The Cincinnati Bengals were so close.
They led the Los Angeles Rams 20-16 in the fourth quarter of Super Bowl LVI. They picked up a key first down on a 3-yard pass to Chris Evans with less than eight minutes to go. That drive stalled, but the Rams had to convert a fourth-and-1 to keep their hopes alive, which they did. They got a third-and-2 later in the drive. The holding call on Bengals linebacker Logan Wilson against receiver Cooper Kupp, when the Rams should have been looking at a fourth-and-goal at the 8-yard line, was questionable at best and will haunt Bengals fans forever. The Rams scored, Cincinnati couldn't answer and for the third time, the Bengals came up agonizingly short of their first Super Bowl title.
In a perfect world, the Bengals would pick up where they left off and go win a Super Bowl. They're a fun team to watch, led by likable quarterback Joe Burrow, and their unexpected playoff run was a great story. We like to think that Burrow and his incredible set of receivers will thrill us for years to come and maybe win a title or two.
The NFL is set up to crush dreams like that. The league changes fast. You better not let an opportunity pass, because they're not guaranteed to come around again. Especially in the year after losing a Super Bowl.
Since the 1972 Miami Dolphins, the only team to lose a Super Bowl and then come back and win it all the next season is the 2018 Patriots. Of the first 55 teams to lose a Super Bowl, 17 didn't make the playoffs the following season according to NBC Sports. Since 1989, 11 Super Bowl losers didn't even get to .500 the following season. The Super Bowl hangover is real. It's a long season when you make it to the end. It's a difficult offseason when you come up short in the Super Bowl, especially when you give away a fourth-quarter lead.
No team that makes a Super Bowl expects to take a step back, especially one with a thrilling third-year quarterback and players like last season's NFL offensive rookie of the year Ja'Marr Chase. The Bengals had a solid offseason, fixing an offensive line that stuck out as a clear weakness. They want to get right back.
"I know how to handle losing and come back stronger," Burrow said, via The Athletic.
The Bengals' playoff run adds a layer of expectation that wouldn't have existed had the Las Vegas Raiders not come up a few yards short in the wild-card round, or if Tennessee Titans QB Ryan Tannehill hadn't thrown an interception in the final seconds of a tie game the following week, or if the Kansas City Chiefs hadn't collapsed and lost in overtime of the AFC championship game. The Bengals were good down the stretch, but they also won every close game ... until that Super Bowl. Cincinnati was 7-6 at one point last season. Was the finish to the season a sign of things to come, or an unsustainable hot streak at the right time?
Burrow should at least keep the Bengals relevant for the next decade. It's rare for a team with a top-10 quarterback to fall off the map, and Burrow certainly looks like a future star. He should have struggled a bit in a return off a torn ACL. Instead he led the NFL with a 70.4 completion percentage while also leading the league with 8.9 yards per attempt, with 4,611 yards and 34 touchdowns. He's legit.
This season will be telling. If the Bengals bounce right back from a crushing Super Bowl loss and look like title contenders again, they might remain contenders for a long time. It's hard to climb that mountain again.
An oft-told story about the Bengals, even during their AFC championship run, was that the offensive line was bad. They spent on guard Alex Cappa (four years, $35 million), tackle La'el Collins (three years, $21 million) and center Ted Karras (three years, $18 million). A weakness has turned into a potential strength. The Bengals lost tight end C.J. Uzomah to the New York Jets but signed Hayden Hurst to replace him, and he should be a reasonable replacement. The draft was solid. The team's first-round pick, Michigan safety Dax Hill, is a good talent who could work his way into the rotation. Safety Jessie Bates could hold out or be traded because he wants a long-term contract rather than the franchise tag, and that's a problem if it doesn't get worked out. Bates is a key part of the Bengals' defense. Otherwise, it was a good offseason.
There's not much more to say about Joe Burrow that hasn't been said yet. He's fantastic. There's probably an MVP in his future, and it could come as soon as this season. Where Burrow made the biggest leap last season was deep passing. He had 14 touchdowns throwing 20 yards or more downfield, according to Pro Football Focus. That was four more than any other quarterback in the NFL. His PFF big-time throw rate — the percentage of his attempts that had excellent location and timing, usually thrown further downfield — was third-best in the NFL behind Kyler Murray and Matthew Stafford. Burrow has arrived and he might be even better this season, another year removed from his ACL surgery.
The Bengals' win total at BetMGM is 9.5. Considering they finished 10-7 last season, that number already bakes in some regression. I don't think the Bengals are going to be a Super Bowl contender this season, but 9.5 seems like a fair line so I'll pass. One bet I'll take a shot at is Ja'Marr Chase as NFL offensive player of the year at 30-to-1. We just saw Chase make some history as a rookie, and perhaps we've just seen the start of something special. And unlike MVP, voters will actually consider receivers for OPOY. I'll also take a shot on Joe Burrow to lead the NFL in passing yards at +1000.
From Yahoo's Scott Pianowski: "Once upon a time, most fantasy managers felt obligated to draft a running back in the first round. That dynamic is changing. My personal plan this year is to focus on the wide receiver position right after Jonathan Taylor leaves the room.
