After defeating the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC Championship game on Sunday afternoon, the Cincinnati Bengals have punched their ticket to Super Bowl LVI. Though improbable, as they were tied for the third-worst odds to start the 2021 season, Cincinnati has found a way to outlast their AFC opponents to win the conference. Their three playoff victories this postseason are the most in franchise history, and more surprisingly, these exceed the number of wins the Bengals had in the entire 2019 season.
In that abysmal 2019 year, Cincinnati had a very different roster than the one they have today. Their only starters from 2019 who remain on the team are Joe Mixon, Tyler Boyd, C.J. Uzomah, Trey Hopkins, Sam Hubbard, Germaine Pratt, Jessie Bates III and Kevin Huber.
This team has undergone significant changes across the previous two seasons, which have worked out in their favor. Let’s take a look at how they assembled this Super Bowl qualifying roster:
Just two seasons ago, Cincinnati finished with the worst record in the NFL at 2-14, earning the first-overall selection in the 2020 Draft. With this pick, 2020 College Football Playoff National Champion Joe Burrow became the franchise quarterback. Fresh off of his Heisman season, Bengals fans had a player who they believed could take them to the Super Bowl for the first time in over thirty years. Now, the signal-caller has a chance to be the first to win the National Championship, a Heisman Trophy and a Super Bowl in what will be just his 30th NFL game.
However, as teams with the first-overall pick must do, they had to construct a winning roster around their newly selected player. The Bengals decided to give Burrow another weapon to throw to in the same 2020 Draft and selected Tee Higgins with their next pick. Cincinnati also hit on linebacker Logan Wilson, who played every defensive snap in Sunday’s victory, in the third round.
In their 2020 free agency class, the Bengals acquired D.J. Reader and Vonn Bell, the latter of whom intercepted Patrick Mahomes on Sunday to set up the game-winning field goal.
These new additions helped establish the direction the Bengals wanted to head in, but their 2020 campaign wasn’t much better than the previous year. Joe Burrow tore his left ACL and MCL, ending his rookie season early. Fortunately for the former LSU Tiger, this was just a setback, as he won the PFWA Comeback Player of the Year this season.
The Bengals finished the 2020 season with a record of 4-11-1, still making them one of the worst teams in the league. Like all teams, Cincinnati had needs on their roster to address heading into the new season. But unlike many, the Bengals were able to fill all of Mike Giddings Jr.’s list of eight key needs heading into this season.
A third-party scouting service that has evaluated every player on every team each year, ProScout Inc. has worked with 34 Super Bowl teams and directly for 18 Hall of Fame coaches, general managers, and owners.
Part of ProScout’s service to teams includes identifying the top 20 needs of each NFL team heading into the year and pinpointing each team’s top 8 needs. ProScout continuously assesses how well each NFL team has filled those needs throughout the season and grades how each team filled their needs as either low, medium, or high. A team’s ability to fill each need strongly correlates with their ability to be a playoff team.
The Bengals filled each need at a Medium level at minimum, per ProScout Inc., and in turn saw their fortunes change from one of the NFL’s worst teams to a contending unit in just one year.
Some acquisitions the team made to fill these needs included players such as Larry Ogunjobi, B.J. Hill, Riley Reiff, Mike Hilton, Eli Apple, Quinton Spain and Chidobe Awuzie. The most impactful of them all, however, may have been Trey Hendrickson.
The former Saints standout has been one of the most impactful defensive players for the Bengals this year, finishing the regular season in the top-five in both sacks and total pressures. Hendrickson also registered at least half of a sack in 11 consecutive games, an absurd level of consistency. The pass rusher also finished the AFC Championship Game with a ridiculous 40.7% win rate, the sixth-highest figure for a player with at least 25 pass-rush snaps in a game this season.
With the fifth-overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft, some believed the team should use the selection to protect Burrow with an offensive lineman, such as Penei Sewell. Instead, the team opted to pair him with college teammate Ja’Marr Chase, who is currently the favorite to win Offensive Rookie of the Year after finishing fourth in receiving yards this season.
Another impact player the Bengals drafted in 2021 was kicker Evan McPherson. The fifth-round selection has been perfect this postseason, becoming the first kicker in history to make twelve field goals without a miss. The former Florida Gator also connected on walk-off field goals in the AFC Divisional and Championship rounds, and he has gone 4/4 in each of their playoff victories.
After this past offseason’s changes, Cincinnati directly followed Giddings and ProScout’s Axiom 1. This consists of filling six of your top eight needs, having ten or more Blue players (elite players at their positions) and having a Strike to Blue ratio better than 2:1 (strikes given based on age, injuries and production). The Bengals were one of the only teams in the NFL to fulfill all three of these recommendations, and they appear to be reaping the benefits as they will travel to SoFi Stadium to take on the Rams, who filled two of three.
The Bengals’ jump from worst in the NFL to Super Bowl-bound in just two seasons is astounding. Credit should be given to Cincinnati’s front office for constructing this roster in such a short amount of time. The same commendation is deserved for hiring and sticking with head coach Zac Taylor despite entering the year with the second-best odds of being the first coach replaced this season. This turnaround has been truly remarkable and now just one question remains; does this team have what it takes to win the Super Bowl?