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Another Bengals Season Axed at Arrowhead...

Whelp, that’s that.  Just like last year, the Bengals’ hopes and dreams for another Super Bowl run were dashed in Arrowhead Stadium.  It wasn’t supposed to happen this way again.  Of course, context is always important.  This matchup was nothing like the heavyweight, do-or-die showdowns we’ve grown accustomed to over the last two years.  But even though this game didn’t have the same pomp and circumstance as past contests, it stung just as badly to watch the Bengals season effectively ended by that same insufferable team in Red and Gold.

If I'm being honest, I’m not surprised.  The Bengals were big underdogs heading into this one, and why wouldn’t they be?  Jake Browning has been a pleasant surprise, but if two games against the Steelers have taught us anything, it’s that Browning is no Burrow.  And even with Burrow, marching up and down the field against this top-five Chiefs defense was going to be a struggle anyway.  The Chiefs offense has been anything but a juggernaut this season but facing a big-play prone Bengals defense seemed like a recipe for getting back on track.

In other words, things played out exactly how they were expected:

  • Browning and the Bengals offense had a nice start before falling apart in the waning moments of the game, including surrendering four sacks on their final drive.

  • The Chiefs defense shut out the Bengals in the second half and dominated the line of scrimmage, allowing Bengals running backs to average a paltry 2.88 yards per carry.

  • The Chiefs offense made some big plays when they needed them, including a season-long 67-yard reception to Rashee Rice late in the third quarter that set up the field goal that gave the Chiefs a lead they would not relent.

And just like that, the Bengals are done.  Sure, they technically have one more game to go against the Cleveland Browns, but it’s all moot: the playoffs are officially out of reach.

It’s a tough pill to swallow even though we should have had our spoonful of sugar ready since Burrow went down.  Without their best player, it was always going to be an uphill battle for the Bengals to get back to the Big Dance.  Sadistically, the Bengals decided to give us hope with a three-game winning streak over fellow playoff contenders before those hopes crashed and then burned with consecutive losses to Pittsburgh and Kansas City.  The time for wishful thinking is over.

But despite a mountain of evidence that the Bengals were outmatched and outgunned versus the Chiefs, it’s hard not to feel an underlying sense of frustration.  There were moments where the Bengals looked shockingly competent on Sunday.  The defense forced a key turnover.  In the first half, with the Bengals dominating time of possession and winning the line of scrimmage in the run game, it looked like an upset was entirely plausible.  And then the second half happened and everything went to shit.

The decision to attempt a fourth and 1 in the red zone will be dissected for weeks, but it was a decision I liked at the moment and still like as I sit here writing over twelve hours after the fact.  You don’t beat Kansas City by settling for field goals – and I don’t care what version of KC you’re facing.  It was an opportunity to go for the throat, and it didn't work.

Of course, after that fateful decision everything fell apart.  The Bengals offensive line could no longer hold back the tide of Chiefs defenders.  The secondary allowed big play after big play.  The pass rush ran out of horsepower. And try as he might, Browning didn’t have enough magic to overcome the chaos around him.  Maybe Burrow could have gotten the job done – sadly, we’ll never know.

So even though there are still four quarters of football to play, the offseason starts today.  2023 is in the rearview mirror, and the process of rebuilding a contender starts now.  Can the 2024 Bengals find their way back up the mountaintop?  Sure, but it’s going to require some seriously shrewd team building.

Fixing the defense is the main offseason priority.  While the defense may have been an abject disaster in 2023, there’s a silver lining – this probably means defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo isn’t getting a head coaching job any time soon.  So while there are plenty of areas to address on that side of the ball, at the very least the Bengals “Mad Scientist” will be there to tinker and toy with new players and concepts to address those problems.  It will take a Herculean effort to get this unit to top-tier status, but even creeping toward average could be enough to get the Bengals back in the playoffs.

Offensively, the buck stops with Burrow.  Unless he’s healthy, nothing else really matters – ipso facto, the offensive line (yet again) has to be addressed.  It’s a shame.  With all of the resources the Bengals have poured into this position group, you’d think we could stop talking about it.  Nope – it’s like that one itch you just can’t scratch.

Can the Bengals solve all of their issues this offseason?  Sure, it’s possible.  Fill a spot or two on the O-line and another year of maturation and improvement from the young defenders, and who knows what could happen?  Still, it’s incredibly frustrating to look around a very beatable AFC and wonder what if – what if Burrow stays healthy?  What if the defense finds its footing?  What if the O-line comes together down the stretch?  It feels like everything was set up for another deep playoff run for the Bengals in 2023.  Instead, we’re left wondering and wishing – and waiting for another year.

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