"That means I’ll be thinking about Cooper Kupp, Justin Jefferson and Ja’Marr Chase.
"Chase threw video game numbers at the NFL in his rookie year — 81 catches, 1455 yards, 13 touchdowns — and although the shape of his production might be different this year, he has a can’t-miss floor. Six of Chase’s touchdowns came from 42 yards and up last year; don’t be surprised if he’s forced to work underneath more this season, as teams desperately try to prevent Chase from burning them deep. Recall how the league adjusted to Randy Moss back in his second season — although Moss had 11 more catches and 100 more yards as a sophomore, his YPC fell by 1.3 yards and he lost half a dozen touchdowns. I don’t expect Chase to lose that many spikes, but his YPC could drop slightly — though a volume increase will likely offset it.
"Chase could get more rushing attempts this year, too — he was scarcely used that way in the regular season, but the Bengals unveiled that wrinkle proactively in the playoffs. And Joe Burrow and Chase obviously have a good thing going, dating back to their pinball days at LSU. You have my permission to consider Chase as early as second overall, and his current Yahoo ADP of 9.6 looks like a gift. Yes, please."
Over Tee Higgins' last 10 games including postseason, he put up 55 catches for 954 yards and six touchdowns. That includes a quiet one-catch, 10-yard game against the Raiders in the wild-card round. Ja'Marr Chase got a lot of attention but Higgins was excellent too. The strength of the Bengals is their quarterback and trio of pass catchers, including slot receiver Tyler Boyd. Chase and Higgins are arguably both top-10 NFL receivers already. Considering Joe Mixon can catch the ball out of the backfield and new tight end Hayden Hurst has had some moments too, it's an offense that could easily support a 5,000-yard season from Joe Burrow. The record is 5,477 yards from Peyton Manning, and in a 17-game season Burrow could hit that mark.
Do the Bengals have a championship defense?
We have a pretty good idea what the Bengals should be on defense because it's mostly the same crew as last season. Every starter from Super Bowl LVI returns, if Jessie Bates' contract situation is worked out. That's a big story worth watching. The Bengals defense wasn't dominant but they're pretty good rushing the passer and creating turnovers. Cincinnati forced multiple turnovers in all four playoff games. There's a lot of individual talent on defense, especially in the front seven. The defense was good for most of the Super Bowl, holding the Rams to nine or fewer yards on seven of their first 11 drives. Then the Rams put together the one drive they needed to win the Super Bowl. Cincinnati will probably not improve that much on defense with the same personnel, but they can be average or slightly better and thrive on big plays. With Cincinnati's offense, that's good enough.
The Bengals are a young team with a young coach, and perhaps they just figured things out late last season.
“We have the experience now," Joe Burrow said according to The Athletic. "Going into last year, we knew we were good, but I think going into the playoffs, we knew we could win but we weren’t really sure what it took. We just went out there and played really hard and together as a team and it worked out. Now, we know what it takes and we have that experience in our back pockets going forward.”
Confidence can carry a team a long way. Had the Bengals not rallied to make the playoffs or lost when the Raiders had first-and-goal at the 9-yard line looking to tie that wild-card game, maybe there wouldn't be a swagger heading into this season. Instead, the Bengals know they're capable of winning a Super Bowl. Had that holding call not come in on Logan Wilson, they probably would be champions already. It wouldn't be that big of a surprise if a Bengals team that got on a run last season, then significantly upgraded the offensive line in the offseason, had a great season with Burrow setting records and being in MVP contention. That's the upside. We saw a glimpse of it already.
When you take a microscope to the Bengals' 2021 season, you can view it as a team that was 7-6, then caught some breaks with five close wins in a six-game stretch (not counting Week 18 when they rested starters) before the Super Bowl. The Bengals had stretches of great play last season but over the entirety of the season, they were much closer to mediocre than great. We tend to overrate teams, no matter the sport, after a surprising postseason run. That's recency bias. The Bengals wouldn't be the first team to go on a playoff run, then fade a bit the next season. Maybe they're closer to that team which started last season 7-6 than we want to admit.
The Bengals are a fun team. It would be great to see that franchise, after having so many rough years, become a perennial contender. I'm not quite ready to put the Bengals in that category yet. Cincinnati won't fall far even if regression hits. Joe Burrow and the cast around him is too good for that. But I won't be picking them to win the AFC North this season. However, the Bengals have the talent to be a playoff team if they don't win the division, even in a brutal AFC. Then, as we know, the Bengals could be dangerous.
32. Houston Texans
31. Atlanta Falcons
30. New York Giants
29. Jacksonville Jaguars
28. Chicago Bears
27. New York Jets
26. Seattle Seahawks
25. Detroit Lions
24. Carolina Panthers
23. Washington Commanders
22. Pittsburgh Steelers
21. Minnesota Vikings
20. Miami Dolphins
19. New Orleans Saints
18. Las Vegas Raiders
17. Arizona Cardinals
16. Tennessee Titans
15. Cleveland Browns
14. Indianapolis Colts
13. Philadelphia Eagles
12. San Francisco 49ers
11. Denver Broncos