Worst to first: Bengals clinch AFC North title with win over the Chiefs

Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase (1) is introduced before the first quarter...
Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase (1) is introduced before the first quarter during a Week 17 NFL game against the Kansas City Chiefs, Sunday, Jan. 2, 2022, at Paul Brown Stadium in Cincinnati.(Kareem Elgazzar/Cincinnati Enquirer)
Published: Jan. 2, 2022 at 4:15 PM EST
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CINCINNATI (Cincinnati Enquirer) - Back in Week 12, after the Cincinnati Bengals won by 31 points, Bengals head coach Zac Taylor ended his Sunday night by watching football in his backyard with the rest of his family.

As the Taylor family shared a pepperoni pizza and started a fire, Zac’s wife, Sarah, asked him why he wasn’t more excited. In what could have been a celebration, Zac was calmer than she expected following the team’s biggest win of the year at that point.

Zac told Sarah he didn’t become an NFL coach to celebrate a November win. He told her that once he wins something of real significance, he’ll show a lot more excitement.

On Sunday, the Bengals had the franchise-changing moment that Taylor had been waiting for. The Bengals beat the Kansas City Chiefs, 34-31, to clinch a playoff berth, and the win carries even more meaning than that.

It happened because Taylor made the most aggressive and most important decision of his coaching career. With less than a minute remaining, the Bengals had 4th and 1 from the 1-yard line. Taylor decided to go for it.

The play ended with offsetting penalties. The Bengals had another 4th and 1 from the 1-yard line, and Taylor decided to go for it again. Chiefs defensive back L’Jarius Sneed committed a hands to the face penalty, which gave the Bengals an automatic first down.

As the clock ran out, rookie kicker Evan McPherson made the game-winning 20-yard field goal.

The Bengals are AFC North champions and Super Bowl contenders. It only took three years for Taylor to reach that point, and it only took quarterback Joe Burrow two seasons to become the type of quarterback who’s good enough to win a Super Bowl.

The Bengals used 2021 free agency to remake a defense that got the stops that mattered against the most explosive offense in the NFL. Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes has led the Chiefs to consecutive AFC championships, but the Bengals were the better team on Sunday.

This is the same Bengals organization that won six combined games in 2019 and 2020. Now, the Bengals have proved they can beat anyone, and they’ve proved that they have as good of a shot as any team to win the AFC this season.

No matter how long Burrow plays for the Bengals, there will never be another season like this one. There will never be another year where a team that was considered too young to compete took the AFC by storm and made one of the most surprising runs to the playoffs in franchise history.

The Bengals won their fifth AFC North title in franchise history, and Burrow played like a quarterback who’s going to lead the Bengals to even more.

Cincinnati trailed by 14 points on three different occasions on Sunday. Every time, Burrow and wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase willed the Bengals back into the game. In the first half, Burrow hit Chase for a 72-yard touchdown where Chase ran around six Chiefs defenders to reach the end zone.

Chase finished the game with a franchise record in single-game receiving yards, including a miracle 30-yard catch on 3rd and 27 with 3:19 remaining.

It was as good as Burrow and Chase have ever played together.

On the first possession of the second half, Burrow found Chase wide open down the left sideline for a 69-yard touchdown. Chase played the best game of his NFL career, and Burrow continued an unprecedented run of success in the second half of the season.

Burrow, who set the franchise single-season record for passing yards and touchdown passes, kept the offense afloat in a matchup where the Bengals struggled to run the ball. In addition to the touchdown throws to Chase, he found wide receivers Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd down the field for explosive plays as the Bengals made multiple 14-point comebacks.

With six minutes left, the Bengals got the ball back in a tie game. Burrow led the Bengals down the field with two first down throws to Chase, which took the game to the two-minute warning. Following the two 4th and 1 plays, McPherson made the game-winner.

In a milestone day for the Bengals, Cincinnati wrapped up the AFC North title. One year after the Bengals finished in last place in the division, they ended the year as the champs.

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