Agonisingly close to their first NFL Championship win in February, the Cincinnati Bengals prepare to go again in the belief it wasn't their one and only shot at glory.
Article originally published on 23/06/2022
Last season, the Bengals lifted a 31-year 'curse' by winning their first playoff game in a generation before taking the postseason scalps of the AFC's top-seeded Tennessee Titans and back-to-back conference champions Kansas City.
For a team that finished 4-12 the year before, it was a huge leap forward. But they came up short against the Los Angeles Rams in the world championship game, leaving many to wonder if Zac Taylor's team will ever get a better chance.
The Bengals were only the third team in 56 games to lose an NFL Championship despite winning the turnover battle by two or more. Even in the modern context it's rare to see teams lose with turnover differentials of +2 - as only 14 of 113 combined did in the NFL last year.
Cincinnati's failure to capitalise on this comes down to not executing on offense as quarterback Joe Burrow took seven sacks and two crucial third-and-1 plays went unconverted.
The good news is that both can be fixed in one fell swoop by improving the offensive line - which was prioritised by the front office during free agency.
The team added three starters - center Ted Karras, right guard Alex Cappa and right tackle La'el Collins - to bolster a unit that gave up 51 sacks last season.
If the Bengals never come closer than they did at SoFi Stadium last February they can at least take solace from the fact they wouldn't be the first team to live with regrets for the rest of their lives.
The Titans looked like destiny was beckoning them after the incredible 'Music City Miracle' play kept them alive in the 1999 postseason.
They lost the 34th instalment of the NFL showpiece to the St Louis Rams, 23-16, when Kevin Dyson was tackled one-yard short of the goal line trying to convert a first-and-goal from the 10 with six seconds left on the clock.
Tennessee made the playoffs in three of the next four seasons, but ran into one of the best defenses of the era when the Baltimore Ravens came out on top in 2000 and, when the Bill Belichick/Tom Brady era began shortly after, their window of opportunity had closed.
The Carolina Panthers were in the same boat too after losing the 38th NFL Championship to a 41-yard Adam Vinatieri kick four seconds from the end of regulation. They made it back to the conference title game two years later, but were blown away by the Seattle Seahawks and, after only one winning season in the next five, head coach John Fox and most of his players were gone.
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Here's why the Bengals, +2000 for NFL Championship glory, should bounce back from squandering their first shot.
Firstly, they know why it went wrong and are fixing the offensive line. Also, the players don't sound as though they have lost the humble identity that made them AFC champions after just one successful season.
Head coach Taylor, +2500 for Coach of the Year, has proved himself to be a shrewd operator and he has kept all his staff in place for another crack at immortality in 2022.
Likewise, Burrow arrived as an elite level QB in 2021 and took that on a stage further in the postseason where he did pretty much all that was asked of him while occasionally running for his life behind a shoddy offensive line.
He has the weapons around him to be even better in the future and his cool persona both on and off the field have drawn comparisons to former San Francisco 49ers great Joe Montana.
Competing in the AFC North, for which Cincinnati are +200 to win, has traditionally been tough, but it's no longer the domain of a Ben Roethlisberger-led Pittsburgh Steelers.
The Steelers are potentially years away from having a QB as good as Big Ben while the Browns are transitioning from Baker Mayfield to Deshaun Watson, who didn't play at all in 2021 - so it's all up for grabs again.
The NFL landscape is different now too. Dynasties like the Patriots enjoyed until recently or those established by the Dallas Cowboys or San Francisco 49ers are hard to maintain in this era of free agency. The Bengals will have that problem once they get their hands on the Lombardi Trophy and not before.
But make no mistake, their window of opportunity is open the widest now and for another couple of seasons until Burrow signs a huge long-term deal. That's when the numbers will become harder to crunch for Cincinnati's GM and talent might start slipping away.
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