No team had a more shocking 2021-22 regular season and playoff run than the Cincinnati Bengals. Almost no one expected this year’s AFC North champions to make it all the way to the Super Bowl. Now, they face a big question: are they good enough to do it again? The Bengals ended their first season with Joe Burrow, well, without Burrow. Their rookie quarterback, the 2020 NFL Draft’s first-overall pick, had his season end early when he suffered a gruesome knee injury in Week 11. Cincinnati dropped four of their last six games and dropped to 4-11-1 to end the season. With Burrow slated to return in 2021, the Bengals expected to see some improvement in their performance as well as a higher number in the win column by the end of this season. At the start of the regular season though, no one was really sure how this year’s team would fare. The sample size we’d gotten of Burrow was too small in 2020 for one thing, and he was coming back from a bad lower-body injury for another. On top of that, Cincinnati had drafted Ja’Marr Chase—and not an offensive lineman—with the fifth-overall pick, and he was having a serious issue with drops in the preseason. When the regular season began, we saw just what Burrow and Chase could do once reunited at the pro level: awesome…ness. And after a shaky couple of games in the middle of the season, the Bengals came out of their bye and went on to win the division. We all saw what happened after that. But is it a level of success they can repeat? Are the Bengals built to return to the Super Bowl? One thing that can’t be ignored about this 2021 Cincinnati team is the lucky circumstances they had within their division. After all, they were the least impressive division winners in the AFC with a 10-7 regular-season record. In Baltimore, the Ravens got hit with a brutal string of injuries before the regular season even began, only to have that followed up with losing their quarterback for their final homestretch. In Pittsburgh, Ben Roethlisberger looked like a shell of his former self, and the Steelers limped into the playoffs at 9-7-1. In Cleveland, Baker Mayfield kept trying to play through a partially torn labrum, and the Browns let go of Odell Beckham Jr. amidst some light drama. Even with all of the breaks going the Bengals’ way, they still had to win enough games to take advantage and win their division, and they did. The talent Cincinnati had on their roster in 2021 is a huge part of that. Their wide receiver corps of Chase, Tee Higgins, and Tyler Boyd is the best receiving trio in the NFL. Burrow is a great quarterback. C.J. Uzomah is a great tight end. The Bengals’ defense featured a terrific secondary of Jessie Bates III, Chidobe Awuzie, and Mike Hilton, as well as one of the best free agency signings of this offseason in edge rusher Trey Hendrickson. They’re just missing an offensive line. That much was clear for a lot of the season, as no quarterback was sacked nearly as many times as Burrow was. The sophomore quarterback took 51 sacks in the regular season. If that wasn’t enough, Burrow was sacked a record-tying nine times in the Bengals’ divisional round matchup with the Tennessee Titans and seven more times in the Super Bowl. In total, he took 70 sacks combined in the regular season and playoffs. That is far too many hits for a young quarterback to be taking, especially one coming off of a bad leg injury from his rookie year. Still, this is a Cincinnati team that seems built for success in future years. For one thing, their core of young talent will be around for a couple more years. Only Bates III and Uzomah—out of all of those aforementioned players—will hit free agency when the new league year starts. The good news continues with the fact that Cincinnati is in one of the best cap situations of any NFL team. Current projections according to Over the Cap have the Bengals with the third-most cap space in the NFL, with nearly $60 million free to spend in free agency. As if that wasn’t good enough, they also have eight draft picks. Altogether, that means Cincinnati has virtually all of the monetary and draft capital they need to plug every hole in their roster, particularly those in that offensive line. If the Bengals use their capital wisely, and (a bigger, more important) if the team stays mostly healthy while performing up to a similar level as this year, they’ll be successful again in 2022. Cincinnati should be an even better team with the added pieces in this coming offseason on top of their strong foundation. At the very least, they’ll be in a great spot to repeat as AFC North champs. And as we learned this year, once you make the playoffs, anything can happen.
- May 19, 2022
- May 19, 2022