Archdeacon: These Bengals? ‘They’re definitely real’

Behind Burrow, defense, Cincinnati headed to third Super Bowl after AFC Championship win over Kansas City

Credit: Charlie Riedel

Credit: Charlie Riedel

KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Joe Burrow didn’t want anyone to doubt their authenticity:

“They’re definitely real.”

He wasn’t referring to his Super Bowl-bound Cincinnati Bengals – who have made one of the most unbelievable franchise turnarounds in NFL history – he was talking about the bejeweled “JB9″ diamond necklace he wore atop a black turtle neck to Sunday’s postgame press conference.

The Bengals quarterback had just led his team from an 18-point deficit to defeat the powerful Kansas City Chiefs, 27-24, in overtime of the AFC Championship game at Arrowhead Stadium.

No team in history had ever overcome a wider margin in the AFC title game.

And that’s not the biggest comeback the Bengals have made.

Two years ago they were rock bottom in the NFL. They won just two games. And then last season they managed only four more wins.

Now they’re the talk of the NFL.

So after the game, when Burrow showed up with his shiny, sparkling adornment, he was asked by someone if the jewels were real.

He seemed a bit surprised, then laughed: “I make too much money to have fake ones. So they are real.”

He could just as well have been talking about his team.

Through the stretch run of the regular season – and especially with three impressive wins over Las Vegas, Tennessee and now Kansas City, which was in its fourth straight AFC Championship game and had been to the last two Super Bowls, winning one – the Bengals have shown they are the real deal.

They are the football version of shiny and sparkling and while they’ve now caught the eye of everyone who follows the NFL, they’ve especially captured the hearts of all the folks back home.

They are the most treasured team ever to wear a Bengals’ jersey. No disrespect to the two other Cincinnati teams who won the AFC title game in the 1980s and made the Super Bowl, but they didn’t make the rags to riches resurgence that these guys have.

They may be pro athletes, who, as Burrow joked, make a lot of money, but they play with a schoolboy enthusiasm and camaraderie. They truly are happy for each other’s success.

And that’s why you have a 1,300 yard receiver like Tee Higgins barreling down field Sunday so he can make one last block for running back Joe Mixon on a 23-yard run. Later it was Pro Bowl rookie receiver Ja’Marr Chase doing the same thing for running back Samaje Perine on his 41-yard touchdown catch from Burrow near the end of the first half.

Three years ago when coach Zac Taylor took over the team, the Bengals had too many players who were disenchanted, disgusted and too oft defeated. He began to weed them out, added Burrow to lead the rebirth on the field and then with more draft talent and free agents added to the mix, the culture changed.

One new player who’s especially stood out in the playoffs is rookie kicker Evan McPherson – he of the choir boy face and gunslinger’s mentality – who has been perfect in the postseason.

“The most reliable kicker in the NFL,” Bengals defensive end Sam Hubbard said after McPherson made all four of his field goal attempts Sunday – including the game winning 31-yarder in overtime – and is 12 for 12 in the playoffs.

While the Bengals play for each other, they also play for their city and all of Bengaldom.

Taylor started a new tradition in the playoffs and went around Cincinnati gifting game balls to the long-suffering fans who finally have something to celebrate.

Sunday, Bengals fans may have endured some sleights from the army of KC fans who turn Arrowhead Stadium and its tail-gaiting environs into an overwhelming home field advantage – “Chili doesn’t belong on spaghetti” read one sign – but the Chiefs in-unison chants and tomahawk chops were all but non-existent in the second half when the Bengals defense began to totally stymie quarterback Patrick Mahomes and his high-octane offense.

In the fourth quarter – as the Bengals took the lead – you could actually hear the chorused “Who Dey” chants in the stadium. And during the trophy presentation on the field, Taylor said: It felt like half the stadium (was Bengal fans.). It was a special moment. I’m so happy for the city of Cincinnati.”

So was Burrow:

“This is something I’m really proud of – being from Ohio and the quarterback of the Bengals. It’s just 2 ½ hours from my hometown (Athens) and this is something I always wanted – to play in the Super Bowl and play with a great group of guys.”

