Like vultures pouncing on their prey, most of the media and outside world devoured the Bengals after their 0-2 start. After two close losses to the Steelers and Cowboys, the defending AFC champions, many thought, were on their way to joining the list of Super Bowl runner-ups who struggled the following season.
The Bengals' humble start makes their current run of success even more remarkable. Cincinnati, which sat at 4-4 through two months, has won 10 consecutive games entering their AFC Championship Game rematch with the Chiefs. And while their winning streak was evidence enough, Cincinnati's 27-10 thumping over the Bills was further evidence that this Bengals team is better than the one that came up just short of winning last year's Super Bowl.
"I think we're a more complete team," quarterback Joe Burrow said when comparing Bengals teams following Sunday's win (via NFL.com). "I think we're a better team, and we just seem to make plays when it counts. That's all there is to say. I think our O-line is better, I think our run game is better, I think our defense is better, I just think our special teams is better. We're just overall a much better team than we were last year."
While many teams regress after a Super Bowl run (see the 2022 Rams), the Bengals are two wins away from becoming only the fourth team to win the Super Bowl a year after coming up short in the big game. Below, we break down how the Bengals put themselves in position to make even more history over the coming weeks.
Key free agent acquisitions
You don't have to be a Bengals fan to know that the offensive line was Cincinnati's Achilles heel in 2021. Including the playoffs, Burrow was sacked 70 times last season, with seven of those coming in the Super Bowl. Cincinnati's woes on the line were further reinforced on the Bengals' last offensive play of the Super Bowl, when a lack of protection prevented Burrow from finding a wide open Ja'Marr Chase downfield for a potential game-winning touchdown.
To say that the Bengals emphatically addressed this issue would be an understatement. Cincinnati brought in four new linemen who would be Week 1 starters. Three of those players were acquired during free agency in Karras, Cappa and Collins. Along with being proven veterans, each one had tasted playoff success while playing with top-tier quarterbacks. Karras and Cappa won rings with Tom Brady. Collins was part of dominant lines in Dallas that helped protect Dak Prescott.
A less celebrated but just as significant free agent signing was Hurst, who replaced longtime Bengal C.J. Uzomah after he inked a multiyear deal with the Jets. A former first-round pick, Hurst has seemingly found a long-term home in Cincinnati after previous stops in Baltimore and Atlanta. He caught 52 passes in 13 regular-season games and has nine catches for 104 yards and a score in Cincinnati's first two playoff games.
Garnet Thor for 6 👏 #CINatBUF | 📺 CBS pic.twitter.com/QnGpyAvXTR— Cincinnati Bengals (@Bengals) January 22, 2023
The Bengals' free agents, along with their on-field contributions, have added to what was already a winning culture. Karras, who on Sunday continued the Bengals' semi-new tradition of delivering game balls to local pubs, has become a locker room pillar. Hurst and Collins, following regular-season wins over Pittsburgh and Kansas City, raved about the team's locker room chemistry while raving about their decisions to sign with Cincinnati.
"It feels absolutely f---ing incredible," Hurst told CBS Sports about being a valued member of the defending AFC champions.
"They're selfless. They care about us not only as players, but as people," Collins said about Zac Taylor and the Bengals coaching staff. "I can't say enough about those guys. We have a great culture here. We have a great locker room. The guys love ball.
"I can't be more thankful and more grateful for a better opportunity to be here right now with this team and everything that we have ahead of us. I'm just looking forward to it and I'm extremely blessed to be a part of this group."
As Collins alluded, the unselfish culture that exists within the Bengals' locker room in undeniably a big reason for the Bengals' continued success. For an example of this, look no further than the Bengals' receiving corps, a unit that often sacrifices individual glory for team success.
Key draft picks
S Daxton Hill (first round)
DB Cam Taylor-Britt (second round)
OL Cordell Volson (fourth round)
Having used free agency to address their most glaring need, the Bengals used the draft to beef up what was their second-weakest area. Cincinnati used its first three draft picks on the secondary, including the 31st overall pick on Hill.
While Hill's impact will likely be felt more in later years (especially if Jessie Bates III isn't re-signed), Taylor-Britt made an impact during his rookie season. Taylor-Britt, who entered the starting lineup following Chidobe Awuzie's season-ending injury, was all over the field during Sunday's win over Buffalo. His presence helped force an incompletion on a key third-down throw with the Bengals protecting a 24-10 win. He later iced the game with his interception of Bills quarterback Josh Allen.
The Bengals didn't entirely forget about the offensive line during the draft. Far from it, as they used a fourth-round pick on a player who has been the Bengals' starting left guard since Week 1. Jackson Carman, the player Volson beat out for the starting job, is coming off arguably the best performance of his career after an injury forced him to make his first career start at left tackle this past Sunday. Carman, tackle Hakeem Adeniji and guard Max Scharping started on Sunday with Collins, Cappa and Jonah Williams out with injuries.
With three backups on the line, the Bengals offense looked like the 1974 Raiders line that boasted three future Hall of Fame players. The unit allowed just one sack of Burrow while helping Cincinnati roll up 172 rushing yards on 34 attempts.
Once the weakness of the team, the Bengals offensive line has become one the team's best units. But don't take our word for it.
