Super Bowl LVI: Joe Burrow, young Bengals don’t feel pressure despite franchise’s playoff woes

LOS ANGELES, Feb. 8 (UPI) — Joe Burrow says his young Cincinnati Bengals teammates can’t fathom the magnitude of their unexpected run to Super Bowl LVI, which snapped a 31-year playoff win drought and could bring the franchise its first title.

“Honestly, we’ve never even spoken about the playoff drought once this whole season,” Burrow said Monday in a virtual news conference.

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That mindset, a narrow focus and a conscious effort to construct the team with experienced winners — from college and other NFL teams — is behind one of the most improbable playoff runs in recent NFL history.

The Bengals are one of a dozen NFL franchises without a Vince Lombardi Trophy. They’ll fight for their first against the Los Angeles Rams on Sunday in Inglewood, Calif.

The Rams, who own one title, reached the NFL’s grandest stage just three seasons ago and were among the preseason favorites to win in 2022.

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The Bengals are in new territory after first-round exits in each of their last seven playoff appearances. They entered the season with a three-decade drought for a playoff win and were given the third-worst odds to win the title.

“We have a really young team that doesn’t really even understand the historical significance of what we’re doing,” Burrow said. “We are just out here playing football and getting better while we are doing it.”

Burrow, who grew up in Athens, Ohio, was just 9 years old when former franchise quarterback Carson Palmer sustained a brutal knee injury in the 2006 playoffs, ending one of the Bengals’ most promising seasons.

He was born seven years after the Bengals’ last Super Bowl appearance in 1989, but was too young to remember many of the most futile years. By the time Burrow was a teenager, the Bengals transformed from one of the worst performing into an annual division contender.

Still, the NFL’s top prize — and even a single playoff win — remained elusive. Burrow led the team through the latter obstacle in his first postseason try. He’ll need to overcome one of the league’s top defenses on its home turf to place a lone Lombardi in the Bengals’ empty trophy case.

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Bengals coach Zac Taylor said Monday that the new Bengals’ regime respects past efforts, but those struggles are now out of focus.

“We are very proud of the history here of the Cincinnati Bengals, going back several decades,” Taylor said. “There have been tremendous teams, coaches and memories.

“It’s important to embrace all that, but these are the 2021 Cincinnati Bengals. They weren’t part of all that [losing]. They have a very narrow focus, week-to-week, playing their best.”

The Bengals started the season with just five players over 30 years old on the roster, the third-lowest in the NFL teams. The team’s average player age of 25.69 is the fourth-youngest in the league.

They may be inexperienced as professionals, but the team’s key players know what it takes to compete at the sport’s highest level and have achieved the accolades to prove it. That fact wasn’t lost on Taylor and the rosters’ other architects.

Building the Bengals

Burrow is the obvious on-field leader, but hiring Taylor in 2019 started the Bengals’ rebuilding. Taylor and player personnel director Duke Tobin worked behind the scenes over the last few years to construct around Burrow, prioritizing not just talent, but also drive, leadership and past success in college and free-agent targets.

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The Bengals’ top-two wide receivers, Ja’Marr Chase and Tee Higgins, are 21 and 23, respectively. Like Burrow, they won national titles in college.

And like Burrow, each excelled immediately at the NFL level. Chase recently earned a 2021 Offensive Rookie of the Year award. Higgins posted his first 1,000-yard campaign this season.

“It’s something you don’t think about going into your rookie year, especially not knowing how good the team is going to be,” Chase said Monday. “Once you see the outcome, you enjoy the process and you have no choice but to have fun while you are playing. That’s what I’m trying to do.”

Many Bengals players faced large, hostile crowds consistently in college, elevated their teams and spread contagious competitive energy to teammates. Those traits have seeped into this Bengals roster.

“Those guys are used to this stage and the spotlight of going to the championship,” Taylor said. “The NFL is a similar stage for them. They expected to be here and expected to produce.”

This year, Burrow became the first No. 1 overall pick in NFL history to quarterback a team to a Super Bowl within his first two seasons. The Bengals’ defense is even younger than its offense, and ranked among the youngest in the league.

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Burrow said Taylor’s youth also continues to make a positive impact on the roster. Taylor, 38, is the second-youngest coach in the NFL, trailing only Rams coach Sean McVay, who is 36.

“Nobody even realizes how young Zac is,” Burrow said. “He does a great job of commanding the room. The only time you notice [his age] is when he’s relating to the players. He does a great job of doing that, as you would expect.”

Veteran punter Kevin Huber, drafted by the Bengals in 2009 and who still sports scars from those past playoff losses, said Burrow’s mindset, and that experience of success injected into the roster by the Bengals’ braintrust, drives the team.

“It’s was tough to get over,” Huber wrote last month in The Players’ Tribune, when discussing the franchise’s struggles. “But Joe, Ja’Marr, all our young guys? They don’t have [that bad experience].

“Do you think they care about the Super Bowl losses, or the pain of 2005, or the penalties against the Pittsburgh Steelers? Of course not. They’re here to knock your teeth in. They’re here to win. They’re here to make history, right now.”

The Bengals, underdogs in many of their games this season, enter Super Bowl LVI as underdogs once more, with sports books giving the Rams a 3.5-point edge.

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Super Bowl LVI kicks off at at 6:30 p.m. EST Sunday at SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, Calif. The game will air on NBC.

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