Growing up in Southeastern Ohio, Joe Burrow used to hear the gripes of his friends who were Cincinnati Bengals fans awaiting the next playoff win. He was well aware of the playoff losing streak, but says it wasn’t something he thought about when he was being linked to the team ahead of the 2020 NFL Draft.
As the Bengals prepare for their first playoff game since 2016, the 31 years without a playoff win still isn’t a thought for the second-year quarterback — outside of having to answer media questions about it
Cincinnati hosts the Las Vegas Raiders in the Wild Card round Saturday at Paul Brown Stadium. The Bengals haven’t won a playoff game since the 1990 season when they exited in the second round against the Los Angeles Raiders on Jan. 13, 1991.
“My expectation coming in was to win a lot of games and play well,” Burrow said. “That didn’t happen year 1, and I had an injury. But there was never any thought of that this team hasn’t won a playoff game or been very good for a while. It was, ‘What can I do to come in, play good football and prove to the organization that I was the right guy to draft?’ and prove to everybody else I could be a really good player in this league for a long time.”
Even Burrow knows a quarterback’s legacy is determined by what he does in big games, and this week is one of those opportunities. It’s the first chance for him to do what Carson Palmer and Andy Dalton could not and satisfy a fan base craving a postseason victory.
In Palmer’s second season, he got the Bengals back to the postseason for the first time since that 1990 season, but that run ended in dramatic fashion. Palmer tore two ligaments and dislocated his knee on the second play from scrimmage in the Wild Card loss to the Steelers on Jan. 8, 2006. Palmer completed a deep pass to Chris Henry and defensive tackle Kimo Von Oelhoffen tumbled into his left leg.
Palmer got one more chance in 2009 before his departure from the team in 2011, when Dalton came in and led the team to five straight playoff appearances, all first-round losses.
Burrow was drafted to be able to win these types of games.
“I’m thinking about going out and getting the win, whatever it takes,” Burrow said. “If I throw for zero yards and we get the win, I’m very, very happy. So whatever it takes this (Saturday), we’re gonna get the job done.”
Burrow threw for a combined 971 yards over his final two games of the regular season to help the Bengals clinch the AFC North title, and he goes into the playoffs playing his best football. He’s gone four straight games without an interception, and the Bengals are seeing the same play-making quarterback that exuded such confidence during LSU’s national championship run in 2019.
Cincinnati shares that confidence in Burrow. His teammates call him “Joey Franchise” for a reason, and his coaches believe in his ability to perform in pressure situations. That’s why they drafted him No. 1 overall in 2020.
“We always talked about players’ personalities and what their approach is,” Bengals coach Zac Taylor said of the draft preparation scouting Burrow. “At the end of the day, when you’re watching the tape you got to make sure it’s a talented player that can perform in the big moments and can operate the quarterback position the way you want it done for your franchise, and he certainly checked all those boxes. And what you understood about Joe is that he’s a guy that puts in the work. … And so when he’s up there cool and confident and saying the things he says, he knows it’s because he’s prepared for the moment and the moment is not too big.”
Burrow’s last two games — against the Ravens and Chiefs — were his best of the season, and he said those felt like playoff games to him. He seems to hit another gear in big games, and the key to that, he said, is having “great people” and coaches around him and “just staying even-keeled through the ups and downs throughout the game.”
“I’ve always prided myself on making plays when a game is on the line and trying to keep my team in it if we’re down, and going out and winning the game if we need to go and seal the deal,” Burrow said.
In the first meeting against the Raiders in Week 11, Burrow threw for just 148 yards while the team leaned on the running game and defense to win the game. Some games are like that, he said, and others are like Week 17 where Burrow took over the second half to lead the Bengals to a comeback win over Kansas City and clinch the division.
Burrow says he has become a more well-rounded quarterback since coming out of the bye on a two-game losing streak and getting the 32-13 win in Vegas.
“(It was) understanding whatever the game asks of me to get the job done is what I’m going to go out and do,” Burrow said. “In that game, it was not forcing the ball, not turning the ball over and you know, we’re gonna be able to run the ball and get the win. And some games you’ve got to try to force some balls in there to go and score points. Sometimes you got to get a little lucky and sometimes you know, it’s a mix of getting lucky and making good decisions.”
Burrow’s teammates trust him to lead the way, whatever that looks like.
“I think Joe’s leadership just comes with how tough he is,” tight end C.J. Uzomah said. “How smart he is. How when stuff hits the fan or something isn’t quite going the way you anticipated, he’s able to make adjustments, sit us down and just say, ‘Do this or just do this.’ ‘Hey, we’re going to check the play to this.’ Being composed. He’s tough as hell. I hope everyone else sees it, too. You guys see only a fraction of it, but he’s a tough guy. Just seeing that out of your quarterback, that’s huge for us.”