by LONN PHILLIPS SULLIVAN
In the lead up to 2022's AFC Championship game, whenever I talked or wrote about this Tiger vs Tiger title bout, I was usually caught in stunned anticipation and Tiger befuddlement...but even I don't think I could've hoped for a better game or a more incredible display of purple & gold power, as well as a more entertaining showcase of exactly how Joe Burrow's arrival in Cincinnati immediately ushered the franchise's overnight change.
For an organization which hadn't won an AFC North title since 2015, Burrow wrapped up the division with weeks to spare during his first full season.
For a franchise which couldn't win a playoff game since 1990, Burrow delivered 3 playoff victories over a trio of consecutive weekends;
For a franchise which couldn't win a road playoff game, Joey B won 2 on the road in the same run, including Sunday's epic 18 point comeback victory in overtime over Kansas City (tying Manning & the Colts' epic 2007 AFC title game comeback for the all time conference championship record).
But make no mistake, this was a team win, Bengals such as Tee Higgins, Joe Mixon, Trey Hendrickson, Evan McPherson, and Sam Hubbard all played out of their minds......though you'd be foolish to believe Joe Burrow isn't the spark to ignite the fire.
Crowned 2019's Heisman, winning the National Championship & beating 7 top 10 teams, tossing 60 TDs (just 5 INTs), even rushing for 5 scores as a senior at LSU, Burrow was undefeated, untouched, unblemished....so, if you know anything about football's long, brutally checkered history, it seemed to be some kind of sick fate that Joe's rookie season would be full of attrition.
Despite Burrow's Rookie of the Year-level play at QB through Week 9, his ACL tear and broken leg suffered in early December placed his career in jeopardy; Against vicious hits on either side from Washington's Jonathan Allen and Montez Sweat, Joe suffered a career-threatening injury to his leg and knee, followed by a painful spell in physical rehab, and a lengthy vacation on the sidelines.
From that long road, staring doubt directly in the face...to this ultimate moment....Joe Burrow just completed a "once in a lifetime" 180 degree turnaround twice over the last few years: first at LSU and now with Cincinnati....however, think about this:
Burrow's LSU transformation may have evolved a traditionally vanilla offense to heights unseen in collegiate history, yet LSU still won championships in 2003-04 & 2007-08, while appearing in the 2011-12 title game with an undefeated record, plus a deserved poll-era championship during 1958; on the other side of the coin, Burrow's Bengals haven't won a championship before, losing both of their two Super Bowl trips in the 80s at the hands of Montana's 49ers by a combined 9 points (XVI and XXIII)......now, following a "never say die" overtime win over Kansas City's 2 year stranglehold on the AFC, Joe Burrow is teaching Cincinnati how to win.
Sunday's game will be a classic NFL contest remembered forever, a moment where two of the sport's best young quarterbacks went to battle, dueling against two strong defenses on the day; Only a year difference in age between the QBs, Mahomes and Burrow both threw poor interceptions and made errant passes during crucial moments; however when it came time for plays to be made, Joe played more efficiently at quarterback than Mahomes.
While Mahomes threw 2 fewer incompletions (Joe's 15 to Pat's 13), 1 more touchdown, 25 more yards and averaged 7.1 per attempt to Burrow's 6.6, the Chiefs' Super Bowl-winning QB threw one additional interception than Burrow, the most costly one of all arriving in overtime.
Mahomes was erratic throughout the second half, nearly tossing an interception to Eli Apple on the play before his overtime pick, earlier passing the ball straight to DL BJ Hill to swat up in the air to himself, greatly assisting the Bengals' 18 point comeback.
These 2 INTs were Mahomes' first in his 4 AFC title game appearances, with former Tiger DL Tyler Shelvin pressuring Pat on 2 snaps himself as part of a front which sacked the Chiefs' Pro Bowler 4 times.
While Joe received help by his namesake at running back, Joe Mixon's 88 yards slowing down the effective, but too late KC pass rush, the LSU G.O.A.T's own legs kept drives alive;
Just like the Titans, Spagnuolo's Chiefs defense were able to apply plenty of pressure on Burrow, 11 total, but on this day, Joe turned into his Great Escape Artist alter ego once again, evading pressures 5 times for positive gains, including four 1st down rushes (2 on huge 3rd down plays), a few big passes to Higgins & a long 22 yard pass to Chase late in the game.
