The Cincinnati Bengals posted several losing seasons in a row before last year—and then they went all the way to the Super Bowl, very nearly winning, if not for a late game-winning drive orchestrated by Matthew Stafford and the eventual Super Bowl MVP, Cooper Kupp.
So what exactly does that mean? Who are the Bengals in 2022? What was last season? Did that punch above their weight class, or are they on the cusp of delivering the knockout blow within the next couple of years—if not this year?
If you ask cornerback Mike Hilton, who never experienced a postseason win in his four seasons with the Pittsburgh Steelers, the 2021 season was no random occurrence. It was the stepping stone leading to who the Bengals truly are. And they welcome those who doubt that.
“When people call it a fluke, we just smile and take it on. We’re ready to go out there and prove it again”, he recently told reporters, via Ben Baby of ESPN. He added that they are “absolutely” playing with a chip on their shoulder this year, “because people still didn’t believe it throughout the whole playoff run. They were saying we were lucky and this and that”.
The Bengals won a total of 25 games between the 2016-2020 seasons, including a 2-14 record in 2019, which got them the first overall draft pick that landed them quarterback Joe Burrow. After going 4-11-1 during his rookie season, they drafted wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase with their first-round pick.
That duo, paired with free-agent spending and internal growth, led to a quickly-surging Bengals team that took the AFC North, which included a pair of victories over the Steelers, and their first win in Pittsburgh in a number of years.
Not only did they win the division, the run didn’t stop there. They bested the Las Vegas Raiders in the Wild Card Round, then dethroned the Tennessee Titans in the Divisional Round. Finally, they took down the Kansas City Chiefs, the reigning conference champions, in the AFC Championship game.
And they held a four-point lead with under two minutes to play against the Los Angeles Rams in the Super Bowl. Yet despite making that far, at least in that locker room, Cincinnati still feels the doubters, the skeptics, about if that’s really the team they are. And he has a theory why that is.
“Because it’s the Bengals — point-blank, period”, he said. “When you think of the Bengals, you’re like, ‘Oh, the Bengals,’ you know? But now, with this group of guys that we have and the coaches that we have, we’re really turning this organization around. And we’re just trying to get the respect we deserve”.
He is right that this isn’t the ‘same old Bengals’. Players like Burrow and Chase are the real deal. They have made significant moves along their offensive line this offseason. And their spending in free agency the past three years has closed serious holes that they normally just accepted in the past.