Bengals’ personality is a perfect fit for the daunting path back to Super Bowl – The Athletic

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ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — In preparation for a Saturday night meeting inside the team hotel, Bengals head coach Zac Taylor searched for every example he could find for exactly how difficult Sunday would be.
They were everywhere.
The Bills were 4-0 at home in the playoffs under head coach Sean McDermott. He spotted a stat on Twitter pointing out that Buffalo owns the best home postseason win percentage in NFL history. Copy and paste.
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The league promoted all the tickets sold for a Kansas City-Buffalo AFC title game in Atlanta. He leaned into it. The Vegas line was climbing, the Bengals were up to six-point underdogs. Make sure that gets mentioned again.
“I wanted to show that to the team because I knew what that would do to them,” Taylor said. “It wouldn’t put fear in them, that ‘Oh my god, we are walking into an environment that people don’t win in.’ It was going to be the opposite for our guys. And it was.”
Was it ever?
The 27-10 dismantling of the Bills at Highmark Stadium was a visualization of the truest spirit of this team. They don’t just accept the hardest path, they prefer it.
“We love it,” veteran safety Mike Thomas said. “We love it. That’s just the mindset of this team. Don’t pat us on the back. Don’t tell us how good we are. Count us out. Count us out.”
Taylor sarcastically joked that he “would never” lean into the promotion of the neutral-site AFC title game by the league as motivation for his team. Add this to the laundry list of edges created by this walking, talking Michael Jordan “and I took that personal” meme of a season.
A stream of players made their way out of the snowstorm and into the raucous visiting locker room yelling about the league promoting Atlanta.
“Better send those refunds,” Joe Burrow calmly said with CBS after the game. His teammates weren’t quite as calm or clean in their language relaying the same message.
Hurst pic.twitter.com/Op49XX1Fku
— Jay Morrison (@JayMorrisonATH) January 22, 2023

While the personality of this time might embrace the slights and relish long odds and underdog narratives, that’s not what won this game Sunday. They won by showcasing themselves as arguably the most complete team in football and this was their masterpiece.
Defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo’s latest gem held the Bills to their lowest point total of the year and fewest since the Patriots held them to 10 on Dec. 6, 2021. The offense didn’t just overcome three offensive line starters missing, but thrived in their absence — running for 172 yards and 5.1 per carry. The dangerous Buffalo return game was held in check.
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Evidence has suggested for some time this Bengals team is better than the one from last year. Sunday confirmed it.
“We’re a more complete team,” Burrow said. “I think we’re a better team.”
A team that looked more than capable of capturing the first Lombardi trophy in franchise history. They looked like a team of destiny.
“There’s no underdogs over here,” safety Jessie Bates said. “I think everybody knows that. Vegas can make the lines and all that s–t, but at the end of the day, you have to line up and play four quarters of football. We are confident as hell. We don’t give a damn who is in the stands or where it is at.”
The path the Bengals blazed like a snowplow through Western New York on Sunday ranks among the toughest in recent history. They took on a schedule down the stretch that included multiple future hall-of-fame quarterbacks and the toughest schedule by DVOA after the bye. After being put through an emotional and mental ringer on Monday Night Football, they had to regroup to a league forcing them to play a division rival to avoid a potential coin toss for home field.
The Ravens used a strategy of trying to bludgeon the Bengals into submission over back-to-back weeks, with a jackhammer of a defense and hoping the physical toll alone would be enough in a way only AFC North truthers could appreciate.
Then the Bengals headed to Buffalo to take on one of the five elite teams in the NFL in their house, in front of their mafia, in their weather.
The next stop will be a trip back to Arrowhead in Kansas City where Patrick Mahomes plays in his fifth consecutive conference championship game. That’s before even thinking about Glendale, Ariz. The Bengals will try to go on the road to beat the top two seeds for the second consecutive season.
They will need to rip off 12 in a row in order to win the Super Bowl. The mark sits at 10, two more than the previous franchise record and without a defeat since Halloween.
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Sounds against all odds, right?
They wouldn’t have it any other way.
“It don’t matter,” said defensive tackle DJ Reader, who happily retweeted receipts after the game of Eric Weddle, formerly of the Ravens, stating they didn’t have a chance in Buffalo. “We got a bunch of guys in this room that believe in us and that’s really all that f—ing matters. All that other stuff, the extras, this that and the third, that s–t is not important. Not important. We came in here in their own building they put up 10 f—–g points. We put up 27. We’re going to KC next week. That’s all that matters. Count us out. Count around. Bengals ain’t this. Bengals ain’t that. We just keep showing up. Keep playing on Sundays.”
Motivation is free but we always appreciate a little extra. #WhoDey https://t.co/BCdGMoI32H
— Dj Reader (@Djread98) January 22, 2023

