CINCINNATI — C.J. Uzomah was finished answering questions after Saturday’s playoff curse-ending 26-19 win over the Las Vegas Raiders at a delirious Paul Brown Stadium.
But he wasn’t finished talking.
“I want to say this: Coach Taylor and what this whole staff has instilled and the culture they brought in is so telling. Everything we’ve been doing, the success we have, we’re the players out there executing and what not. I do want to say without him and this staff, and us buying in to what he’s trying to build into this culture and this organization, I appreciate him,” Uzomah said, clearly insisting this team wouldn’t have been able to withstand the trials and tribulations of a season wrought with close games and – at times – disappointing results.
It was that character that was tested in the truest way possible, under the fire of playoff pressure. Difference was this time, the offense was helpless to do anything about it.
Uzomah, Joe Burrow, Ja’Marr Chase, Tyler Boyd, Tee Higgins and Joe Mixon were all watching as the Raiders, down seven, marched inexorably toward the Bengal goal line with under a minute left. On third-and-17 Derek Carr hit Darren Waller on a crosser for 23 yards to the Cincinnati 19 with 56 seconds left.
On third-and-10, Carr to Zay Jones for 10 yards to the Bengals 9. Carr spike. 30 seconds. Second down, incomplete for Jones. 25 seconds. Third down, incomplete to Hunter Renfrow. 17 seconds. Fourth down and the season on the line. One stop for the franchise’s first playoff win since the first Bush was President. Carr to Jones over the middle but Germaine Pratt steps in front, intercepts. 12 sweet, glorious seconds. Time for Burrow to take the field, kneel and let the clock finally run out on the NFL’s longest active playoff victory drought.
“Us as a team, we appreciate him and this coaching staff,” Uzomah said. “I know he didn’t win coach of the year, but to us he deserves that and so much more. Because he didn’t we’ll have to prove it and win a Super Bowl.”
— Mike Petraglia (@Trags) January 16, 2022
That’s the things about these Bengals and what makes them special. They’re not worried about ending some silly streak most on the team had absolutely no part in. Only Uzomah, punter Kevin Huber and long snapper Clark Harris were on the team in 2015, the last time the Bengals qualified for the postseason.
Saturday was about making their own mark before a frenzied crowd of 66,277 at Paul Brown Stadium. And the crowd paid them back with love, adoration and deafening noise that hadn’t been heard in the 22 years of the stadium’s existence.
“To me personally, it means the world,” Bengals edge and Cincinnati native Sam Hubbard said. “Never in my lifetime have we had a playoff win. I feel like we broke a curse. Really, just looking up in the stands, seeing the city come alive, it’s hard to put into words what it means to everybody in the city, and I’m just really happy to be part of the team that was able to do it.
“I just walked off, looked at the crowd and saw everybody going nuts. I was a little bit overcome with emotion.”
They were all holding their breath until the end. Then they exhaled and poured out their hearts to a team that very likely played its last game at home until the preseason in August.
With Buffalo’s annihilation of New England Saturday night, the Steelers would have to beat the Chiefs and Titans and the Bengals would have to beat Kansas City at Arrowhead for the Bengals to host the AFC Championship against the Steelers at PBS.
If the Chiefs win, the Bengals travel to Tennessee next weekend for their first Divisional round game since losing to the Raiders on Jan. 13, 1991.
While Uzomah was praising his head coach, Taylor was thinking of his owner and the loyal fans that have been through so much in the last six seasons since that gut-wrenching loss to the Steelers in the rain at PBS.
“We gave two game balls. The first one is to (Bengals president) Mike Brown, just because there’s no one who’s more passionate about this team, this organization,” Taylor said. “There’s no owner that sits at every walk through, at every practice in the freezing cold, the rain, the snow. This means the world to him. Some of the players know him better than others. But the coaches and myself, we just owe so much to that man for being patient with us.
“Personally, if I coached in any other organization in football, I probably wouldn’t be here right now in my third year. That’s the truth. But he’s just got the experience and understanding, and because he’s around and because of Paul (Brown), Katie and Troy Blackburn, Caroline and Elizabeth (Blackburn) care so much, and they’re around and get a chance to hear your vision firsthand on a daily basis. So we’re all on the same page. There’s no miscommunication. They can see where we need to go, and we’re going to get there. They just believe in these players and coaches.”
And the second game ball?
“The second one is to the city of Cincinnati,” Taylor added, sounding like a Chamber of Commerce ad with Fountain Square in the background. “We want to start new traditions here with playoff wins where we give game balls to the city and let the fans enjoy it — take selfies with it, whatever it is. We’ll figure out how we’re going to do that. (Some) people had their greatest moments tonight, so (we want them to) get a chance to enjoy these game balls with us. I told this to the players — Some of them may not understand the significance of this win that happened today, but I know a lot of you in the room who are homegrown Cincinnatians certainly do. Like I said earlier, I think the city can finally exhale and just enjoy this team for what it is and take that pressure off those last 31 years.”
While Uzomah, Taylor and Hubbard all recognized the significance of the win, ever-cool Joe Burrow put his perspective on the win behind his even-cooler rose-colored glasses.
“It’s straight to work,” Burrow said. “Obviously we’re excited about the win, but it’s the playoffs. (If) you dwell on this one too much, then you’re going to get beat in the next round.”
“We got a lot more in store,” added Hubbard.
“Very confident,” said Uzomah, with one caveat for the offense next week. “We got a little tense as an offense in the second half. We were making mistakes we shouldn’t be making. We did some things that were uncharacteristic. But it’s good to have that monkey off our back. Now we can play loose. Now it is our time. Why not? Why not win the whole thing.”
“We expect to beat everybody, not just hang with them,” Burrow said. “Guys we have in that locker room, we know the kind of players we have and the coaches. We have a great game plan every week. This is the playoffs. Every game is going to be tight.”
— Mike Petraglia (@Trags) January 16, 2022
Taylor has learned in his three seasons here that the losing hasn’t diminished the greatness of the teams in the 1970s and 80s.
“There’s just such an incredible history here in Cincinnati,” Taylor continued. “There’s Super Bowl appearances, there’s conference championships. And really these last two decades, there’s been so many tremendous players, teams and coaches that have come through here, and I hope they feel like they’re a part of this win today and can enjoy this win, because they really laid the foundation for us to do this. I think today was significant for a lot of people.”
This team loves their coach.
This city loves their Bengals.
“We feel like if we’re on top of our game, we can beat any team in this league,” Taylor said. “We’re not afraid of anybody. This team’s got a ton of confidence. We always know it’s going to be difficult. Whoever we play next, it’s going to be a great team, but our guys won’t worry about that. We feel like we can put pressure on teams as well. We can be aggressive and teams have to worry about us, and our players really feel that and apply that.”