When the Cincinnati Bengals began their 2021 season, they did so with expectations of making it a special one. Their opponents, however, likely overlooked them -- given their history of disappointment -- particularly having question marks on if former first-round pick Joe Burrow would be able to regain prime form after suffering a devastating knee injury in 2020. What the entire NFL soon discovered is that this is, in fact, not the same ol' Bengals of yesteryear, but instead a formidable contender to fear and respect.
After all, it's now a team that was only moments removed from defeating the Los Angeles Rams in Super Bowl LVI. All told, Burrow didn't simply return to form, he was electric, aided by a reunion with former LSU teammate Ja'Marr Chase, the latter going on to deliver one of the best rookie seasons in league history en route to winning NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year and being named both a Pro Bowler and an All-Pro -- along with winning NFL Rookie of the Year.
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A defense led by safety Jessie Bates III helped match serve and, having again made offseason moves that intrigue (e.g., signing former Dallas Cowboys starting right tackle La'el Collins), the Bengals are set to reload. The biggest problem, though? Well according to head coach Zac Taylor, it's that the element of surprise is now long gone.
"Well, we know we're not going to surprise anybody," Taylor said at the start of 2022 training camp, via the team's website. "I can't speak for other teams. I don't know if we surprised them or not. I hope they saw a good team on tape in Week 1. But this year, certainly, I think people are more aware of the type of team we can be and we have to prove that."
Taylor is correct, for as much as many will point at teams like the Kansas City Chiefs, Baltimore Ravens and Buffalo Bills as the front-runners to take the AFC crown in 2022, the Bengals are still the defending conference champs until further notice. That comes with a noticeable bullseye draped across their jerseys, and Taylor knows that has to be met with a different mindset than the usual approach of being the underdog.
"We have lot of work yet to go to make sure we can meet our own expectations and continue to raise our standard," he said. "That it just doesn't come based on what you did the previous year. There is going to be a ton of work that's got to be done over these next 45 days to make sure we're ready for Week 1 against Pittsburgh."
This time around, the Bengals aren't the hunters. They're the hunted.