Kansas City could only sack Burrow 1 time over 4 quarters.....suffering after Joe extended plays.
Tyrann Mathieu's secondary were able to put a clampdown on Ja'Marr Chase, limiting Cincy's explosive Rookie Of The Year WR to a handful of big plays (6 catches, 9 targets, 54 Yards, 1 TD, 9.0 avg, 22 long), but in the end, Chase caught his first career playoff touchdown on a critical 3rd down and goal to tie the game at the end of a pivotal 3rd quarter.
There were big plays, mostly from Tee Higgins' 6 catches and 103 yards, yet for the most part Kansas City's defense minimized Ja'Marr Chase's big play ability, knocked CJ Uzomah out of the game before he was able to make a catch, and held Joe Burrow to 250 yards passing on the day.....and still, somehow, these Cincinnati Bengals found a way.
Early on, when the Chiefs surged to a 21-3 lead, most of the country thought the game was over....but Joe, nor his teammates would give in.
The comeback started with Perine's brilliant 41 yard TD, backed by a huge stop just before half time, right as the Chiefs were ready to tack on another 3-7 points going into the break.
Changing the game, big talking Eli Apple stopped Tyreek Hill at the two yard line, leaving no time on the clock and keeping the deficit at 11...a major psychological win for Cincy.
As the second half began, The Bengals cut into the lead with a big McPherson field goal, followed by Ja'marr Chase's touchdown right at the end of the 3rd. After a 2 point conversion completion from Burrow to Trent Taylor, a smooth operating, underneath route to the outside, the Bengals tied it up.
The Bengals defense were electric for every minute of the second half, holding the Chiefs to 3 points from 6 second half drives and 1 overtime series; Andy Reid's Super Bowl-delivering offense could just generate 4 punts, 2 interceptions and a field goal across the final 35 minutes of play.
Burrow's mentality has now become fully adapted by Cincy's tenacious defense; they could not, would not be denied, defending every pass with aggression and intensity, refusing to allow much, if any yards after catch.
But after Kansas City won the overtime coin toss, welcomed by the roaring din of Arrowhead Stadium, many felt it would be a test too far for this inexperienced and possibly tired Bengals defense.
Although both assumptions were wrong, this was not a tired defense, punishing and stopping KC before Vonn Bell finally hauled in the game sealing INT, setting up another game-winning field goal from rookie kicker Evan McPherson, his 2nd walk-off winner of the playoffs in 7 days.
As Joe Mixon crushed defenders for further yards, one could feel a palpable changing of the NFL guards in the air...Joe Burrow and his Bengals were heading to the Super Bowl in Joe's first ever postseason run during his first full regular season and second year overall....
It was as if the story had already written itself...Joe Burrow hasn't just repeated his exploits at LSU in performance, he's doing it again as a winner on the NFL stage.
Now Joe, Ja'marr and Tyler await a battle against Sean McVay's LA Rams for the Super Bowl LVI title.
Playing in their second Super Bowl since 2018, the Super Bowl LVI hosts feature LSU Legends Odell Beckham Jr out wide and Andrew Whitworth at left tackle, OBJ collecting over 100 yards and 9 catches during the NFC title game from 1st year Rams' QB Matthew Stafford.
Bengals vs Rams promises to be yet another classic for fans to savor in this unforgettable postseason, where we are yet to see a single dud.
For LSU fans, it's yet another date with history, watching Tiger Legends assume their greatest destiny at the speed of sound.
by LONN PHILLIPS SULLIVAN
Copyright 2022 Uninterrupted Writings Inc
BURROW (Next Level Stats):
11 pressures suffered
Evaded pressures 5
4 1st down rushes
2 3rd down rushes
5 3rd down comp. (1 TD)
12 1st down comp.
1 WR drop (TD)
-41 Yard TD Perine
-44 yards to Higgins
-22 yards to Chase
-18 Yard screen to Mixon
-16 to Higgins