Sunday's first conference championship game hadn't even reached halftime when you could hear the under-25s in the audience begin to mutter to themselves, "Tom Brady my ass." It wasn't loud enough to rouse those snoring hulks in the easy chair nearby, who would howl heavenward at such blasphemy, but it was there, and nothing would stem its growth as a very slow but perceptible build. The king is leaning toward dead, long live Good King Patrick, and all that overwrought melodrama.
In the end, though, all that next-generation conclusion-jumping died with the Kansas City Chiefs. The Cincinnati Improbables performed one of the game's most bewildering postseason comebacks by interrupting Patrick Mahomes's march toward incipient Bradyhood and into a detour of early-career Fran Tarkenton, the Minnesota Vikings' first quarterback and the man who invented scrambling as a tool of unfettered panic.
The Bengals, who had won 12 games in the previous three seasons, won their 13th of this season Sunday, 27-24, claiming the postseason's fifth consecutive drunk game. They did it as they had the teams' previous meeting four weeks ago—by letting Mahomes and the Kansas City offense have their way long enough to get too comfortable for its own good. In that game, the Chiefs gained only 122 yards in the second half; in this one, 92. In both, they overpowered the Bengals early and ended up with a lonely field goal after halftime. Thus, whatever dreams you may have of the Mahomes Era entering its regnant phase must be dismissed as either premature or unproven.
And while Cincinnati's cigar aficionado Joe Burrow may be the new item on the national menu, he wasn't the prime reason the Bengals are going to their first Super Bowl in 33 years. It was the Bengals defense, with their zero household names, who figured out how to terrorize the usually imperturbable Mahomes. The Bengals did have the ball for 25:28 of the final 40 minutes, but it was Cincinnati's ability to disrupt Mahomes in the 14 minutes they had to do so that made the Bengals winners. If quarterbacks are the center of the universe in narrow-minded football analysis, there are still cosmological black holes that eat universes. This was one of those moments.
In doing so, the Bengals managed to extract their owner, the eminently caricaturable Mike Brown, from the pantheon of old-school skinflints who was identifiable mostly as a visionless profit-taker until they became so hideous a product that they got the first pick in the 2020 draft and gifted themselves a pure buccaneer, lower-case b, in Burrow. The Bengals have gone from passive to passionate in his brief time (he missed most of last season learning the laws of malevolent gravity after being hit by Washington's Jonathan Allen), and the incongruity of him being the quarterback of a team owned by Mike Brown is now ameliorated by the fact that they both go to Los Angeles as the team that gets to talk rather than take smack.
And as is in keeping with the strange postseason we have been gifted by the new gambling-tolerant NFL, the AFC has issued forth a new champion, the one who isn't the overly anticipated Clevelands or the rocket-fueled Kansas Citys or even the dowager New Englands, but the team that has lost more games between Super Bowl appearances than all teams but the Jets, Cardinals, and Lions. It's too much to say that the meek may have inherited the earth. but they are using it as a B&B for the next couple of years.
And the Mahomes Era, as much as the kids might want it, can wait.