Hubbard was raised in Cincinnati and the emotion welled up in his voice as he talked about what had just happened:

“We’re going to the Super Bowl! It sounds so crazy to say that. It’s hard to believe that we’re here. I love the team. I love the city. I’m just on Cloud Nine right now.”

Turning point

The Chiefs scored touchdowns on their first three possessions Sunday – Mahomes throwing TD strikes to Tyreek Hill, Travis Kelce and Mecole Hardman – and held a 21-3 lead until there were just 65 seconds left in the half.

That’s when Perine caught a Burrow pass in the flat and scored.

Mahomes then led the Chiefs right back down the field and after an Eli Apple pass interference call in the end zone, Kansas City had the ball at the Cincinnati one yard line with 9 seconds left.

Mahomes was forced to throw the ball away on the next play and, with five seconds left, the Chiefs tried another pass rather than kick an easy field goal.

Hill caught the ball in flat, but Apple redeemed himself and hurled he Chiefs speedster to the ground for no gain.

The half ended without Kansas City scoring and the momentum suddenly shifted.

“I really think that was the turning point of the game,” Burrow said.

McPherson was even more emphatic:

“Coming into the locker room after that stop, I said I think that probably won us the game right there. I definitely thought the defense won us the game.”

While that might sound exaggerated – the Bengals still trailed by 11 – McPherson said there was a sense of confidence in the dressing room:

“Nobody blinked an eye. A lot of people probably wrote us off at halftime, but we’re a confident bunch of guys. We knew we were not going to go out like this. We knew we were gonna come back and give them a run for their money.”

That’s exactly what happened. In the second half. McPherson kicked two field goals and Burrow threw a 2-yard touchdown pass to Chase.

At times Burrow was just as impressive with his feet, twice wiggling, pirouetting and scrambling away from sacks to convert third downs. Taylor talked about his ability to make plays no one else sees:

“Disaster is his bread and butter.”

Meanwhile, the Chiefs were forced to punt four times and Mahomes threw an interception before they got a field goal as time expired to set up overtime.

Although Kansas City won the overtime coin toss and just needed to score a touchdown to win the game without Burrow ever getting a chance to touch the ball, the exhausted Bengals defense made another play. Safety Jessie Bates III tipped a Mahomes’ pass and fellow safety Vonn Bell intercepted it at the Cincinnati 45.

Credit: Paul Sancya

Credit: Paul Sancya

“We were made for this moment,” Bell said.

Nine plays later, McPherson was sent onto the field.

Although he didn’t make his prediction out loud – as he had last Saturday before he kicked the game-winner against Tennessee – he said he had the same thought: “It was going through my head: ‘There’s probably a good chance we’re going to the Super Bowl.”

And with one swing of his right leg, that’s exactly where the Bengals were headed.

They’ll meet the Los Angeles Rams at SoFi Stadium in Los Angeles on Feb. 13.

‘It’s just crazy’

Burrow admitted he hasn’t quite come to grips with his new, celebrity status.

“One of my idols growing up, (rapper) Kid Cudi, reached out to me yesterday,” he said. “I listen to (his) New York City Rage Fest every game day, right before I go out.”

Burrow was told fellow Ohioan, LeBron James, again sent out a flattering tweet on him, too.

“It’s just crazy,” Burrow admitted Sunday. “The situation I’m in socially doesn’t really feel real to me. In my head I’m just the same old guy.

“This part is surreal. The football part not so much.

“If you’d have told me before the season we’d go to the Super Bowl, I’d probably have called you crazy… But now, nothing surprises me. I know the kind of guys we have and the team we have.”

Bell said: “We’re showing the world who we are and we’re gonna keep showing the world. We’re not done yet.”

McPherson agreed: “We’ve pushed the underdog narrative to the side. The Bengals mean business. We’re here to stay!”

Just like Joe Burrow’s necklace, the Super Bowl-bound Bengals are “definitely real.”

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