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Joe Burrow and the 2021 Cincinnati Bengals

The Cincinnati Bengals and Los Angeles Rams have been wrapt in nervous anticipation for two weeks. The Rams have had the luxury of staying home since the Divisional round, while the Bengals have not spent more than eight days in the same town since early December.

The recently established track record for Super Bowl teams playing in their home stadium is a firm 1-0. The oddsmakers in Vegas, the statistics on paper, and Cynthia Frelund’s football super-computer would all tell you that the Rams have the edge, but the Bengals improbable playoff push flies in the face of mathematical analysis.

In almost any other year, the idea of Sean McVay snatching Matthew Stafford from the icy depths of the Midwest before carrying the Lombardi Trophy into the So-Cal sunset together would have been enough to paint the underdog narrative. The Bengals just bring something a little more exotic, charming, relatable.

Joe Shiesty.

The Cincinnati hero grew up just hours away from Paul Brown Stadium. At Athens High School, he threw for over 11,000 yards in forty-one games before accepting an offer to play for Ohio State University. Burrow stayed with the team for three seasons despite never earning the starting job. In year four, the team passed over Burrow for Dwayne Haskins, forcing him to enter the transfer portal.

Burrow arrived at Louisiana State University in 2018. In his second year, he broke the record for most passing touchdowns in a single season in college football history on his way to a National Title, propelling him to the top of every draft board.

Cincinnati had earned the first overall pick following a 2-win 2019 campaign, and there was never a doubt how they would spend it.

His successful rookie season came to an early end after tearing his ACL and MCL in a week 11 game at Washington.

Now, the 2021 AP Comeback Player of the Year has led his hometown team past the 1st and 2nd AFC seeds en route to America’s biggest stage.

Walking the line of arrogance and confidence in the eyes of the public, Burrow has managed to fall on the right side.

Burrow is so unanimously appreciated that Joe Montana himself came out this week and surrendered his “Joe Cool” nickname to the rising star, as if he needed more to choose from. After years of painstaking work from the media to create a wealth of high-octane nicknames, Burrow said this week that he prefers to just be called “Joe.”

A little on-the-nose with the carefree persona, but who could blame him?

None of this would have been possible without the Bengals stepping up in the 2021 free agency market, signing three cornerbacks, two defensive linemen, an offensive tackle, and a safety. In the 2021 NFL Draft, they picked up WR Jamar Chase in the first round and were criticized for not selecting an offensive lineman to protect Joe.

Chase recorded 1,455 yards and thirteen touchdowns, earning him Offensive Rookie of the Year at NFL Honors. Though Burrow was sacked more than any quarterback in the league this season, it’s safe to say that the gamble has paid off.

While other teams lure free agents with their sunny beaches or bustling nightlife, Cincinnati has been left to either successfully pitch players on their burgeoning art scene and skyline chili, or significantly outbid their competitors. For years this kept household names from signing with the Bengals. Having Joe Burrow and a promising coaching staff must have been enough for the likes of Tre Hendrickson and Chidobe Awuzie, who both recorded statistical career-highs for their new team in 2021.

“Our scouting department is one of the smallest in the NFL, but they’re by far the most hard-working.” Said Awuzie ahead of Super Bowl LVI. “To get all the guys they got in free agency and the draft… they hit on everybody.”

Lou Anarumo was a secondary coach for over a decade before taking on the role of defensive coordinator with the Bengals. He and secondary/safeties coach Robert Livingston played a large part in tracking down defensive free agents.

Eli Apple and Chidobe Awuzie, two players who weren’t on the team this time last year, were first and second in tackles in the Bengals victory over the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC Championship.

“You try to bring out the best in each guy, and our guys have done a heck of a job with that.” Said coach Anarumo. “We’re so fortunate to have Chido [Awuzie], Mike Hilton, and Eli [Apple]. These guys have done a tremendous job for us this year.”

The Bengals have appeared in two Super Bowls. Both came in the 1980’s, and both were losses at the hands of the vaunted San Francisco 49ers and the original “Joe Cool.”

The decades since have further tested the resilience of the Bengals fanbase. They have watched talent leave following frustration with ownership, their division rivals win multiple Super Bowls, and most notably, a historic 0-7 run in the playoffs.

The Bengals received some praise for their offseason additions, but for the most part, they have moved in silence.

While the Rams have been signing superstars like Matthew Stafford, Von Miller, and Odell Beckham Jr, the Bengals have been lurking in the tall grass of Ohio-an Anonymity. After years in the shadows, they have emerged in a single moment, eyes fixed on the Lombardi Trophy.

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