CINCINNATI -- Lou Anarumo doesn’t know exactly what was said.
But the message from the Cincinnati Bengals' defensive coordinator at halftime of the team’s Week 15 game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers was a familiar one. Even though the favored Bengals found themselves staring at a 17-3 deficit, he urged patience that the unit’s fortunes were going to turn around.
“That's about the only thing I remember to be honest,” Anarumo recalled four weeks later.
That’s exactly what happened. The Bengals forced four straight turnovers, scored 31 straight points and won 34-23.
The game best explains why the defending AFC champions are poised for another postseason run. Despite various setbacks — a rough start to the season, a quarterback recovering from an emergency appendectomy, injuries to two starting offensive linemen — Cincinnati is well-positioned to return to the Super Bowl thanks to a firm sense of collective identity and steadiness through choppy waters.
“When you are part of a really good team like we have you feel that,” Bengals coach Zac Taylor said. “That leads to no panic, just confidence that we'll get it going the right way.”
There is no question the Bengals are a complete team heading into Sunday’s wild-card playoff game against the Baltimore Ravens (8:15 p.m. ET, NBC). The Bengals (12-4) rode an eight-game winning streak into the postseason, which tied a franchise record set in 2015.
The Bengals are fifth in the NFL in points per drive, up from 12th a year ago. Cincinnati’s defense is also ninth in points allowed per drive. Crucially, the team is fifth in the NFL in touchdown differential, up from eighth in 2021, having reached the end zone 18 more times than its opponents.
But to get to those marks, the Bengals had to overcome significant challenges.
Stitched up and standing out
Had the Bengals held on in Super Bowl LVI against the Los Angeles Rams, Burrow would have become the first quarterback to win a Heisman Trophy, college football national championship and a Super Bowl. Despite the 23-20 loss, team president Mike Brown was thrilled with the top overall pick in the 2020 draft who was tabbed to transform the franchise.
“I can tell you that we couldn’t be happier with Joe Burrow,” Brown said in July 2022 when speaking with local reporters. “He’s everything you would wish for, especially for a quarterback in Cincinnati.”
One day after Brown made that comment, Burrow suffered a ruptured appendix and was hospitalized on the eve of training camp. When he met with reporters three weeks later, he declined to say how much weight he lost and said he had been in the hospital for multiple days.
In the team’s season opener against the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sept. 11, Burrow threw a career-high four interceptions in a 23-20 overtime loss.
“When they cut you up and sew you back together, all those wires gotta sync back up again,” said Jordan Palmer, brother of ex-Bengals starter Carson Palmer and the private quarterback coach for several NFL players, including Burrow.
Taylor and Burrow were the team’s top evangelists.
“Everyone is frustrated but like I said we're not panicking, two games in, we got 15 games left,” Burrow said on Sept. 21. “Let’s all just take a deep breath and relax. We're going to be fine. We're not worried about it.”
The further removed Burrow was from his surgery, the better he played. In Weeks 1 through 5, he ranked 18th in Total QBR and 20th in completion percentage over expectation, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Since Week 6, he ranked fifth and second in those categories, respectively.
During that span, he also ranked third in Total Expected Points Added, per NFL Next Gen Stats. Burrow finished the year by setting the franchise record for most passing touchdowns in a season (35), resetting the mark he set in 2021 in one fewer game.
And even when Burrow and the offense haven't been at their best, it has still been enough.
“Not every game is going to be perfect,” Burrow said. “You have to fight through adversity. That’s what the NFL is all about.”
A family-like bond
Cincinnati started the season with two losses and many questions were raised about whether the Bengals might be suffering from a Super Bowl hangover, or even worse, one-year wonders. Taylor, the fourth-year coach and the team’s offensive playcaller, fielded much of the criticism as Cincinnati’s offense struggled early.
But Taylor never wavered in his belief in the team’s capabilities.
“Early in the season, it was easy to fall in the narrative of struggles, 0-2, whatever it was,” Taylor said Wednesday. “You never felt that. I knew what was being said outside. But I knew inside these walls, no one felt that.
“No one was nervous that we weren’t going to accomplish what we were saying. We knew we had plenty of time.”
When Cincinnati started building the current roster in 2020, scouting director Duke Tobin and the front office added players from winning college programs and NFL teams to transform the league’s worst team in 2019, when Cincinnati was 2-14.
Defensive tackle DJ Reader, who signed a four-year deal worth $53 million, came from a Houston Texans team that pushed the Kansas City Chiefs to the brink in the playoffs. Safety Vonn Bell, who inked a three-year deal worth $18 million, started on the New Orleans Saints team that reached the NFC Championship Game in 2018.
“In ’19 you had a lot of guys off the street,” Bengals linebacker Germaine Pratt said. “Then you got guys from different programs, different teams that were a part of winning.”
While some parts have been added over the past couple of years, many of the team’s key cornerstones have been on the team since at least 2020. Reader compared it to being in a long-term relationship “with somebody you’re truly in love with.” The bonds built over a span of years is why the team has been able to weather rocky moments during games and seasons.
“Yeah, we might get mad about the same old things, get annoyed with certain stuff, but it’s the trust and respect we have for each other in that locker room because we’ve been through it,” Reader said. “We’ve seen that guy grind across from us for most of us for two years from now and we understand what that guy is about.”
O-line injuries a concern?
The lack of panic has extended to significant injuries faced throughout the season. When Cincinnati lost starting wide receivers Ja’Marr Chase (hip) and Tee Higgins (hamstring) at different points, the Bengals’ offense found ways to win.
Now, the AFC North champions will have to manage one of the most criticized units on the team — the offensive line. Last year, Burrow was sacked 70 times in the regular season and postseason, with seven of those coming in the Super Bowl loss to the Rams. Cincinnati responded by replacing all the starters on the offensive line except for left tackle Jonah Williams.
Right tackle La’el Collins is on injured reserve with a torn ACL in his left knee. Right guard Alex Cappa, the crown jewel of the offseason additions, is out for at least Sunday’s game against Baltimore with a left ankle injury.
“I just want to make it clear that Alex Cappa was the singular force that drives this offensive line,” center Ted Karras said. “It’s like having another center on the field. He’s my No. 1 confidant and he’s extremely talented.”
The metrics present a muddy picture of how good Cincinnati’s offensive line was this season. Even with the additions, the Bengals remained no higher than 30th in pass block win rate, an ESPN metric powered by NFL Next Gen Stats.
However, Burrow's contact rate dropped from 21.4% in 2021 to 18.5%, according to ESPN Stats & Information. That number dropped to 10% on extended throws that took longer than 2.5 second after the snap.
Burrow has praised the offensive line throughout the season. With Max Scharping stepping in for Karras and Hakeem Adeniji taking over for Collins, Burrow knows the challenges of replacing the starters on the right side of the offensive line.
The quarterback emphasized things such as maximizing reps during walkthroughs and talking through different defensive looks as a group. But the confidence that has permeated this season has extended to Cincinnati’s current offensive line.
“Everyone knows what their responsibility is,” Bengals rookie left guard Cordell Volson said. “I just think we have a really good room that’s really gelled together.”
The Bengals have never won playoff games in consecutive seasons. A win against Baltimore changes that. As of Thursday morning, Cincinnati was an 8.5-point favorite over the Ravens, according to Caesars Sportsbook.
Should the Bengals win, Cincinnati might have to go on the road and face the likes of Buffalo or Kansas City in order to return to the AFC Championship Game. Should things get tough, Cincinnati trusts itself to remain steady as it makes another run at the Super Bowl.
Said Taylor: “They've been through this before and they know what it's going to take to do it again.”