Burrow keeps playing, keeps winning, keeps not making mistakes. He was unfazed by the snow, completing 23 of 36 for 242 yards, two touchdowns, with no interceptions and he only took one sack for two yards. He was a questionable touchdown reversal away from a third TD pass and also ran for 31 yards.
“He’s just the greatest,” Taylor said, sounding like an adoring parent.
GO DEEPER
Why Joe Burrow’s evolution makes Bengals’ offensive line issues different this year
Burrow has never lost in college or the NFL in the month of January. He said this week he “never feels like an underdog,” but the Bengals against the world vibe driving this train fits his story to perfection. The forgotten third-stringer with the weak arm from tiny Athens, Ohio, and Ohio State defies all the doubters on his path to the Heisman, national championship, AFC title and now a return to the conference championship game.
Like most things in Cincinnati, the pieces fall into place in Burrow’s image.
“That’s just who we are,” cornerback Mike Hilton said. “We don’t want nothing easy. We got guys in our locker room that have been underdogs our whole life. You put a whole locker room of guys who have been overlooked and you get this type of team.”
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Cornerback Eli Apple leaned back against the wall next to his locker and repeatedly took long puffs off one of the few cigars lit in the victorious road locker room.
“We the best defense in the league,” Apple said succinctly, cooly returning to another puff of the cigar. “We just the greatest.”
Apple then pointed out, “I’ve been doubted my whole life,” reiterating the theme of this group, this dominating victory.
“We are built for this,” Taylor said. “It doesn’t matter what anybody else thinks about us.”
What people think should have changed after Sunday. Maybe it won’t. Maybe there will be reasons to doubt the Bengals still after that one. There shouldn’t be. They instantly took control of a charged, emotional environment to the point the first crowd eruption of the day didn’t come until 10 seconds were left in the first quarter and the Bengals ahead 14-0.
“We walked in like it was our s–t,” Reader said. “The game was over before it started in our heads. No disrespect to their players. They played a hell of a game. We were just on that. Doubted all week. Heard about it all week. We were just ready. Ready to get the hell out there and play. Whatever element, whatever the hell was going on.”
In their minds and in their words, they showed up Sunday again sick of caring about the challenges put in front of them or others trying to define what they are.
“You know what we are? We the defending champs,” linebacker Germaine Pratt said. “We don’t want that easy. We don’t want that handed to us. Everything the NFL presented to us they want stuff handed to by the guys. They had the little Atlanta trip planned. But we want to go to Kansas City and put on a show.”
For all the logistics and venue talk and seeding and coin flips, eventually, the game had to be played. And next week the Bengals will play for a chance to join New England, Seattle and Kansas City as the only franchises to reach back-to-back Super Bowls this century.
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Think about that. The Cincinnati Bengals.
They’ll have to best Mahomes, hobbled by a high ankle sprain. There’s hope he will gut out the injury next week. You better believe the Bengals want him healthy and as close to 100 percent as possible.
They wouldn’t have it any other way. Laughing in the face of adversity at every step.
“We just had our mind set to go play in Kansas City,” Taylor said. “It is tough because they have to formulate the plans for coin tosses and got to formulate the plans for neutral-site games and we just keep screwing it up for everybody. And I hate that for people to have to endure all those logistical issues and then we just keep screwing it up. So, I’m sorry.”
(Top photo: Bryan M. Bennett / Getty Images)

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Paul Dehner Jr. is a senior writer and podcast host for The Athletic. He’s been covering the Bengals and NFL since 2009, most notably, for six seasons with The Cincinnati Enquirer. He’s born, raised and proudly Cincinnati. Follow Paul on Twitter @pauldehnerjr

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