I have two college friends who grew up in Cincinnati and had never shown an ounce of interest in the NFL until wild-card weekend. On Saturday, they both ordered vintage hipster-chic Bengals sweatshirts on Etsy. I was stunned, but they’re absolutely correct. It’s time to become a Bengals fan. Everyone’s doing it! The Bengals have the lowest probability of winning the Super Bowl of the four remaining teams, and for that reason, are the most lovable team left. The Rams have terrible uniforms and a fancy new house without a soul, the Niners have a QB that I don’t enjoy watching, and the Chiefs are trying to build a dynasty. Who could ever root for that?
I would like to take this moment to apologize on behalf of the Defector editorial team for the lack of Bengals-focused blogs this season. Every time one of us wrote about the Bengals, it was in combination with another team, except for one beautiful blog dedicated to wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase. I regret ignoring this team, but it’s not too late to appreciate the 2021 Cincinnati Bengals. Here are 10 reasons to help you out.
1. Because Joe Burrow says he’s tired of the underdog narrative, but that doesn’t mean we have to be
Burrow said post-game Saturday that he’s done with the underdog narrative surrounding the Bengals, but I am not ready to move past this defining feature. Nobody at Sports Illustrated picked the Bengals to make the playoffs, The Athletic predicted an 8-9 season, The Cincinnati Enquirer predicted a 6-11 season, NFL.com gave them a “best-case scenario” 8-9 record, ESPN’s football power index simulated a 6-11 record, CBS Sports’ “bold predictions” generously noted that the Bengals could double their 2020 win total (4) and could compete for a wild-card spot. ESPN’s Bengals reporter Ben Baby seemed to be the only person with any faith in the team, writing in September before the season kicked off, “At this point, there’s no reason the Bengals shouldn’t be in the playoff discussion when December begins.”
The Bengals won the division for the first time since 2015, won a playoff game for the first time in 31 years (only four active Bengals players had even been born then), and will be making their first AFC championship game appearance since 1988. That’s about as underdog as it gets.
2. Because Burrow should be an MVP candidate
He won’t win MVP, but he has a great argument for it. Burrow tore his ACL last season as a rookie in Week 11, which raised a lot of questions about how big of a jump he could make in his second season. Turns out, all the panic about how the injury would affect him was for nothing. He got close to the 5,000-yard passing mark in the regular season, threw for 288.2 yards per game (third-best) and he led the league with 8.9 yards per attempt. As a second-year quarterback, he’s operating a complicated offense and making it look really easy, despite having an offensive line that is still pretty bad. Burrow and rookie receiver Ja’Marr Chase (his former LSU teammate) are the second coming of Aaron Rodgers and Davante Adams, and Burrow has given us some iconic moments this season, like this wild touchdown play against the Raiders.
There’s nothing quite like a Joe Burrow cigar moment, and I would really like to see two more of those this season.
3. Because Evan McPherson should be your favorite kicker
It felt like every time I watched the Bengals this year, the game came down to the rookie kicker. Upon further review, it was not every game, but it was a lot! In his first NFL game, McPherson beat the Vikings in OT with a 35-yarder. Three weeks later, he beat the Jaguars with a 35-yard field goal as time expired. The following week he had a crazy day at work against the Packers where he missed a couple of potential game-winners. He set a Bengals record when he hit a 58-yarder at the Broncos, and then he beat the Chiefs in Week 17 at the end of regulation with a 20-yard field goal. McPherson was the only kicker drafted this year (the Bengals took him in the fifth round), and he’s proven to be totally worth the pick. In the divisional round against the Titans, he hit a 52-yarder for the win as the clock ran out. After the game, Burrow told reporters that the rookie kicker called his shot before he went out for the kick, telling backup QB Brandon Allen, “Looks like we’re going to the AFC Championship game.”
4. Because we were all wrong in the Penei Sewell vs. Ja’Marr Chase debate
Look, the Bengals still have a very bad offensive line (see Reason No. 7), but it’s clear now that the Bengals did not make the wrong choice by drafting a receiver instead of an offensive lineman with the fifth overall pick. Chase made the Pro Bowl, was named a second-team All Pro, and is the favorite for Offensive Rookie of the Year. He’s a generational talent paired with another generational talent in Burrow, and I can’t believe we all panicked about his training camp and early-season drops. Chase put up 1,455 yards (fourth-best in the league and an NFL rookie record), averaged 18 yards per catch, and set another NFL record for most receiving yards in a game by a rookie when he gained 266 yards against the Chiefs.
5. Because C.J. Uzomah is cool
6. Because DJ Reader rocks!
The nose tackle absolutely shut down Tennessee’s run game Saturday.
7. Because Burrow was sacked NINE TIMES and still beat the Titans
This should really not be a true statement, but luckily Ryan Tannehill threw some bad interceptions, and Chase made plays where there were none to be had. Burrow was sacked more than any other QB during the regular season (51 times), yet here we are. As a new Bengals fan, this offensive line should be your biggest concern about this team. The Titans had a great defensive plan for the Bengals, and it worked, as Mike Vrabel disoriented Burrow and the offensive line by dropping linemen into coverage while blitzing linebackers and defensive backs. At one point in the game, the broadcast showed a stat that only one quarterback had been sacked eight times and won a playoff game, and while the stat was still on the screen, Burrow was sacked a ninth time.
8. Because they already beat Kansas City once this season
In Week 17 at home, the Bengals fell behind by two touchdowns and then Chase used his speed to turn a 20-yard catch into a 72-yard touchdown to kickstart the eventual 34-31 comeback win that clinched the AFC North title while denying the Chiefs the AFC’s top seed. The Bengals put up 475 total yards against KC and averaged 7.5 yards per play.
“They beat us,” Chiefs head coach Andy Reid told reporters on Monday. “It wasn’t a fluke. They beat us, so they’re a good football team and it’s important that we have a great week of preparation here, and that’s one reason why the urgency level is there even yesterday once the game was over to get busy.”
9. Because they got beat by Mike White
I know it feels like three seasons ago, but this really happened. The Bengals got beat by the Jets’ totally anonymous backup quarterback, further enhancing their underdog narrative.
10. Because it’s finally time to learn how to spell C-I-N-C-I-N-N-A-T-I
I have never known or cared to learn how to spell Cincinnati and I go out of my way to never type the word, usually opting for the casual Cincy to not give away my complete inability to choose the correct number of N’s and T’s. If I was on a game show with millions of dollars hinging on me spelling the name of this Ohio city, I would leave empty-handed. Now it is time for you to join me in finally learning the correct combination of these letters. We owe it to Joey B. A helpful trick: There’s only one T in Zac Taylor, just like there’s only one T in Cincinnati.
Correction (1/26, 12:36 p.m. ET): An earlier version of this article mislabeled Brandon Allen as the Bengals’ holder.