CINCINNATI — Making a championship run requires the right blend of luck, skill and chemistry – lots of chemistry.
No one appreciates the Bengals organization bringing in the right people – players and coaches – more than the franchise quarterback Joe Burrow.
Whether it’s a bevy of players who have played in national championship environments or coaches who have Super Bowl experience, the Bengals have loads of players and staff who are not in awe of the big-game moment.
That first showed itself last year when the Bengals beat the Chiefs to win the division and open eyes around the NFL. Then they beat the No. 1 seed Titans on the road in the AFC Divisional round on the last-second field goal from Evan McPherson.
They, of course, followed that up with a 27-24 overtime win against Kansas City in the AFC Championship at Arrowhead.
“I think last year we found a lot of ways to win a lot of different games,” Burrow said. “I just think this year we’re a much more complete team from top to bottom.”
On Halloween, they were 4-4 after a 32-13 thumping in Cleveland. Facing a must-win scenario for most of the final two months, they won their final eight regular season games for the first time in team history, a feat no one on the outside of Paycor thought they could accomplish.
They have flipped the script with “They Gotta Play Us.”
After beating the Ravens in the Wild Card round, they had to travel to Buffalo and beat the Bills in the snow. They left no doubt with a 27-10 win that has finally earned the respect of the rest of the NFL.
In the last two seasons, the Bengals have not blinked in the big moment. Why?
“Well I think that’s kind of something that front office and Zac (Taylor) looked for in guys, when they came in is, you know, bringing guys that have won, and have the right stuff inside of them to go out and win those kinds of games that we want to win,” Joe Burrow said Wednesday. “And they’ve done a great job of assembling this team. And really, it’s tough to get a look into a guy’s heart and mind when you’re trying to sign them or draft them. And they’ve done a great job of doing that because every guy that we have in there is made of the right stuff and wants to win.”
Joe Burrow says Bengals front office has done an exceptional job making sure they have players with “right stuff” to win games. pic.twitter.com/Zh4quETfCf
— Mike Petraglia (@Trags) January 25, 2023
Beginning with Burrow himself and his 2019 LSU national championship pedigree, the Bengals have players who have played in plenty of big games. There’s Ja’Marr Chase, Tee Higgins, Jackson Carman, Jonah Williams, Dax Hill and eight players from Ohio State.
Bengals director of player personnel Duke Tobin surrounded the young talent with the likes of Trey Hendrickson, Mike Hilton, Vonn Bell, DJ Reader, BJ Hill and Chido Awuzie on defense and Ted Karras, Alex Cappa, La’el Collins and Hayden Hurst on offense. Add in role players Trent Taylor, Trenton Irwin and Stanley Morgan and you begin to see why the blend is a football chemist’s dream.
“There’s a lot of guys in that room, there’s a lot guys throughout league that have had it the hard way,” Burrow said. “I know personally. I wouldn’t have had it any other way. It’s made me who I am as a person and as a player. And there’s a lot of guys in that locker room like that, that are still trying to prove themselves, no matter how many wins or how well they play, or how many contracts they sign, they’re still going to get their get their work in, because that’s what got them to this point.”
These players know all about big games and big situations. There’s no moment too big for the Bengals.
“Because it’s not,” Mike Hilton told me of the Bengals ability not to make any game too big. “Obviously, we know what’s at stake. But at the same time, it’s just a football game. We still have to go out and execute our game plan, put ourselves in a position to win. Obviously, what happens after we win, we’ll let that take care of itself. If we want to get to that position, we have to handle our job on the field.”
Mike Hilton says Bengals never let moment get too big heading into big games. pic.twitter.com/akfi5KxuDe
— Mike Petraglia (@Trags) January 25, 2023
This Bengals team has not had the easiest of times in January. They had the emotional night they shared with the Bills on Jan. 2 at Paycor Stadium when Damar Hamlin collapsed. They had to collect themselves on a short week and go out and beat the Ravens to secure home field in the wild card round, even though they had already clinched the division.
They survived the Ravens defense in the wild card game. They beat Buffalo and now the AFC Championship rematch in Kansas City. If they make it to Arizona, few teams – if any – will ever have had a more difficult road to the Super Bowl.
“It’s just more gratifying,” Burrow added. “When you know the road that you’ve been on has been tough and maybe other people have had it easier, it’s always more satisfying when you pull it out in the end.”
