CINCINNATI, Ohio (WCMH) — The meteoric rise of the Cincinnati Bengals culminated in Sunday’s heart-pounding, walk-off 34-31 win over the Chiefs to clinch the AFC North for the first time since 2015.

The Bengals spent the last two years as the division’s cellar-dwellers and weren’t projected to be much of anything this season, either. But Joe Burrow & Co. refused to believe they were only destined to be a middling team in one of football’s most competitive divisions.

“You know I said it in the preseason. We were talking about playoffs and I said the goal is playoffs and easiest way to do that is win the division and everyone kind of laughed at us a little bit,” Burrow said. “But we knew the kind of team we had, the kind of guys we had in the locker room and we knew we could go out and do it.”

That’s exactly what Cincinnati did Sunday, besting the AFC’s best team, which had previously won eight in a row on their way to what looked like an inevitable third Super Bowl appearance.

But the Bengals, a team of misfits and young stars, changed the narrative in the most impactful game in Paul Brown Stadium history. The win propelled Cincinnati into the playoffs for the first time in seven years but also marked the dawn of a new era in the Queen City.

Flashes of dominance, including four wins over Pittsburgh and Baltimore combined, were weighed down by inexplicable losses to the Jets and Bears as well as close calls against the Jaguars and Vikings.

The Bengals’ gritty performance against Kansas City proved the team’s potential for years to come. Joe Burrow is 25 years old and already on his way to becoming a top-five quarterback in the NFL after a season and a half of experience. The sure-fire Comeback Player of the Year who suffered a torn ACL in Week 10 his rookie season, broke the franchise record for touchdowns and passing yards in a season in the win.

Burrow 2021 stats

  • #1 completion percentage (70.4%)
  • #2 QB rating (108.3)
  • #5 passing yards (4,611)
  • #6 passing TDs (34)

The most impressive part about all of this is the fact that Burrow is the most-sacked quarterback in the NFL. His offensive line is better than last year but still below average and he’s constantly buying time with his feet while keeping his head downfield.

His accuracy, precision, evasiveness in the pocket, and ability to read defenses, combined with unrivaled intensity, spark an offense loaded with All-Pro talent. Foremost on that group is the youngest player on the team — Ja’Marr Chase.

Burrow’s former teammate at LSU was taken with the 5th overall pick, a decision many experts chastised since the Bengals needed to shore up their porous offensive line to protect their franchise QB.

But drafting Chase has paid off in spades:

  • 1,429 receiving yards (all-time rookie record)
  • 13 touchdowns (most by a rookie since Randy Moss in 1998)
  • 266 yards against Kansas City (franchise record)

Chase burned the Chiefs defense several times over on the deep ball while also turning first downs into touchdowns, something he’s done all season long.

But Chase only works because of the Bengals’ other threats: 22-year-old receiver Tee Higgins, 27-year-old receiver Tyler Boyd and 25-year-old running back Joe Mixon.

Who Dey defense

Cincinnati’s defense often gets overlooked because of how electrifying the offense has been. But it’s worth noting half of the Bengals’ starting defense consists of players picked up in the offseason: DL Trey Hendrickson, CB Chidobe Awuzie, CB Mike Hilton, DL Larry Ogunjobi, and CB Eli Apple.

Hendrickson has proven to be the best addition recording a team-high 14 sacks and was voted to the Pro Bowl. But the totality of the acquisitions has catapulted Cincinnati into a playoff contender.

Chidobe Awuzie signed a three-year, $21.75 million deal to start opposite William Jackson III. But the plan soon unraveled when Jackson decided to sign with the Washington Football Team, leaving Awuzie as the team’s top cover corner.

He’s proven to be just that with a grade of 83.4 by Pro Football Focus, the third-highest among all NFL cornerbacks.

The biggest surprise has been the career resurrection of Eli Apple. The former Buckeye and 10th overall pick was traded by the Giants to the Saints, but was not re-signed after the 2019 season. He was signed by the Panthers in 2020, but only played two games and was cut after the season.

The Bengals took a chance bringing him aboard after Jackson left. His signing appeared unsuccessful after plenty of early-season struggles. But the Bengals stuck with him and following the bye week, Apple became Pro Football Focus’ second-highest rated cornerback during a five-week stretch from Nov. 21 to Dec. 19.

Meanwhile, Ogunjobi has helped turn the defense around when it comes to stopping the run. Last season, Cincinnati had the NFL’s fifth-worst run defense but this year the Bengals rank No. 5 in fewest total rushing yards allowed this season.

Last but not least, Mike Hilton’s versatility as a slot cornerback boosts the Bengals’ pass defense and is the fifth-highest graded player on the defense, per PFF.

Mainstays from last year, such as defensive end Sam Hubbard, linebacker Logan Wilson and safety Jessie Bates III, provided the foundation and the newcomers have built upon that to make Cincinnati a formidable opponent every week.

What’s next?

The Bengals end the regular season with a road game against the Browns, who are mathematically eliminated from the playoffs. Cincinnati has an outside chance at the No. 1 seed if:

  • Chiefs lose to Denver
  • Titans lose to Texans

The Chiefs play Saturday, so a win for Kansas City would most likely mean Cincinnati rests its starters against Cleveland. It also remains to be seen whether Burrow will play after injuring his knee (not the same one from last year) and had to come out of the Kansas City game for the last two plays before the game-winning field goal.