ANALYSIS: 7 thoughts on the end of the Bengals season, where to go from here

Another good Cincinnati Bengals season has ended in disappointment.

This is of course better than a bad season ending positively, which was often the best hope of most Bengals seasons for about three decades.

There were good seasons under Marvin Lewis, and they all ended in disappointment, but they also provided a few fewer thrills along the way.

Are these the new good ol’ days? Not quite yet, but at least the question is worth asking.

More thoughts following the AFC Championship Game loss in Kansas City:

1. One that got away becomes two that got away.

Last year, the Super Bowl barely felt real, but it was actually one the Bengals deserved to win more than this AFC Championship Game in which they never led.

What is that worth? Not much, but I thought it was worth pointing out.

2. Of course they still had opportunities.

Going into the game I wasn’t quite sure how to feel. I thought the Bengals had a good chance to win, certainly better than last year. I would have picked them if someone asked.

I also wasn’t sure if I was really ready for a world where they are the big dog. Shouldn’t the climb take longer? Are Bengals fans really ready to be the bully?

Maybe that’s a ridiculous thought, but it doesn’t matter now anyway. Burrow and the boys are still climbing, still reaching for the top, but it is unquestionably in sight.

3. The Bengals accomplished very much the last two years.

They grabbed the attention of the NFL world in January 2022, and they showed they proved it wasn’t a fluke this December and January after risking becoming a laughingstock in September with their slow start.

You have to respect the front office for the job of building the team, of identifying pieces they need and going after them the last two offseasons. They should have another fun one this year with some tough choices coming up.

Just having Joe Burrow isn’t enough, and the past two years show the franchise isn’t likely to get lulled into believing so even if there are bound to be years they have more flexibility than others.

4. To that end, the game really coming down to the offensive line again is so sadly ironic.

They remade 80 percent of the line, including with three good free agent signings, and had things rolling before three injuries derailed the progress and left them vulnerable.

Three injuries happening over the course of the season might not be terrible luck, but having them all at the end really is.

5. The coaching staff drew a lot of slings and arrows early this season for legitimate reasons, but they did a great job figuring out how to adjust and put guys in position to succeed.

Now they get that benefit of the doubt moving forward that I wasn’t ready to give in September. Losing winnable games early did not bode well for the tougher second half of the schedule, but then they went out and won all those games instead.

By now Zac Taylor’s impact on the locker room is impossible to doubt, but they made a lot of schematic changes as the season went on that made a big difference so that’s another concern to cross off the list.

6. I remember Mike Brown saying a few years ago at one of the preseason luncheons I attended the goal is to win the Super Bowl.

Of course that should be the case, but it just sounded so silly to me anyway.

They hadn’t won a playoff game since I was 8, but now that is not only a legit goal but THE goal. How about that?

I have to admit I counted this team out more than once, and I’m glad I was wrong because it was more fun seeing them win and will be more fun being optimistic in the offseason than wondering what 2021 really meant in the big picture.

7. This is a good team across the board, not just one being dragged along by Burrow.

The latter may happen from time to time in the future, but that realization was another result of this season’s success.

Player 1-22, this roster is very good. From there, winning in the NFL is a matter of depth and breaks. Sometimes you get the latter, sometimes you don’t, but that is also where having Burrow is a major advantage.

After last season, I thought, ‘Well this was fun, but they’ll have better shots in the future.’ This was a pretty good shot…

I’m not sure if it’s fair to ever expect them to be much better in any given year. The OL can improve, even the healthy version. Burrow will keep getting better.

The receivers? We’ll see, but keeping them together is going to be very challenging.

The defense? Kinda the same deal, which is why the improvement of the offensive line is going to be a big key. If they can go from manageable weakness to strength, that would offset the decline of another area.

Of course, the Bengals are going to have to keep drafting well and developing guys.

I always feel like teams need to climb the ladder, pay their dues. It’s more fulfilling that way. The Bengals jumped the line last year, and it seemed like they might just go straight from underdogs to masters of the universe, but obviously that didn’t happen.

Being in it every year is something to look forward to. Now how about winning it?

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