KANSAS CITY – This one is going to ache and burn in the pit of the stomach for every Bengals fan.
Another horror show ending to a storybook season. For a second straight season, the Bengals see their season end in a 23-20 postseason loss, this time to the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC Championship. The game was filled with questionable officiating that is going to raise all sorts of questions again about the legitimacy of on-field refereeing and spark conspiracy theories about the integrity – or lack thereof – in the nation’s most popular sport.
More on all of that in a moment.
The Bengals had their chances to not allow Ron Torbert and his officiating crew end their season for a second straight year.
But they couldn’t protect Joe Burrow early or late in this game. Like Super Bowl LVI, it was an unfortunate flashback to last year when their franchise quarterback was getting pounded.
Burrow, sacked three times on the game’s first two drives, was driving for the go-ahead score in the fourth quarter when he was hit in the pocket as he threw downfield for Tee Higgins. The ball was tipped by Bryan Cook and intercepted by Joshua Williams.
He was rushed and under duress when he was called for intentional grounding on the next drive, pinning the Bengals back at their 10. He would convert a third-and-16 to Hayden Hurst only to be sacked later in the drive. The Bengals would punt and not see the ball again this season. Skyy Moore returned Drue Chrisman’s 54-yard punt 29 yards.
And then with Patrick Mahomes under pressure and about to be sacked by Trey Hendrickson, Chiefs left tackle Orlando Brown reached out and tackled him, allowing Mahomes to race to the sidelines, where he was summarily drilled clearly in the white area by Joseph Ossai.
That shot moved the Chiefs to the Bengals 27. Harrison Butker’s ended the hopes and dreams of Bengals fans with a 45-yarder through the uprights and the Chiefs had finally vanquished the demons of Joe Burrow and advanced to their third Super Bowl in four years.
With the gold and red confetti falling, the Bengals were left to walk off the field in a painful daze for the second straight year, this time one step short of the biggest game in American sports.
“It aches, trust me,” Bengals coach Zac Taylor said. “Our goal was to win the Super Bowl. To be seconds away again to get back there and watching them celebrate, it is horrible because this team has invested so much in each other to get to this point. We have been playing playoff football since Halloween, we just didn’t know it. We had to win 10 games to be here.
“I am really proud of the way these guys show up. They are so consistent every single day. The way they fought until the final whistle today. It is hard to find anything you don’t like about this team.”
"Oh it aches. Trust me." Zac Taylor Bengals pic.twitter.com/zPe8lcc77Q
— Mike Petraglia (@Trags) January 30, 2023
The Bengals had an incredible run. They won 10 straight games to reach their second straight AFC Championship. They won the AFC North for a second straight season. Some coaches might need a couple of hours or even days to appreciate what his team accomplished. Not Taylor.
“I think I appreciate it now,” Taylor told me. “You have been a part of enough of these now. I have been fortunate enough to go to two Super Bowls and now three AFC Championship games. You try to live in the moment. Last year just happened so fast for us.
“This year, it was an expectation, but you are able to appreciate every step of the way. There are four teams left, 28 at home. We do not take that for granted. We just appreciate every second with these guys at practice and at meetings. It is such a fun group. They love ball. They love each other. It is a great honor to be the coach of these guys.”
But the horrific ending is what unfortunately will stick with many fans, players and coaches. How could it not?
This was going to be the year, finally.
No obstacle was going to be too big, no hurdle too high. Joe Burrow was getting beaten around in the first quarter. He was sacked three times in the first two drives. He was sacked four times.
Patrick Mahomes was moving around just fine and built a 13-3 first half lead.
But then Burrow moved the team 90 yards in the final two minutes of the first half, drawing to within seven points on an Evan McPherson field goal to close out the first half.
The Bengals tied the game twice in the second half and had the ball with a chance to win the game twice in the fourth quarter with the game tied, 20-20.
But instead of another fairytale ending, the season ended in another horror story. The last 10 minutes had a little bit of everything, including a head-scratching foul-up from referee Ron Torbert’s crew and a reprise from 2015 when consecutive personal fouls helped the Steelers eliminate the Bengals.
When the Bengals had forced Patrick Mahomes off the field with an incomplete pass on third down, Ron Torbert ordered a stunning replay of the down, even though the ball had already been snapped and the down played.
“On the previous play, there was an incomplete pass,” Torbert said. “We spotted the ball, but the line judge came in and re-spotted the ball because the spot was off. We reset the play clock and the game clock started running. It should not have started running because there was an incomplete pass on the previous play.
“The field judge noticed that the game clock was running. He was coming in to shut the play down so that we could get the clock fixed but nobody heard him, and the play was run. After the play was over, he came in and we discussed that he was trying to shut the play down before the ball had been snapped. So, we reset the game clock back to where it was before that snap and replayed third down.”
Naturally, the Bengals sacked Mahomes only to have Eli Apple flagged for defensive holding. Yes, the Chiefs punted. But valuable time came off the fourth quarter clock.
Joe Burrow was in classic form postgame, not wavering in his belief that this Bengals team is still headed for greatness and will eventually earn a Vince Lombardi trophy.
“I feel great about the direction that we’re headed in,” Burrow said. “That’s the great thing about the NFL, it’s not like college where you only have four years, you have as many years as you want to, hopefully. We will come back, have a great offseason and get better as a team, get better individually and come back next year ready to go.”
Joe Burrow says Bengals will work now on "getting their bodies the way they need to. … come back next year ready to go" pic.twitter.com/bt3kXBX4dX
— Mike Petraglia (@Trags) January 30, 2023
Burrow, who finished 26-of-41 for 270 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions, is now 3-1 vs. Mahomes. Burrow says the rivalry between the two isn’t going away.
“I think you can expect that,” Burrow said. “We know the kind of team that they have, the kind of quarterback that they have and the kind of coaches that they have. We expect to be back there, and I think they do, too.”
Unfortunately for the Bengals, Mahomes will be getting a chance to win his second Super Bowl ring before Burrow has earned his first.
So, the Bengals concluded their 55th season Sunday night in Kansas City without an NFL championship. It’s hard to be positive or think happy thoughts. A lot was accomplished in the 2022 season, even if the finish was a nightmare.