My trip to the AFC Championship game at Burrowhead Stadium didn’t end like I anticipated.
Oh, So Close!
By Dr. John Huang
(KANSAS CITY, Mo) – Super Bowl appearances are elusive but not impossible. Like a blind squirrel finding that elusive hidden nut, anybody can get lucky and stumble upon one of them. It’s when you bag two that you know you’ve really made it big.
Cincinnati fell just short of making it to two Super Bowls in a row, falling to Kansas City 23 – 20 in a tense AFC championship contest played out before a packed house at Arrowhead Stadium.
“It aches, trust me,” head coach Zac Taylor said when asked about the loss. “To be this close. Our goal is to win the Super Bowl. To be seconds away from getting back there, and watching [the Chiefs] celebrate, it’s horrible. This team has invested so much in each other to get to this point.”
Ten wins in a row to finish out the year, three straight wins over the Chiefs, and that beatdown last week against the Buffalo Bills had everybody in the Queen City dreaming of an upcoming trip to the Arizona desert. Unfortunately, when expectations rise as such, it hurts that much more when you ultimately fall short.
Cincinnati quarterback Joe Burrow felt the pain immediately afterwards.
“Tough loss,” said Joey Franchise in a packed visitors media room the size of a broom closet. “We didn’t make the plays we needed to win this game. And they did down the stretch. That’s what it came down to.”
With the score tied at 20 and 2:30 left on the clock, Cincinnati forced a Kansas City punt and had the ball on their own six-yard line. These are the situations that Super Bowl dreams are made of. Surely Burrow would drive the Bengals down the field for the game-winning score—just as the clock runs out, right?
Wrong! After moving his team out to their own 35-yard line, Burrow was sacked, and the Bengals had to punt with thirty seconds remaining.
On their ensuing possession, with just 17 seconds left, the Chiefs Patrick Mahomes ran out of bounds after a five yard gain. Bengals defensive lineman Joseph Ossai clearly hit Mahomes late, resulting in a 15-yard penalty putting the ball on the Bengals 27-yard line. That set up Harrison Butker’s 45-yard game-winning field goal try. The ball cleared the uprights, and suddenly Cincinnati’s Super Bowl dreams abruptly ended on the confetti-laced turf of Burrowhead Stadium.
“It didn’t come down to that,” said Taylor, regarding Ossai’s penalty and it’s effect on the game’s outcome. “There’s a lot of other plays that we just missed out on.”
Yes, it’s true. Missing out on back-to-back Super Bowl appearances really does hurt. Here, however, is the irony in that statement. During this entire magical two-year run, no one really thought the Bengals were any good. Everyone regarded last year’s Super Bowl appearance as a lucky outlier. The talking media heads said that Zac Taylor was a flash in the pan who got lucky when his team got hot at the end of last year. When Cincinnati started out 0 – 2 to begin this season, the skeptics were quick to say, “I told you so.”
Then the offensive line began to gel, the defense started playing lights out, and Joe Burrow became the meteoric rising star that no one dared to bet against. The Bengals became damn good in the process. Everyone—me included—picked them to go all the way. I even purchased airline tickets (refundable ones, thankfully) to Phoenix.
Were our expectations realistic? I’m still not sure. Past history is difficult to shake. It’s hard trading three decades of playoff futility for a couple of magical seasons of success.
Perhaps Zac Taylor said it best when asked about the future of the franchise.
“It’s a special organization,” said the man steering the ship. “It’s special people leading it, [it’s a] special group of coaches, [and a] special group of players. We love representing our city and our fan base. It’s just time to get back to work.”
Those are certainly nice words. But in life and in football, actions speak louder than words. I watched Zac Taylor in the locker room afterwards greeting, consoling, congratulating, hugging, and shaking the hand of every one of his players.
The guy has shown he can coach ‘em up on the field. He’s also shown that he’s got a lot of character and class. That’s a great combination moving forward.
See you next year. WhoDey!
This blog posting was originally submitted as a Cincinnati Bengals Column for Sports View America publications.