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The Cincinnati Bengals' resurgence can be traced back to Dec. 30, 2018. The Bengals had just concluded a disappointing 6-10 season with a 16-13 road loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers. Marvin Lewis, who had previously guided the Bengals to four division titles and seven playoff berths, fielded postgame questions about his future. Given the Bengals' state at the time, along with the fact that division rivals Cleveland and Baltimore were kicking off new eras with promising rookie quarterbacks, Cincinnati fans braced themselves for a return to the franchise's losing ways of the 1990s and early 2000s. 

Things got worse before they got better; Cincinnati won just two games in 2019 and were 4-11-1 in 2020. But following their season-ending loss in 2018, the Bengals made several big decisions that ultimately led to the success of the current team. Led by coach Zac Taylor, the Bengals are one of the biggest feel-good stories of the 2021 season. On Saturday night, the reigning AFC North champions ended the franchise's 31-year playoff drought with a 26-19 win over the Las Vegas Raiders in the AFC wild card round. 

As they look forward to the divisional round, here's a look at five things the Bengals did over the past several years that helped lay the foundation for their newfound success. 

Sticking with Taylor 

Bengals owner Mike Brown offered his public support of Taylor shortly after the end of the 2020 season. Taylor, who was hired at age 36 a year after serving as the Los Angeles Rams' quarterbacks coach, went just 6-25-1 during his first two seasons in Cincinnati. But despite Taylor's underwhelming record, along with mounting criticism from the outside, Brown stuck with his coach. 

"Our fans wanted a fresh new direction two years ago, and that is what we aimed to do in hiring a bright, energetic head coach in Zac Taylor," Brown said in a statement. "We remain bullish on the foundation Zac is building, and we look forward to next year giving our fans the winning results we all want. In Zac's two years, we have added many new starters and contributors through the draft, we have invested heavily in free agency, and we have acquired a talented young quarterback with a bright future.

"This season we faced challenges with injuries at key positions and missed opportunities. I am proud of our football team for fighting hard through adversity. That adversity and hard work will help us next season. We'll enter the offseason looking to shore up our weaknesses and amplify the strengths of our talented young core. We are not discouraged, but instead feel motivated and confident that next year will reap the benefits of the work that has been done to date. We must capitalize on the opportunities in front of us. Next year we will earn our stripes."

Brown's patience has been rewarded, as Taylor has the Bengals in the divisional round for the first time in over three decades. He also has the buy-in of the Bengals' locker room. 

"What we have is special," defensive end Trey Hendrickson said during the regular season, via Charlie Goldsmith of the Cincinnati Enquirer. "That's what we've been planning on doing since I walked in the door."

Tough departures 

Following Taylor's arrival, the Bengals began to part ways with the remaining players on the roster who had helped Cincinnati make five consecutive playoff appearances from 2011-15. The team moved on from longtime starting quarterback Andy Dalton after the 2019 season. They traded former Pro Bowl defensive end Carlos Dunlap before last year's trade deadline. As tough as those moves were, the Bengals made even tougher ones when they parted ways with two of the best players in franchise annals: defensive tackle Geno Atkins and receiver A.J. Green. Atkins was released last offseason, and Green signed with the Cardinals as an unrestricted free agent. 

While not entirely popular decisions at the time, the Bengals' ability to part with players who had helped them win a slew of games is paying dividends now. While most of their success has come with newer players, the Bengals have benefitted from the presence of tight end C.J. Uzomah, who scored the game's first touchdown on Saturday. 

Key acquisitions 

As promised, Brown's team spent considerable money during the past two offseasons. While not every signing has been a home run, most of the team's notable free agent signings have paid off. Specifically, the Bengals have focused on defense as it relates to offseason spending. They have signed several veteran defenders in recent years that include defensive backs Mike HiltonEli AppleChidobe AwuzieVonn Bell, and linemen Trey HendricksonLarry Ogunjobi, and D.J. Reader

The Bengals' defense has also continued to receive stellar play from homegrown talent that includes Sam HubbardLogan Wilson and Jessie Bates III. Add it all up and you have a defense that was able to rise up and come up with the game-winning stop at the end of Saturday night's game. 

"We take pride in everybody in our defensive room," Hilton said after the Bengals completed their season sweep over his former team: the Pittsburgh Steelers. "We know our offense is explosive, so we try to give them as many possessions as possible. Defensively, we've been handling business." 

Cincinnati's recent offseason success has also included the NFL Draft. Instead of trading it for players and draft capital, the Bengals decided to keep the No. 1 overall pick in the 2020 Draft, a pick they used to select Burrow. While it's still early, Burrow appears to be on his way to a long and fruitful NFL career. He completed an NFL-best 70.4% of his passes during the regular season. His two touchdown passes were critical in Saturday night's win over Las Vegas, especially his 14-yard touchdown pass to Tyler Boyd before halftime that saw him avoid stepping out of bounds before delivering the throw. 

The last two drafts have also included Wilson, receiver Tee Higgins, and fellow wideout Ja'Marr Chase, the shoo-in to win Offensive Rookie of the Year. Linebacker Joseph Ossai, the Bengals' third pick in the 2021 draft, showed significant promise this summer before suffering a season-ending injury during the preseason. 

Setting Burrow up for success 

Burrow was hit far too much as a rookie. The need to better protect the franchise QB was further amplified when he suffered a season-ending knee injury just 10 games into his rookie season. The Bengals responded by signing Riley Reiff, a veteran offensive tackle who came to Cincinnati with 138 regular-season starts under his belt. 

The Bengals faced a dilemma with the No. 5 overall pick in last year's draft. They could use the pick on reuniting Burrow with Chase, his teammate at LSU, or use the pick to acquire Penei Sewell, the consensus best offensive lineman in the draft. Cincinnati ultimately chose to select Chase while using their second-round pick on former USC offensive tackle Jackson Carman. Chase and Burrow picked up where they left off in Baton Rouge, as Chase earned All-Pro status after catching 81 passes for 1,455 yards and 13 touchdowns during the season. He led both teams on Saturday with 116 yards on nine receptions. 

Carman has also come in and contributed as a rookie with six starts at right guard. Carman has shared time with Hakeem Adeniji, a sixth-round pick in the 2020 Draft. 

While he is still sacked too much (51 times in 16 regular season games), Burrow's improved protection allowed him to get through his sophomore season without a significant injury. Burrow has been able to lean on running back Joe Mixon, who earned a Pro Bowl nod after running for 1,204 yards and 13 touchdowns during the regular season. 

Restoring Bengals pride 

The team underwent a significant makeover during the past offseason that included revamped uniforms and the creation of the franchise's Ring of Honor. Brown announced that team founder Paul Brown and Hall of Fame left tackle Anthony Munoz would be part of the Ring of Honor's inaugural class, while season-ticket holders voted to also include former quarterback and 1981 league MVP Ken Anderson and former All-Pro cornerback Ken Riley. 

The team's inaugural Ring of Honor class was celebrated at halftime of Cincinnati's Week 4 home game against the Jaguars on Thursday night, a game the Bengals won after overcoming a 14-0 deficit. It was an epic moment for a franchise and fanbase that was simultaneously celebrating its past as well as its present. The future certainly looks good, too, as the Bengals have begun a new, exiting era while setting a new standard for success in the Queen City.