It’s tough. Excuses feel hollow in these moments. The Cincinnati Bengals had plenty of chances to win Sunday night, but a number of factors conspired to end their season prematurely. The offensive line, which had been such a force last week against the Buffalo Bills, was abused early on, especially by Chiefs star defensive tackle Chris Jones. In the end, though, this will go down as Patrick Mahomes’s answer to Michael Jordan’s flu game. Prepare to have that comparison jammed down our throats for the next two weeks.
The Bengals offense hadn’t looked that putrid since Week 15 versus the Buccaneers, at least in the first half. Considering the stakes, it was arguably the worst they’ve looked all year. Sacks on three straight drop backs in the first quarter just about sums up the Cincinnati Bengals offense out the gates.
In a heroic effort befitting the likely NFL MVP, Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes demonstrated little ill-effects from the high ankle sprain he suffered last week against the Jacksonville Jaguars, finding various receivers on hitches, screens, and the occasional hook-and-ladder attempt. Head coach Andy Reid was emptying his bag, so to speak, and were it not for the Bengals defense forcing two critical red zone stops on the Chiefs first two drives, the Bengals would have been staring at an imposing halftime deficit.
The Chiefs moved the ball efficiently in the first half by exploiting the middle of the field. Superstar tight end Travis Kelce may have been questionable heading into the contest with a back injury, but the only thing questionable about his game anymore is whether or not he’s officially the greatest tight end in NFL history at this point. The Vulcan mind-meld connection between Kelce and Mahomes led to the game’s first touchdown.
A field goal drive before halftime portended another epic Bengals comeback. It nearly happened. Again, excuses ring hollow right now, but it seemed that the Bengals couldn’t catch a break - especially in the refereeing department. This was, objectively, a poorly officiated game. Reid and the Chiefs had to burn two challenges in the first half overturning calls. In the second half, though, the Bengals bore the brunt of some questionable, and game-changing, decisions.
On one occasion in the fourth quarter, the referees granted the Chiefs a second opportunity to convert a third down by virtue of the referees failing to communicate adequately before the snap. On the replay, Bengals cornerback Eli Apple was called for a questionable holding penalty and the Chiefs were blessed with a fresh set of downs. Slot corner Mike Hilton would be hit with an even more egregious pass interference penalty on the next drive as well.
The coup de grâce, however, was the unnecessary roughness penalty called on Bengals defensive end Joseph Ossai. On a critical third and four, Mahomes scrambled towards the sideline and was pushed out of bounds by a pursuing Joseph Ossai. Referees ruled that Mahomes had two feet out of bounds, but apparently the fact that Ossai was off balance and barely put more than a forearm on Mahomes meant nothing. Another critical third down was granted to the Chiefs via referee decision, and this one set up the Chiefs for the winning field goal in the waning seconds of the game.
It’s frustrating. A season full of comebacks and clutch plays made an eventual Bengals comeback feel inevitable. This game had the feel of last year’s AFC Championship Game, only this time, it felt like there was an invisible force conspiring against the boys from Cincinnati. Burrow and the Bengals didn’t end up on top, and that’s a real shame.
You want to hold your head up high despite the circumstances, despite the frustrating lack of accountability from the referees, despite the endless kowtowing by Tony Romo and Jim Nantz to a Chiefs team that really didn’t feel like they deserved this one. A promising Bengals postseason run was being ended by a few puzzling moments by the referees, and all we could do was sit and watch. But the Bengals still fought to the bitter end, and that's something to be proud of, regardless of how much the ending stings.
So now, we’ll have to endure two weeks of more kowtowing to Mahomes and Kelce and Reid and anyone else who ever washed a jockstrap in the Chiefs facility. The Mahomes/Jordan comparisons will become nauseating. We’ll hear about how the Bengals Super Bowl window might be closing and how the Chiefs are this impenetrable dynasty.
And we’ll endure it. This is just a minor setback. Those same prognosticators who predicted the Bengals would have the dreaded Super-Bowl hangover are going to babble breathlessly about more regression for Burrow and the Boys, but it’s nonsense. If they thought the Bengals were motivated this year, just wait. If there’s one thing we’ve learned about the Bengals over the last two years, it’s that they’re a resilient bunch.