For a second straight year, the Cincinnati Bengals are on the precipice of winning the franchise's first Super Bowl. While many Super Bowl runner-ups struggle to duplicate their success, the Bengals are actually a better team than the one that came up a few plays short of defeating the Rams in Super Bowl LVI.
Underdogs no more, the Bengals' continued success this season has legitimized last year's success. It has also reinvigorated a fan base that had endured decades of heartbreak. Cincinnati's fan base has been rewarded in spades and could be further rewarded should the Bengals capture the franchise's first title less than three weeks from now.
To do that, Cincinnati will have to defeat two of the league's best three teams in Kansas City, Philadelphia and San Francisco. Each of those teams possesses a legitimate threat to the Bengals, who enter Sunday's game having won their past 10 games. The Bengals, however, have enough talent to beat the other three teams still in contention for the title.
Below are the three ways the Bengals can win the Super Bowl, starting with the team's star quarterback and receiver.
Burrow, Chase become Montana, Rice 2.0
In one memorable, PG-13-rated quote, Joe Burrow summed up the trust he has in Ja'Marr Chase, his former college teammate who joined him in Cincinnati last season. Burrow's memorable quote came when asked about a touchdown pass he threw to Chase during the Bengals' 2021 regular season win over Kansas City.
"F it, Ja'Marr's down there somewhere," Burrow said of his teammate. "I'm gonna just throw it up there and he's going to make a play."
That trust has allowed the two to become arguably the NFL's best QB-WR combo. It has also played an integral role in the Bengals' immense success over the past two seasons. And it could have let to the greatest play in Super Bowl history had Burrow had slightly more time to get the ball to a wide open Chase on the Bengals' final offensive play of last year's Super Bowl.
The duo has continued to make big plays together this season and into the postseason, as they connected on touchdown passes during the Bengals' playoff wins over the Ravens and Bills. In those games, Burrow completed 70% of his passes to Chase for 145 yards and the two touchdowns.
Burrow and Chase's chemistry calls to mind the one that Joe Montana and Jerry Rice enjoyed during the 49ers' heyday. The combination of Montana and Rice, despite defenses gearing up to stop them, was unstoppable at times in the postseason. They connected 11 times for a record 215 yards and a touchdown in the 49ers' win over the Bengals in Super Bowl XXIII. A year later, Rice caught three of Montana's five touchdown passes in San Francisco's blowout win over Denver in Super Bowl XXIV.
Rice and Montana's magic wasn't just reserved for Super Bowls, however. It was Rice's 61-yard touchdown early in the 1988 NFC title game that set the tone in the 49ers' decisive 28-3 win in chilly Chicago. The Bengals could benefit from a similar play from Chase at the start of Sunday night's game in Kansas City.
OTD 1989— Kevin Gallagher (@KevG163) January 9, 2023
° 1988 NFC CHAMPIONSHIP °
A wind chill of -26°F at Chicago's Soldier Field does little to thwart the visiting #49ers, who methodically trample the Bears, 28-3, for their third NFC title.
Joe Montana fires three TD passes, two to Jerry Rice, in the one-sided affair. pic.twitter.com/71iyb8dpNd
As great as Chase is, he hasn't necessarily been dominant in the postseason. He hasn't had a 100-yard receiving game in the playoffs since last year's divisional round win over the Titans. Stats obviously aren't everything, but if the Bengals are going to finish the race, they're going to need more splash plays from arguably the game's best receiver.
If that happens, Chase will elevate his status as the NFL's premier receiver. It will also help open things up for the Bengals' other talented players at the skill positions, including fellow wideouts Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd, running backs Joe Mixon and Samaje Perine, and tight end Hayden Hurst.
Chase needs to be a dominant player, but he and Burrow can't do it alone. For the Bengals to win it all, they are going to have to continue to receive production from their entire skill position group. Coach and play-caller Zac Taylor also can't forget about Mixon, whose postseason success last year has carried into this postseason. Cincinnati will also have to continue to receive stellar play from an offensive line that fielded three new starters last weekend in Buffalo due to injury.
The defense can't rest
For the past year, the Bengals defense has mostly been hiding in plain sight. While the Bengals offense has understandably received most of the headlines, their defense has quietly been the backbone to Cincinnati's success. In fact, the Bengals defense was the team's strength early in the season when Cincinnati's offense struggled to find its footing.
Make no mistake about it: the Bengals defense is a championship-caliber unit. It has some of the NFL's best players at each level, especially in the front seven. D.J. Reader has made an invaluable impact since coming off injured reserve, while defensive ends Sam Hubbard and Trey Hendrickson continue to be among the league's best duos. Germaine Pratt and Logan Wilson, who despite their success have no Pro Bowl selections to their credit, continue to serve as stalwarts in the middle of Cincinnati's defense.
What it gives up in passing yards, the Bengals' secondary makes up for in big plays. Safety Vonn Bell is a football magnet, while rookie Cam Taylor-Britt has also made plenty of big plays while helping overcome the loss of injured starter Chidobe Awuzie. The secondary continues to be anchored by Jessie Bates III, whose versatility as a run-stuffer and cover man has been a big key to Cincinnati's defensive success.
Creating big plays in critical moments is what separates great defenses from good ones. So far, the Bengals defense has made the big plays befitting a great unit. The biggest example of this was Hubbard's 98-yard fumble return that served as the game-winning touchdown in Cincinnati's win over Baltimore on Super Wild Card Weekend.
Sam Hubbard has spent his entire football career in the state of Ohio.— Ben Stevens (@BenScottStevens) January 16, 2023
• Archbishop Moeller High School (2010-14)
• Ohio State (2014-17)
• Cincinnati Bengals (2018-present)
The hometown kid is a hometown hero. pic.twitter.com/tA2BVXNwCw
In order to be truly considered a great unit, the Bengals defense will have to make more splash plays in the coming weeks. While it was unable to do that in last year's Super Bowl, the Bengals current defense has the talent and experience to do so this time around.
Remember the kicker who booted two game-winning field goals last postseason, then further made headlines by watching the Super Bowl halftime show from his team's sideline? Evan McPherson, who is referred to as "Shooter" by Bengals fans, has somewhat fallen into the background in his second season.
McPherson probably doesn't mind less attention, especially after the 2022 season started. McPherson, who dealt with an injury to his long snapper in Week 1, missed two kicks in Cincinnati's season-opening loss to Pittsburgh. He missed two kicks again during the Bengals' most recent loss back on Halloween.
His regular season didn't match up to last year's success, but McPherson has appeared to re-gain his touch this postseason. He's made both of his field goal tries this postseason and has made all but one of his point-after attempts. McPherson will surely be called upon to make more clutch kicks in the coming weeks.
As we just saw with the Cowboys, a shaky kicker can be a difference between a championship and an early vacation. If the Bengals are able to win their first Super Bowl, rest assured McPherson's right foot will have played a significant role.