CINCINNATI — Any team that has aspirations of winning a Super Bowl will have to weather the hard times so they can reach the top of the mountain.
The Bengals can see the summit of their Mt. Everest. They need just two more wins. It isn’t going to be easy as they’ll have to beat Kansas City for a second straight season at Arrowhead and then turn back either San Francisco or Philadelphia in Arizona.
The Bengals have already proven they’re capable of handling the turbulence with string of 10 straight wins that few – besides themselves – felt possible.
The team that plays ping pong, cornhole and cards together, wins together. That’s what these Bengals have shown.
“You don’t see this a whole lot in the NFL,” said Hayden Hurst. “This togetherness, it’s mostly position groups that tend to stick together. But here, it doesn’t matter. It’s friendly. Everyone’s hanging out. Everyone loves each other. I think that’s why we have so much success on the field.”
The skeptic could argue it’s the success that creates the good vibes. But remember, this Bengals team was 0-2, 2-3 and 4-4 and times were not easy in the first half of the season. But the relaxed vibe has been there throughout.
“As soon as I walked in here, I knew it was different,” Hurst added. “It kinda starts with Joe (Burrow) and how he approaches every single day. He knows there’s obviously a time and a place to work. He’s free and easy. He understands his preparation throughout the week. On game days, he’s going to be ready to go so Monday through Saturday, he get to be just a regular person.”
Hurst was willing to sign for one year at $3.5 million because he believes in what player personnel director Duke Tobin and head coach Zac Taylor were building in Cincinnati, coming off a Super Bowl appearance in 2021. He could see the makings of a great team with great chemistry, a team that was only getting better with key veteran acquisitions on the offensive line.
“Absolutely, in free agency they went out and got guys they thought would be a great fit,” Hurst said. “They’ve done an awesome job. I sing the praises of this organization. I’m happy to be here. I’m happy to be a contributor here. I hope to stay. We’ll see. I’ve just got to go out there and do my job.”
"You don't see this a whole lot in the NFL, the togetherness." Hayden Hurst on Bengals. Says Joe Burrow is a big reason why. Hurst says he really wants to return next year "but we'll see what happens." pic.twitter.com/JvglBAZBpG
— Mike Petraglia (@Trags) January 27, 2023
(Click here for a complete preview of what to expect and look for in Sunday’s AFC title tilt.)
Sam Hubbard, like Tyler Boyd, has seen the good, the bad and the ugly of the first two years of the Zac Taylor era, when they won just six times in 32 tries between 2019 and 2020.
— Mike Petraglia (@Trags) January 27, 2023
It’s that perspective mixed in with a Super Bowl run from last year that gives this team the feeling that they’re never out of a game.
The Bengals were down double-digits in their first two games and came back with a chance to win both against the Steelers and Cowboys. They were down early to the Ravens before taking a late lead. They lost all three but knew they had a fighting instinct about them. They were down last year 21-3 to the Chiefs in the AFC title game and this year 24-20 at Paycor and held their composure and won.
“Whether we’re up, whether we’re down, you’ve just got to keep going,” Hubbard said. “We’ve been in all situations now and that just helps you feel comfortable.”
The Bengals have overcome injuries to DJ Reader, Chido Awuzie, Ja’Marr Chase, Hayden Hurst, La’el Collins, Alex Cappa and Jonah Williams. In the cases of Awuzie and Collins, they were season-ending. They’re hopeful on Cappa and Williams if they make the Super Bowl.
“That’s always tough when you have guys that have invested so much in what we do here and in their careers to not be able to be out there with us in this moment, but I think both of those guys are pretty firm in what they’ve done for this team this year and helped get us to this point,” Burrow said. “We’re not taking how they played for us this year for granted.”
No one has a better feel for the vibe in the locker room than their head coach. He sees the team hanging out on a Friday in the locker room when the team has no responsibilities after the midday walkthrough.
“They’ve been done for the day (and) I saw Cordell (Volson) and Ted (Karras) eating lunch together. They got in an extra lift. Some guys on Friday get in their “Flex Friday,” they’ve got their T-shirts made. They get in there and get in an extra lift and some guys hang out in the locker room until (what seems like) Sunday. That’s what it feels like.”
What conclusion does that draw from Taylor?
“This is the closest team I’ve ever been a part of,” Taylor said.