There’s a new feeIing in Cincinnati and it’s because the Bengals are no longer the football team everyone has grown accustomed to seeing the past three decades.
There were strong hints of this when coach Zac Taylor’s team won the AFC North and earned a home playoff game this postseason.
But we got a full-throated confirmation Saturday when these Bengals delivered a 26-19 victory over the Las Vegas Raiders and ended a 31-year span without a playoff victory.
“Happy for the city,” Taylor said afterward. “I think the city can finally exhale. I get that. We haven’t felt that pressure to be quite honest. Me maybe more so than the players because I’m out and about more in the offseason and talked to people who have been here a long time. But I don’t think the players ever felt that.
“I’m just really, really happy for the city of Cincinnati and they get a chance to enjoy this. And now just exhale and enjoy the ride because we’re not done yet.”
That last part is really the key to all of this.
Because while these Bengals are just babies taking their first steps in a postseason after a rebuild that began in 2019 with the Taylor hiring and 2020 with the drafting of quarterback Joe Burrow, there’s a belief this team is getting better quickly.
“We expect to beat everyone that we play, not just hang with them,” Burrow said.
So the baby is growing up fast.
The Bengals won much the way the have done this season — getting great play in the passing game, timely running, and defensive plays that limit damage but also sometimes define the game.
That all happened. All of it.
Burrow completed 24 of 34 passes for 244 yards with 2 touchdowns and no interceptions. He completed 9 passes to Ja’Marr Chase for 116 yards.
“It’s always part of the game plan to target Ja’Marr Chase,” Taylor said.
But the Bengals have complementary players and that’s where slot receiver Tyler Boyd and tight end C.J. Uzomah come into play because both caught touchdown passes.
The Boyd TD was interesting, by the way, because it came on a play in which a whistle was blown by an official assuming Burrow stepped out of bounds when in fact he hadn’t.
Burrow completed a 10-yard TD throw to Boyd to give the Bengals an apparent 20-6 lead but the rules book states the play should have been blown dead and there should have been a replay of the down because of the whistle.
Officials acted as if no whistle blew and afterward doubled down on how they acted.
“We confirmed with the referee and the crew on that play — they got together and talked — they determined that they had a whistle , but that the whistle for them on the field was blown after the receiver caught the ball,” NFL Senior vice president of officiating Walt Anderson said in a pool report.
So the officials who blew the whistle during the play didn’t think they’d blown the whistle during the play.
“That’s correct,” Anderson said. “They did not feel the whistle was blown before the receiver caught the ball.”
And the Bengals agreed. In fact, they contend they didn’t even hear a whistle.
“I definitely, definitely never heard a whistle. No way,” Taylor said.
“I didn’t hear any whistle,” Burrow added.
Instead the Bengals settled into the thinking that this was a fabulous off-schedule play that Burrow made because he’s, well, really good.
And for the record, it was a great throw. But there was a whistle.
“That’s what you expect from the No. 1 pick in the draft,” Taylor said. “Plays like that, plays you can’t explain. Making a play when there’s no play to be made … Joe Burrow’s the type of guy who can make those types of plays and it’s pretty impressive.”
The defense obviously played a major role and that was most obvious when linebacker Germaine Pratt intercepted the final pass of the game (and season) for Las Vegas quarterback Derek Carr to seal the victory.
The fourth-down pass at the Bengals 9 yard line was thrown short of the goal line anyway so even if the interception hadn’t happened, the result was going to be the same.
Now here’s the interesting part: The Bengals enjoyed this victory. No doubt. There was a celebration in that locker room.
But Burrow, as the face of the franchise, acted like this playoff victory was somehow unremarkable because there are many more to come.
“I mean, it’s exciting, but this is expected,” Burrow said. “This isn’t the icing on top of the cake or anything. This is the cake. So we’re moving on.”
Follow on Twitter: @ArmandoSalguero