CINCINNATI — Vonn Bell sat on the bench well after the clock ticked down to all zeros to end the Cincinnati Bengals attempt at their first Super Bowl championship last year, just soaking in the moment.
That feeling after coming up just short of the ultimate goal has served as a reminder to “maximize the moment,” and that is fueling the Bengals as they attempt to make another run at finishing what they could not last year.
Cincinnati begins its quest for another Super Bowl trip Sunday when the third-seeded Bengals (12-4) host the sixth-seeded Baltimore Ravens (10-7) in an AFC Wild Card game at Paycor Stadium.
“You never forget the feeling,” Bell said Monday. “You think of all the sacrifices, all the time, the preparation you’re putting yourself through, the coaches putting themselves through being away from their family, being away from loved ones, and really spending that with you and we didn’t get the job done. We just fought back, like again, just fought back to get to this moment. (We’re) really honing in on this moment, really just trying to finish the moment.
“(The coaches) talked about it in training camp, about maximizing the moment. And that’s what we’re in right now. Just learning that from last year, going through the situation of the playoffs and going to the Super Bowl and really working back to it, it’s a testament to us and a testament to the guys in the locker room, like I said, and really just having that ‘not finished’ mindset and really want guys to keep on going, keep on thriving and really just finish the job.”
The Bengals were fortunate to bring back almost everyone from their 2022 defense and most of the offense with the exception of the offensive line that needed upgraded and the replacement of tight end C.J. Uzomah with Hayden Hurst.
That likely won’t be the case next year with players like Bell, free safety Jessie Bates, cornerback Eli Apple and linebacker Germaine Pratt coming up on the end of their contracts, and others like Joe Burrow and Tee Higgins, able to begin negotiating extensions as they head into the final year of their rookie deals in 2023.
Uncertainty about how much of this team will stay together is something that makes this run something to cherish.
“We all know what we signed up for,” Bell said. “We all know going into this last year that it was going to be tough. Like everybody knows, it’s just a business. It’s the business side of things. But we let that take care of itself. But we just want to maximize the moment, really cherish the moment, because you never know what can happen within the year.”
Burrow believes the Bengals will be competing for championships as long as he is playing, but his future is more certain than others. Owner and president Mike Brown made clear in his annual pre-training camp media availability that locking up Burrow for the longterm is a priority, and Burrow seems confident in that as well.
Asked on Sunday if he ever thinks about a window to win with this team, he said “the window is open my whole career.”
That doesn’t mean he’s not taking Bengals coach Zac Taylor’s message to heart. Taylor has been preaching since training camp the importance of staying focused, and the players have done that while winning eight straight going into the playoffs and 12 of the last 14 games.
“Don’t let any week slip by,” Taylor said. “You can’t afford to sleepwalk through a week, especially this back half of the season. We wouldn’t be in the position we are today, winning the division, hosting a home-field playoff game. It took all eight of those wins consecutively for us to get here. On Halloween we were 4-4. And for this team to keep focused every single week and maximize every opportunity we got speaks to how special this group is.”
Taylor added that last year showed what the Bengals are capable of, and they did what they needed to be in position to achieve those same goals. They won back-to-back AFC North titles for the first time in franchise history but now have to stay focused on beating Baltimore again to advance.
Nose tackle DJ Reader said there is no reason Cincinnati can’t make another run this postseason. The team learned from last year’s experience and is better this season for it.
“Guys are older, guys are grown, got some more guys just coming in, younger guys coming in playing their role the way they’re supposed to,” he said. “The team is young and explosive. The coaches get another year to get comfortable with players. There’s more trust, there’s just everything that you need in the system to make it go. It’s like being in a relationship for a long time with somebody you’re truly in love with. Our thing is it’s a good-jelled team that we’re all in a relationship that year after year it’s just going to just get better, and this year is a really, really good year, man.
“Everybody understands each other. There’s things that you’d react to in year one of this team that you’re not gonna react to now just because we’ve been there before, we understand it, we know what happens. ... It’s the trust and respect we have for each other in that locker room because we’ve been through it. We’ve seen that guy grind across from us for most of us for two years from now and we understand what that guy is about.”
Bell also gave credit to the coaching staff for establishing a culture and building a resilient group that trusts one another. The Bengals are built to fight, he said, and now they have just four more games to achieve their remaining goals.
As center Ted Karras put it, “four more wins to be kings.”
Ravens at Bengals, 8:15 p.m., NBC, 700, 1530, 102.7, 104.7
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