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A Look Back at How the Bengals Went From Worst to First With Joe Burrow

Cincinnati is one win away from the AFC Championship Game.

Joe Burrow led the Bengals to their first playoff win in 31 years last Saturday night. 

If you live in Cincinnati or follow the Bengals, you are very familiar with the drought. Their last playoff win was on Jan. 6, 1991 with a 41-14 win over the Houston Oilers. 

Since then, Cincinnati's suffered multiple heartbreaking losses in the postseason. 

If you’re a younger Bengals fan, the 2015 loss is what you thought of when you hear “drought." In the six years since that game, it’s been hard to mention the Bengals and the playoffs without using the words “Jeremy Hill” in the conversation. “They’ll just bungle it” or “the Bengals will never win a playoff game” were common phrases mentioned among the fanbase. 

Following the 2015 loss, the Bengals were forced into a rebuild. They moved on from Marvin Lewis a few years later after and started to shift away from the mid 2010’s Bengals that never quite reached their full potential. Players like Marvin Jones, Kevin Zeitler and Andrew Whitworth signed elsewhere. 

They hired Zac Taylor and a year later they were in position to land a true franchise quarterback. 

The Bengals picked Joe Burrow with the No. 1 pick in the 2020 NFL Draft. Burrow had just led LSU to a National title after an incredible, Heisman winning season. With 5,671 yards and 60 passing touchdowns, his numbers stood out to many Bengals fans hoping to find their franchise quarterback. 

His poise and swagger doesn't show up on the stat sheet, but it's definitely had an impact on the Bengals. If you watched any of his LSU games from that season, the throws and accuracy are very obvious, but the way he carries himself and thrives under pressure is what makes Burrow a superstar.

After his rookie campaign was cut short due to an ACL injury, he immediately got to work to get ready for the 2021 season. The Bengals did the same, selecting Burrow’s former college teammate Ja’Marr Chase with the 5th overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft. Chase finished with 1,780 receiving yards and 20 touchdowns when he played with Burrow in 2019. 

Getting another offensive weapon in the draft wasn’t all the Bengals did to improve their team. They nailed their free agency class as well, adding guys like Trey Hendrickson, Chidobe Awuzie, Mike Hilton and Larry Ogunjobi. 

Free agents want to come play with Burrow. It’s no secret that part of the Bengals amazing free agency class was the effect the young quarterback has on other players. 

This is notable due to a quote from D.J. Reader shortly after he chose the Bengals over the Broncos in March. 

"Talk to my agent, he was like, your options are, who are you going to be on, Joe Burrow or Drew Lock? I was like, I really think I’m going to go with Joe Burrow, Joey B. I like what they’ve got going on, I’m excited," Reader said earlier this season.

Riley Reiff went out to dinner with Burrow before signing with the Bengals this past offseason. 

“I walked away from eating that steak wanting to block for that guy,” Reiff said.

The stage was set. With Chase and a new free agent class, this team was ready to support a healthy Burrow and compete. 

The 25-year-old threw for 4,611 passing yards and 34 touchdowns this season, leading the Bengals to their first AFC Title since 2015.

In his most recent three games, including the playoff win over the Raiders, Burrow has completed 76.5% of his passes for 1,215 yards, 10 touchdowns, and zero interceptions. In the biggest moments of not only the season, but the last six years of the Bengals franchise, Burrow stepped up and played like a star. In his first full season in the NFL he’s won the AFC North, led the Bengals to their first playoff win in 31 years and is in the MVP conversation.

Burrow is the perfect example of what a franchise quarterback can do for a city and a team. This franchise went 31 years without a playoff win. Burrow has been in Cincinnati for two years and has already accomplished more in his time with the franchise than many did before him.

Things are noticeably different in Cincinnati now. The drought is over. The franchise has a different feel. With Burrow at quarterback and a young core of weapons and solid defensive players, it’s shaping up to be an exciting stretch in Cincinnati. 

Burrow and the Bengals travel to Nashville to play the Titans on Saturday in the divisional round of the NFL playoffs. It’s new territory for a lot of Bengals fans, but this team has the ability to make a run. 

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