CINCINNATI — Cincinnati Bengals coach Zac Taylor was almost at a loss for words when asked to describe quarterback Joe Burrow.
Fortunately, tight end C.J. Uzomah had a few. One of them isn’t suitable for print.
“Excuse my French, but this f---ing guy’s a beast,” Uzomah said Sunday.
That was Uzomah’s initial thought when the Bengals drafted Burrow with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2020 draft. On Saturday, Burrow showed why he leaves people speechless or brings them to profanity. He overcame nine sacks to steer Cincinnati into position for a 19-16 victory over the Tennessee Titans, bringing the Bengals their first AFC Championship Game berth since 1988.
Burrow, 25, will be able to enhance his status as one of the NFL's top young quarterbacks on Sunday against the Kansas City Chiefs (3 p.m. ET, CBS).
With the win over the Titans, Burrow became the first quarterback who was a former No. 1 overall draft pick to reach a conference championship game in his first or second season. Taylor said the question of how Burrow can be so mature and play this well despite his relative inexperience is what always leaves him struggling for a good answer.
“He’s rare,” Taylor said in a news conference Sunday. “It’s impossible to put into words why he is why he is.”
When a team drafts someone with the top overall pick, it’s with the expectation the player will be a transcendent presence. Cincinnati’s win over the Titans was an example of what Burrow brings to the table.
According to Elias Sports Bureau research, Burrow became the second player in the Super Bowl Era (since 1966) to win a playoff game after being sacked nine or more times. He was 28-of-37 passing for 348 yards, no touchdowns and one interception. Burrow’s 19-yard completion to rookie Ja'Marr Chase with 20 seconds remaining set up Evan McPherson’s winning field goal.
“If you call consecutive passes after sacks, he’s going to step up and play as if he didn’t get sacked the play before,” Taylor said.
Cincinnati’s matchup against the Chiefs also features another one of the game’s best quarterbacks. Patrick Mahomes led the winning touchdown drive in the Chiefs' overtime win against the Bills on Sunday and is a major reason Kansas City, which opened as a 7-point favorite to beat Cincinnati, is playing in the AFC title game for the third consecutive season.
Burrow, who threw for 446 yards and four touchdowns in a win over Mahomes and the Chiefs on Jan. 2, is having that same impact on Cincinnati. As good as he has been on the field, his leadership role has been equally important.
During the team meeting the night before Saturday’s divisional game, Bengals safety Jessie Bates III said while Burrow has always carried a strong sense of poise and calmness, the quarterback has started to become more vocal.
Sometimes he reaches for profanity, too.
“I feel like he’s starting to really step out of that shell, where he can hold people accountable -- ‘It’s OK, Joey B, you can go cuss somebody out and we’ll be fine,’” Bates said Sunday. “I think that’s where he’s really stepping into his own. He’s really just putting everything on himself.”
The team that played for Taylor in his first season in 2019 looks vastly different now. Burrow is part of a blended roster with experienced veterans the Bengals signed within the past two years and a young core of players, such as Burrow and Chase, who were acquired in recent draft classes. With that, Burrow said, comes a sense of blissful naivety.
“We've brought in a lot of guys that have been in this kind of moment in this game,” Burrow said after Saturday’s win. “We're also a really young team that doesn't really don't know what we don't know. We're out there playing football with our friends, so that's what it's like.”
With one more win, the Bengals will be playing for a Super Bowl. Throughout its best playoff run in 33 years, Cincinnati leaned into the role of the happy-go-lucky team .
That changed the night before the game against the Titans. As the captains addressed the entire team, Burrow initially planned to stay silent. But he called an audible and delivered a small but noteworthy statement.
Cincinnati isn’t fortunate to be one of four teams left in this year’s playoffs. The Bengals are a good team that earned its place.
That message, like the opportunity in front of him, signals that Burrow is the cornerstone quarterback he was drafted to become.
Said Bates: “That’s Franchise Joey for a reason.”