"When you have that kind of time in the pocket, it's hard not to find somebody open," Burrow said about his line after the Week 13 win over Kansas City. "What else this has done is gotten us some more off-schedule opportunities. We're starting to be able to run the ball more now. If something's not open, I still have time to find an escape lane, get out of the pocket and try to make a play. I can't say enough about those guys."
- Halloween loss to Browns
Cincinnati's season was as uneven as an unpaved road eight games into the season. Not helping matters was Chase suffering an injury one week prior to Cincinnati's road game in Cleveland on Halloween.
Rest assured that the film of Cincinnati's 32-13 loss was nothing short of horrifying. Without Chase, Burrow struggled and finished the game with under 200 net passing yards. Cincinnati's line yielded five sacks, while the Bengals defense was no match for the Browns trio of Jacoby Brissett, Amari Cooper and Nick Chubb. Adding to the night's misery was Awuzie suffering a season-ending injury.
The Bengals haven't lost since that forgettable night in Cleveland. In a preview of what was to come, the Bengals dismantled the Panthers the following week to go into their bye week at 5-4. But in the win, the team suffered an injury to Joe Mixon, who was the star of the game after scoring five touchdowns.
Despite Mixon's absence, and with Chase still sidelined by an injury, the Bengals won their next three games that included road wins at Pittsburgh and Tennessee.
The star during this pivotal period of the season was backup running back Samaje Perine. Typically the team's third-down back, Perine made the most of his extra playing time with Mixon out. He scored three touchdowns in Cincinnati's 37-30 win over Pittsburgh and had 93 all-purpose yards and a touchdown during the Bengals' 20-16 win over the Titans. He had over 100 rushing yards the following week (more on that win in a bit) as the Bengals ran their record to 8-4.
🗣️ To the house!#CINvsPIT | 📺 CBS pic.twitter.com/Moc13WQgTB— Cincinnati Bengals (@Bengals) November 20, 2022
Perine's impact on the offense during this period was matched by the impact D.J. Reader had upon his return to the defense. Reader, a veteran defensive tackle who missed six games during the season's first half, played so well down the stretch that his name often popped up when discussing this year's biggest Pro Bowl snubs. The seven-year veteran has served as a key stabilizer in the running while rounding out a talented defensive line that also includes B.J. Hill, Sam Hubbard and Trey Hendrickson.
Cincinnati's third straight win over Kansas City represented how far the Bengals had come in such a short period of time. Twice, the Bengals committed mistakes that would have doomed previous Bengals teams. A botched fourth-down gamble from the Chiefs' 5-yard line prevented the Bengals from adding onto their 14-10 halftime lead. On their ensuing drive, after the Chiefs had taken the lead on the opening drive of the second half, the Bengals were forced to settle for three after Tyler Boyd dropped what would have been a sure touchdown pass.
But unlike previous Bengals teams, the '22 version overcame those mistakes with big plays of their own. Trailing 24-20, Germaine Pratt stripped Travis Kelce of the ball, giving Cincinnati's offense possession near midfield.
Germaine Pratt says thank you Kelce, I'll take that pic.twitter.com/eEWWj64KOI— Cincinnati 💔 (@CincyProblems) December 4, 2022
Burrow and Co. took full advantage, driving the remaining 53 yards and taking the lead on a short touchdown pass from Burrow to Chris Evans.
The Bengals defense stepped up again and forced a punt after Joseph Ossai -- a second-year linebacker who missed his entire rookie year after suffering an injury during the preseason -- sacked Mahomes on a pivotal third-down play.
Kansas City then made a crucial mistake in punting the ball back to the Bengals, who wiped out the remaining three-plus minutes of game time after picking up three first downs. The final one, a 14-yard completion from Burrow to Tee Higgins on a third-and-14 play, sealed the Bengals' 27-24 win.
"Our team knows what it takes to win those kinds of games," Burrow said of the win. "It's December now. This is when we start to turn it up and find ways to win these games. We're going to get back to practice, keep getting better, correct the mistakes and move on."
Week 1: Steelers -- 23-20 L (OT)
Week 2: at Cowboys -- 20-17 L
Week 3: at Jets -- 27-12 W
Week 4: Dolphins -- 27-15 W
Week 5: at Ravens -- 19-17 L
Week 6: at Saints -- 30-26 W
Week 7: Falcons -- 35-17 W
Week 8: at Browns -- 32-13 L
Week 9: Panthers -- 42-21 W
Week 10: BYE
Week 11: at Steelers -- 37-30 W
Week 12: at Titans -- 20-16 W
Week 13: Chiefs -- 27-24 W
Week 14: Browns -- 23-10 W
Week 15: at Buccaneers -- 34-23 W
Week 16: at Patriots -- 22-18 W
Week 17: Bills -- canceled
Week 18: Ravens -- 27-16 W
Wild Card: Ravens -- 24-17 W
Divisional: Bills -- 27-10 W
The Bengals' 12 regular-season wins matched the franchise's single-season record. Two of the other three Bengals teams that reached 12 wins -- in 1981 and 1988 -- represented the AFC in the Super Bowl. Cincinnati's 14 total wins this season ties the '81 and '88 teams for the most in one season in franchise annals.
If they can win the Super Bowl, the Bengals would join the 1971 Cowboys, 1972 Dolphins and 2018 Patriots as the only teams to win the Super Bowl a year after coming up short in the big game. Not bad for a team that was largely left for dead after an 0-2 start.