KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Break out the victory cigars. The Cincinnati Bengals are headed to the Super Bowl.
For the first time in decades, the Bengals are AFC champions. Cincinnati defeated the Kansas City Chiefs 27-24 in overtime on Sunday to capture its first conference championship since 1989. The Bengals will face the Los Angeles Rams in Super Bowl LVI.
Cincinnati rookie kicker Evan McPherson hit a 31-yard field goal in overtime to cap a furious Bengals rally. The winning drive was set up after Cincinnati safety Jessie Bates deflected a deep pass from Kansas City quarterback Patrick Mahomes that was intercepted by safety Vonn Bell.
Plumes of victory smoke and ample champagne was sprayed inside the visiting locker room at Arrowhead Stadium. Cincinnati had plenty to celebrate.
“I think if you would have told me coming into the league when I got drafted that we’d be here this year, obviously it would be a shock,” Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow said after the game. “But like I said earlier, no, I’m not surprised.”
Burrow became the first No. 1 overall draft pick to lead a team to the Super Bowl in just his second year. He finished 23-of-38 for 250 yards, two touchdowns and one interception. He also had some pivotal scrambles for first downs in a second-half performance to remember.
Needing only to kick a field goal to win — after Kansas City won the overtime toss, took possession and was stopped — the Bengals mixed the pass with the run, churning out first downs in front of a stunned Kansas City crowd, eventually giving way to McPherson 5:24 into overtime. The winning kick was his fourth field goal of the game.
Cincinnati’s comeback is tied for the largest ever in a title game during the Super Bowl era. The 2006 Indianapolis Colts also rallied from 18 down to win the AFC title against the New England Patriots.
Cincinnati defied the odds and pulled off a road upset for the second straight week. After toppling the top-seeded Tennessee Titans in the divisional round, Cincinnati was a seven-point underdog against Kansas City, which made its fourth straight appearance in the AFC title game.
But the Bengals’ internal belief that they could beat any team in the NFL was justified following Sunday’s victory at Arrowhead Stadium.
“When our back’s against the wall, that’s when we fight the best,” Bell said. “Guys bowed up. Made big-time stops, big-time plays. [We] have a resilient group and we really showed that.”
Cincinnati trailed 21-3 at one point in the second quarter and appeared to be out of the game.
But the Bengals started to slowly chip away at the deficit, starting with a 41-yard touchdown reception by Samaje Perine off a screen play. Cincinnati defensive tackle B.J. Hill picked off Mahomes midway through the third quarter, a turnover that sparked a 2-yard touchdown pass from Burrow to wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase just before the end of the quarter.
The way the game unfolded was very similar to Cincinnati’s Week 17 win over Kansas City, when the Bengals rallied from a 14-point deficit to win 34-31 and clinch the AFC North title and their first playoff berth since 2015.
The Bengals had to claw back from another big deficit on Sunday, and cornerback Eli Apple made a critical open-field tackle on Kansas City wide receiver Tyreek Hill a yard away from the goal line on the final play of the first half to keep the Chiefs’ lead at 11.
From there, the Bengals kept rolling.
Cincinnati ended the infamous “Curse of Bo Jackson” when it beat the Las Vegas Raiders at home in the wild-card game, its first playoff win in 31 seasons.
The franchise’s victory over Tennessee, the team’s first road playoff victory, set up the AFC title game against Kansas City, the Super Bowl LIV champion vying for its third consecutive conference title. The Bengals and Burrow had other plans. Cincinnati, which most recently went to the Super Bowl in 1989, won the franchise’s third AFC championship in as many attempts.
Per Elias Sports Bureau research, the Bengals are the third team to go from worst to first in a three-season span. The 1981 49ers were one of those squads. They went on to beat the Bengals in Super Bowl XVI.
Before Super Bowl LIV in February 2020, Burrow and Bengals teammate Sam Hubbard spent some time together in Miami. Hubbard told his former Ohio State teammate and friend that the Bengals needed to take him with the No. 1 overall pick.
At that point, the Bengals were coming off a two-win season with no playoff aspirations in sight.
“I’ve been pretty miserable, along with a lot of my teammates, the last few years, losing so many games,” Hubbard said. “I told Joe, ‘We need you. You’re the guy to turn this around. I know it.'”
Burrow embraced that, Hubbard said. In the past three years, Burrow has held a Heisman Trophy and college football national championship trophy.
On Sunday, in front of a horde of Bengals fans who were still in the red seats at Arrowhead Stadium, Burrow lifted another as an AFC champion.
“You can’t even write stories like this,” Hubbard said. “It’s amazing.”