati’s mayor into all this. No one is saying he should’ve made an incredibly uncomfortable and unfunny statement towards Patrick Mahomes. Trash talk should have a layer of humor mixed into it, not make you cringe at the attempt to get a laugh. But maybe we can use his foolishness as an example of what’s to change going forward.
There’s officially proof of concept for what the team is doing. So long as Burrow and other core pieces are on the roster, they will be viewed as a playoff contender or better. They’ve left everyone with no choice—the perception will start to change if, and when, the winning persists.
Feeling like it’s you vs. the world is powerful, and it’s always helpful to have a chip on your shoulder. But the Bengals should start to hear a new tune being sung about them, one that invokes long overdue respect. How does a team make the switch from feeling constantly underrated to absorbing rightful praise? How much can you feed that chip when supply runs low?
Perhaps the answer is to switch mindsets. Accept the new reality that what you have is what others desire, even if there’s still more to achieve. Go from nobody believes in us, to everyone wants to be us.
Or maybe we’re not there yet, and the status quo remains the same. I don’t know. What I do know is the Bengals are ready to stick around, waiting not so patiently for everyone else to come to their senses.