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It’s stunning to believe that the Cincinnati Bengals overcame an 18-point deficit to win the AFC Championship game because it represented the biggest comeback in NFL championship game history and it was authored against a quarterback who had a 37-0 career record in games he led by 15 points.
And yet here we are.
The Bengals overcame that 21-3 Kansas City lead.
The Bengals hung that first L on Patrick Mahomes’s great personal record.
The Bengals are on their way to Super Bowl LVI in Los Angeles in two weeks after a 27-24 overtime victory over Kansas City on Sunday.
So, yes, stunning.
But what if I told you that’s only the second-most amazing thing this team has done lately? More on that in a few paragraphs.
For now, enjoy a full smorgasbord of Bengals celebration and excellence by considering:
Mahomes opened this game completing 13 of his first 14 passes and collected 3 TD passes in the process. And the Bengals managed a field goal.
“I don’t know if you ever want to get down, 21-3,” Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow said. “I said earlier in the year when we started making these comebacks that I felt we’re never out of it, but obviously 21-3 isn’t the most exciting position to be in.”
The Bengals answered Kansas City’s opening onslaught with a second-quarterback TD that made the score 21-10 and, of course, soon found themselves backed up against their own end zone again.
The Chiefs drove the ball to the Cincy 15 yard line with, interestingly, 13 seconds to play before halftime. But the team that drove for a tying field goal with 13 seconds to play against the Buffalo Bills last week got zero in the final 13 this time.
“We all thought we were definitely going to come back and find a way to win,” kicker Evan McPherson said, describing the thinking inside the Cincinnati halftime locker room.
“Yeah that was a big play the defense made right there,” Burrow said. “That stretch right there we score a touchdown and they drive right down in a two-minute situation and the defense prevents any points from being put on the board. I think that was the turning point of the game.”
Maybe. That was undoubtedly a big deal thanks to some bonehead play-calling by the Chiefs that led to their fate. But this game had perhaps a handful of other turning point candidates.
— How about an interception by defensive lineman B.J. Hill that Cincinnati converted into a touchdown?
— How about the two-point conversion following the Bengals’ final touchdown that tied the game at 21-21?
— How about two consecutive sacks by defensive end Sam Hubbard when the Chiefs were inside the Bengals’ 10-yard line with only 1:26 to play. Those forced the Chiefs to settle for a game-tying field goal instead of a winning TD.
— And, of course, how about the overtime interception by safety Vonn Bell that came after the Bengals lost the coin flip to begin the extra period.
“My thoughts was we have a resilient group of guys. We were made for this moment,” Bell said. “We were stacking up downs, stopping them, I think we had like six stops, it gave us momentum so we all said, ‘Why not us?’ Let’s go out there and make plays.
“We never quit. We never quit fighting and never backed down from the challenge. We just played our brand of football and that’s when we showed up and took it to the wire.””
The Bengals made enough plays to get into field goal range for McPherson, who has been a sniper with his leg this postseason. He connected on the 31-yard game winner to send Cincy to the Super Bowl.
McPherson is 12 for 12 in the postseason.
“We’ve kind of pushed the underdog narrative to the side and shown the Bengals are here to stay,” McPherson said. “We mean business …”
It’s impossible to take that lightly because against the framework of recent history it seems ludicrous. Understand that the Bengals before this postseason hadn’t won a playoff game in 31 years.
And understand that two seasons ago — in 2019 — Cincinnati had the worst record (2-14) in the NFL. They weren’t appreciably better last year either with a 4-12 record.
But now the team that was terrible for consecutive seasons swept aside an 18-points deficit and won the AFC Championship game.
“I think if you would have told me coming into the league after I got drafted that we’d be here this year, obviously it would be a shock,” Burrow said. “But as a said earlier now I’m not surprised by this whole year.
“I knew we would have a chance to be here. Today was a great win for the organization, for ownership and me personally as well. It’s an exciting moment.”
Follow on Twitter: @ArmandoSalguero