The chemistry between the players is evident the moment you walk into the Bengals locker room. The laughing, card games, cornhole and ping-pong competitions have been well-documented.
The chemistry between the players and coaching staff is just as important. While the coaches are tossing bean bags, they are exchanging ideas with everyone, including, of course, the franchise quarterback.
“Man, they do a great job,” Burrow told me of offensive coordinator Brian Callahan and quarterback coach Dan Pitcher. “I think we have the best coaching staff in the league. They make adjustments better than anybody. Whatever we’re seeing on the field, there’s always great dialogue going on on the sideline.
“We’re always trying to figure out what can we do to attack what we’re seeing and get some explosive plays and stay on track and run the ball well, and they do an unbelievable job throughout the week, and then on game day of making adjustments and figuring out the best way to attack them.”
If Burrow has a suggestion about play design or game situation management, the Zac Taylor and Brian Callahan are all ears because their quarterback has more than earned their trust.
“I try not make a habit of saying no,” Taylor told me. “You try to think through the reasons why or why not and then you reach a decision. And ultimately, I have to make that decision as the head coach and play-caller and understanding all the reasons you can or can’t do something. But I try not to just say no as your instinctive answer and try to get all the information and if that’s the best decision then let ‘s go with it. There’s plenty of dialogue that way. I think it’s good that there’s a lot of dialogue in the quarterback room.
“The game plan evolves. We put it in as a staff and we go in the quarterback meeting next door and come back from the quarterback meeting and its evolved and you have to relay that to the other coaches because of the dialogue that goes on in there. They put in the work, they’ve got a great understanding, they’re on the field, they have to execute it. It’s an evolving game plan over the course of the week.”
"I try not to make a habit of saying no." Zac Taylor on his conversations with Joe Burrow when Bengals QB makes suggestions pic.twitter.com/JFgrrA16cA
— Mike Petraglia (@Trags) January 25, 2023
Burrow’s confidence in Callahan, Pitcher and Taylor is just another weapon in his intellectual arsenal against teams with defenses designed to slow him down.
“I have so much faith in what we do here as an entire (organization),” Burrow added. “That’s what I love about this place is it’s not, you know, the coaches have their process, we have our process and we just do what they say. It’s a collaborative effort. You know, we’re always talking and thinking about new ways we can attack a defense, get better throughout the week of practice, add a route here, add a play here, and that’s why I think we’re so good is because we have really great football minds up there that know football, know game plans and know defense.
While Travis Kelce and some of the Chiefs would like to use the “Burrowhead” moniker as bulletin board material, Burrow himself is worried about not letting the crowd get to full throat on Sunday evening.
“Yeah, it was it was definitely loud,” Burrow said of last year’s AFC title game experience. “But I think we excel in those situations and in our communication. There’s been great on the road is flawless last week in Buffalo in a really loud, hostile environment. And that’s something that we take pride in is communication being on the same page and then going from there.”
Much was made of Joe Burrow’s 19 postseason sacks and the toll it took last year. He’s been sacked just five times in two playoff games so far this year.
“Yeah, I’m feeling great,” Burrow said. “I think last season did help a lot of guys in their understanding how to take care of their bodies through these long deep playoff runs. That’s part of the experience that helps you win these kinds of games, not just on the field stuff and going into hostile environments, but being through these long seasons and understanding where you might have been better if you had done something different off the field last year. I think guys have taken strides and taken that to heart.”
The Bengals had just two players miss practice Wednesday, right guard Alex Cappa (left ankle) and left tackle Jonah Williams (left kneecap). Cappa has been out since he injured the ankle in the fourth quarter of the regular season finale against Baltimore. Williams suffered his injury late in the first half against the Ravens. DJ Reader also missed Wednesday but for rest and received a veteran’s day off. Defensive back Tre Flowers – who could draw tight end Travis Kelce – returned to practice Wednesday and was limited with a hamstring.
Ted Karras escaped serious injury in the first half Sunday in Buffalo when his right knee was rolled on. He was a full participant Wednesday. For the Chiefs, Patrick Mahomes (left ankle) was listed as a full participant, perhaps a signal to the Bengals and everyone else that the quarterback has no plans to change what he’s doing in practice or the the game despite his first half injury against the Jaguars in the Divisional round.