I keep waiting for that alarm clock to go off - the one that will wake me from this fantastic dream I’m having. It must be a dream, or at the very least some archaic wizardry, because I can scarcely believe my eyes anymore.
I’m talking, of course, about the Cincinnati Bengals victory over the Kansas City Chiefs in Paycor Stadium on Sunday. For those counting, that’s three wins in three tries in one calendar year over Patrick Mahomes & Co. In every matchup, the Bengals have been underdogs. In every matchup, it hasn’t mattered one bit.
Joe Burrow, Semaje Perine, Germaine Pratt, Tee Higgins...the NFL media was having fun giving these players their props all day for their enormous impact against Kansas City, but Bengals fans are keenly aware of how important each of these players are. Bengals fans didn’t forget Perine's 41-yard touchdown on a screen pass in last year’s AFC Championship game or any number of his contributions throughout the past two years. Bengals fans didn’t forget Pratt's game-sealing interception against the Las Vegas Raiders in the Wild Card Round. Bengals fans didn't forget that Higgins is a true, #1 wide receiver. Bengals fans have always known Burrow was an MVP-caliber player - it's just the media that's starting to take notice.
The Bengals beat the Chiefs. Again. And it’s a surprise to almost anyone outside of the I-275 loop.
Let’s take a step back for a second:
When the Bengals defeated the Chiefs in January of last year in the second-to-last game of the season to clinch the AFC North, it was quite a shock to most football fans. After all, the Chiefs were the betting favorites to win the Super Bowl. The Bengals were this plucky upstart that hadn’t really proved a thing all year. When the Bengals beat the Chiefs again in February, it was equally shocking. Nobody beats Mahomes and the Chiefs twice in one season, especially not after that magnificent performance against the Buffalo Bills in the Divisional Round, especially not with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line, and especially not to the Bengals.
And now, the Bengals have done the impossible three times in a row. It is impossible to deny it. People can be shocked all they want. The Bengals own the Chiefs, and there’s no sign that this Bengals-train is slowing.
People in the sports media are calling Bengals-Chiefs the new best rivalry in football. What rivalry? Doesn’t a rival need to win a game once and a while?
I don’t mean to disparage the Chiefs (too much); I just want to point out that, since that fateful day on January 2, 2022, the Bengals have won twelve games to five losses, with three of those wins coming in the playoffs, three of those wins coming against the Chiefs, two of those wins coming against the 2022 top-seeded Tennessee Titans, and one of those losses coming in a throwaway Week 18 game against the Cleveland Browns in which most of the starters watched from the sidelines.
This isn't complicated. The Bengals are one of the best teams in the NFL, full stop.
This isn’t a fluke. It’s not a flash in the pan. It’s not just a nice story. They haven’t been getting lucky or fortunate, and they aren’t getting flimsy calls by the refs. This is an outstanding team, led by an outstanding quarterback, coached by an outstanding staff, and flanked by an outstanding roster full of outstanding team players.
Which brings me back to my dreaming feeling. When, in the past, could you have said the same thing about a Bengals team, huh? When could you have looked at a Bengals team and said to yourself (without the slightest hint of sarcasm), “They will be the most disciplined team on the field. They will play complimentary football. They will not beat themselves. They will make the biggest plays in the biggest moments.”
It’s never happened. It almost feels like I’m rooting for someone else’s football team, only for whatever reason they’re wearing Bengals colors. For years, it was the expectation that Bengals teams would make mistakes, those mistakes would cascade, and they'd find a way to lose the game. These Bengals make mistakes, but they don't let them linger. They don't let things spiral out of control. They find a way to win the game, not to lose it.