CINCINNATI -- In the minutes following the Cincinnati Bengals' AFC Championship Game loss to the Kansas City Chiefs, Bengals players handled the immediate aftermath differently.
One scrolled down his phone, thumbing through the Twitter discourse after Kansas City’s late 23-20 win. Others inside the cramped visiting locker room at Arrowhead Stadium sat silently at their lockers. A few players consoled each other.
“You were so close to winning an AFC Championship back to back and going to the Super Bowl on the road,” Bengals coach Zac Taylor said, regarding his message to the team. “There have been a lot of obstacles thrown at this team, and they knocked them all down. We just couldn’t get past this last one here.”
After reaching the Super Bowl last season, Cincinnati started the year with two straight losses, was at the .500 mark after Week 8 and carried a 10-game winning streak into the AFC Championship Game.
It was a lot to process. Here are the three main takeaways from the 2022 Bengals season.
Cincinnati established itself as a true AFC contender
The oddsmakers and general public had a tough time squaring the notion of the Bengals as true AFC contenders. Even though Cincinnati reached Super Bowl LVI last season, the Bengals had lower odds to make it back to the big game than some of the other teams in the AFC, including the Los Angeles Chargers.
“When people call it a fluke, we just smile and take it on,” Bengals cornerback Mike Hilton said in May. “We’re ready to go out there and prove it again.”
Cincinnati left no doubt by the end of the year. One season after winning the first playoff game and AFC championship in more than 30 years, the Bengals built on their success in 2021 by matching the highest number of regular-season wins (12) in franchise history. The most impressive victory came in the postseason, when Cincinnati defeated Buffalo on the road, 27-10.
Kansas City general manager Brett Veach referenced that victory and said that beating Cincinnati in a rematch of last year’s AFC Championship Game made the Chiefs' win that much sweeter.
“This is the team that knocked you out [of the playoffs] last year,” Veach said in his post-game news conference. “They’re a really good team.”
Burrow makes the leap
In his third NFL season, Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow entered the conversation as one of the league’s best players. He was a Pro Bowl selection in 2022 after completing 68.3% of his passes for 4,475 yards, 35 touchdowns and 12 interceptions.
He accomplished all of that despite an emergency appendectomy that occurred right before training camp. The further removed Burrow was from the procedure, the better he played. From Week 6 until the end of the regular season, Burrow ranked fifth in the NFL in QBR, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
Burrow also finished the year as a finalist to win the Associated Press’ NFL Most Valuable Player award.
“I think he’s deserving of anything that comes his way,” Bengals coach Zac Taylor said on Jan. 25. “He’s one of the greatest players in this league. Those are usually the types of guys that should be in that conversation. I’ve said it a million times. We’re fortunate to have him.”
Burrow broke his own franchise record for most passing touchdowns in a single season and helped the offense finish fifth in the NFL in points per drive, up from 12th a year ago.
Cincinnati approaching a critical offseason
Now that the season has ended, everything in Cincinnati is centered on one critical topic -- Burrow’s contract extension.
Because Burrow has been in the league for three years, he is now eligible to reach a new contract with the Bengals. And while Cincinnati has enjoyed the benefits of having a top-tier quarterback on a rookie deal, the Bengals will have to pay Burrow what he’s worth. That deal could not only make him one of the highest-paid players in the league, but it will also have significant ramifications on the team’s salary cap in future years.
One day after the season ended, Taylor said Burrow’s looming extension is already on the team’s offseason agenda.
"I think that starts now internally,“ Taylor said. “Just wrapped up with the team today and as you go forward, you get a chance to start talking about Joe and all the other players that are up.”
There are big contract decisions to be made across the board, including other members of the 2020 rookie class such as linebacker Logan Wilson and wide receiver Tee Higgins.
The money and structure of Burrow’s contract extension will impact how the Bengals will build a roster looking to go from one of the best teams in the AFC to Super Bowl champions.