This was supposed to be the Buffalos Bills' year.
After losing to the Chiefs in the AFC Championship Game following the 2020 campaign, and again to that same team a year later in the divisional round (and in the most heartbreaking way possible), 2022 was going to be the season that Buffalo reigned supreme in the AFC.
And perhaps for the first time in franchise history, 2022 looked to be the year the Bills would reign as kings of the entire NFL with everyone bowing down to their first Lombardi Trophy and kissing their Super Bowl rings.
Unfortunately for the Bills, the Bengals didn’t get that memo. You see, they’ve spent the past two years crafting their own redemption story and have done so with one of the most well-rounded rosters in the NFL.
It’s not just about quarterback Joe Burrow, the former Heisman Trophy winner and the top pick in the 2020 NFL Draft—even if his presence, talent and confidence have done most of the heavy lifting in elevating Cincinnati from one of the league’s doormats to one of its true contenders in just two years.
The Bengals have a great quarterback, a trio of receivers that's the envy of the NFL, a really good tight end and an excellent running back.
Cincinnati also has a damn-fine defense, complete with productive players at every level.
The Bengals even revamped their offensive line in time for the 2022 regular season. Unfortunately for them, that line was ravaged by injuries just in time for the divisional round of the 2022/2023 AFC playoffs.
This was going to be the difference for the Bills and their inevitable advancement to the AFC title game in Atlanta (the whole neutral site deal) where they would finally slay Kansas City on the way to their first Super Bowl appearance in nearly 30 years.
Throw in the emotional aspect that had to do with safety Damar Hamlin and the near-tragedy that took place at Paul Brown Stadium when these two teams met in the penultimate game of the regular season, and the Bills just seemed like a team of destiny when they faced the Bengals at Highmark Stadium on Sunday afternoon.
But it was all Bengals from beginning to end in a 27-10 victory that wasn’t even that close. Despite severe deficiencies along the offensive line—three starters were out of action—Cincinnati dominated the line of scrimmage to the tune of 412 yards—including 172 on the ground. The Bengals defense was also dominant all afternoon, as quarterback Josh Allen seemed to revert back to the struggling ways of his rookie year.
Believe it or not, this is how I expected things to go. Don’t get me wrong, I was a bit shy about proclaiming this after the news broke regarding the injuries up front, but kudos to the Bengals for finding a way to deal with them.
The next men stood up and stood up tall.
This is what champions do.
The Bengals have a new spirit, and they don’t seem to be one bit concerned about the franchise’s past. Burrow certainly doesn’t, as his personality exudes the kind of confidence that borders on cockiness.
In other words, he’s a franchise quarterback capable of carrying a team really far.
With his resemblance to Macaulay Culkin, Burrow looks like the lead character of Home Alone when he toyed with a couple of bad guys who thought they could prey on his history of being a little kid.
The rest of the AFC has spent the past two years trying to prey on the Bengals and their downtrodden past, only to slip on Burrow’s icy demeanor.
With that in mind, I’m fairly confident the Bengals will head to Kansas City for the AFC Championship Game and boobytrap Arrowhead Stadium for the second year in a row.
And if they do that, the Bengals will truly be the new kings of the AFC.
There’s no doubt that Cincinnati is the current king of the AFC North, the home of the Pittsburgh Steelers, a team I’m contractually obligated to mention in every article.
So what do the Steelers have to do with Cincinnati? Nothing at the moment, but they better hope Kenny Pickett really does continue to have those “grow up” moments and elevates his game to the level of a franchise quarterback.
As was pointed out a few times following the Bengals' win on Sunday: The Steelers have won three playoff games in the past 12 years, while Cincinnati has won five of them since last January.
But in the Steelers' defense, they spent over a decade trying to rebuild and contend at the exact same time. It’s hard to do.
The Bengals spent a few years at the bottom of the league and were able to assemble the right combination of draft picks and free agents and made themselves serious contenders for the first time since the 2000s.
The Steelers had to be dragged, kicking and screaming, into a true rebuilding era. They’ve totally replenished the offensive side of the ball, and while the defense contains the superstars, a little revamping on that side of the line of scrimmage certainly wouldn’t hurt.
The Steelers finished the regular season on a 7-2 run and just barely missed the playoffs with a 9-8 record. There is evidence that this true rebuild could lead to a bright future. There’s certainly some positive proof that Pittsburgh’s young guns on offense—including Pickett, Najee Harris, Pat Freiermuth and George Pickens—could turn into a potent punch.
But, much like Burrow in Cincinnati, it’s up to Pickett to do most of the heavy lifting in order to elevate the Steelers up to the level of their once sad-sack rivals in the AFC North.
Kenny Pickett better be up to the task because it doesn’t look like Joe Burrow and the Bengals are going away anytime soon.