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It’s hard not to root for the Bengals in the 2021-2022 playoffs

I can’t believe it, either, I’m actually rooting for the Cincinnati Bengals in the 2021/22 NFL playoffs.

NFL: AFC Divisional Round-Cincinnati Bengals at Tennessee Titans Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

“Why is literally everyone **** riding the Bengals”

The above was a Tweet from a Steelers fan over the weekend regarding the sudden fondness so many fellow black-and-gold faithful had developed for these long-time AFC North rivals.

Obviously, it wasn’t literally everyone, as evidenced by that Steeler fan’s rather disgusting and crude Tweet (seriously, why are so many sports fans just gross? This is why it’s hard to put “Steelers writer” in my Bumble profile), but there were many who were rooting for Cincinnati to defeat the Titans in a Divisional Round Playoff Game at Nissan Stadium in Nashville, Tennessee, on Saturday afternoon.

I know, because I was among those cheering on this AFC North jungle cat, one that I almost never want to see do anything but cry at the end of playoff games. Believe me, I wasn’t expecting it, either. In fact, during a recent article, I listed the Bengals as one of the least-desirable teams I’d like to see do anything during the current postseason.

So, why the sudden change of heart? I really can’t explain it, other than Joe Burrow is just hard to cheer against. He’s the proverbial golden boy quarterback, a former number one pick who won the Heisman Trophy and National Title while at LSU. He has a charisma that borders on cockiness, but that’s all it does is border on it—like most golden boy quarterbacks. He’s got the confidence and swagger of a grizzled NFL veteran who's been there and done that, even if he has the face of a high school kid about ready to play in his first state championship game.

You listen to Burrow talk and, much like Lamar Jackson and Baker Mayfield, he’s hard not to like. The only difference is, I can’t stand the Ravens and, after many years of indifference, I despise the Browns.

What’s the difference between the Bengals and those other two AFC North rivals? Again, it’s hard to put my finger on it. The Bengals fans are as jerky as those who cheer on the Ravens and Browns. The rivalry between the Steelers and Bengals, one that’s ebbed and flowed over the years depending on the state of one or both teams, was about as intense as any I’ve ever seen during the Vontaze Burfict years of the mid-2010s. Throw in Pacman Jones. Throw in Chad Johnson, Carson Palmer’s ACL, T.J. Houshmandzadeh’s Terrible Towel shoeshine, Cris Collinsworth, Boomer Esiason, the Ickey Shuffle, Sam Wyche and the way the Bengals used to terrorize the Steelers in “The Jungle” back when Cincinnati called Riverfront Stadium home in the 1980s, and what self-respecting Steelers fan would ever cheer for that team?

To reiterate, I don’t know why I am rooting for them, other than they have a pretty good thing going on in the Queen City. It’s a good story, one that, if you divorce yourself from this life-long hatred for an AFC North rival, is intriguing.

After more than three decades of mostly awful and/or disappointing results—when the Bengals weren’t being laughingstocks during the regular season, they were going one-and-done in the postseason—the Bengals appear to be on the cusp of something special, a team that will be a handful for many years to come.

They have a young head coach in Zac Taylor, a golden boy quarterback, a slew of offensive weapons led by receiver Ja’Marr Chase, a decent defense and an offensive line that, well, needs work but will probably be top-notch in the coming years if that golden boy quarterback continues to gain influence within the halls of Paul Brown Stadium.

As a Steelers fan, surely, you can relate to a team that has finally gotten over the hump after many years of futility. No? What about the fact that, in addition to the Steelers, the Bengals also stole the spotlight from the Ravens and Browns in 2021?

The Bengals, who are in the AFC Championship Game for the first time since 1988, are like that middle child that has surprised everyone to become the successor to the older brothers (the Steelers and Ravens) right when everyone thought it would be the youngest child’s time in the spotlight (the Browns).

I don’t know if I’ll be cheering on the Bengals when they take on the Chiefs in the AFC title game this Sunday, and I don’t know if I’ll be rooting for them two weeks later if they make it to the Super Bowl, but it certainly wouldn’t surprise me.

Fortunately, if I’m right about their future trajectory, the Bengals will likely give me many reasons to hate them again in the coming years when that cocky Joe Burrow comes to Heinz Field to take on the Steelers.