Super Bowl LVI: Key moments in Bengals’ storybook season

Cincinnati Bengals coach Zac Taylor points to the Week 11 win in Las Vegas as the critical turning point for this season. Others say it happened much earlier than that.

The 2021 season was full of big moments that set the path for the team’s first AFC North title since 2015, first playoff wins in 31 years, the first road playoff win in franchise history and the first AFC Championship since 1988.

Now the Bengals are trying for their first Super Bowl victory in their third attempt. They’ve won eight of their last 11 games since that post-bye week win over the Raiders, a victory that snapped a two-game losing streak that easily could have turned into a downward spiral.

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“That kick-started the momentum for the second half of the season,” Taylor said. “There’s no question about that. It was on the road. I was really happy because you had the two losses, you went into the bye week. It’s not the best way to go into the bye, and I felt like this team was as loose during that week of preparation for Vegas on the road. Your stressed as coach on how you’re going to handle the travel over there to the West Coast timezone and being in Vegas, and I felt really good walking on the field in pregame about how our guys had responded off the bye, how they were handling two consecutive losses, a game on the road against a team that we knew was really good and they handled it really well and finished the game the right way and again gave us good momentum going into the second half of season.”

That win in Las Vegas was sparked by Eli Apple’s interception and Trey Hendrickson’s strip-sack fumble recovered by Sam Hubbard, both fourth-quarter turnovers leading to points for the Bengals.

The Bengals followed the next week with a 41-10 blowout of the Steelers, a game in which the defense led the way again, as Apple grabbed another interception, Mike Hilton returned an interception for a touchdown and Hubbard recovered another fumble forced by Hendrickson.

Cincinnati proved its early-season victory in Pittsburgh was no fluke but then couldn’t string together a third straight win and ended up with back-to-back losses to the Chargers and in overtime against the 49ers despite a valiant comeback.

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It was the next stretch of games that really set the tone for the postseason. The Bengals eked out a 15-10 win at Denver, and the offense exploded in a 575-yard performance to beat the Ravens 41-21 and complete a second division sweep. Then, they finally strung together a third straight win to clinch the AFC North with a 34-31 win over Kansas City as Ja’Marr Chase caught 11 passes for 266 yards and three touchdowns.

Since then, no moment has been too big for the Bengals.

“I think because again we know what type of team we have,” wide receiver Tyler Boyd said. “We’re the team to beat, we didn’t get here luckily. We went out every game, if you watched every second half of our last playoff games or games since we played the Chiefs the first game, we literally went out there and won the game. Our defense went out there and had two turnovers in the last two to three weeks. The offense once that’s done, we go out there and we finish it. It’s a collective job once you go out there and execute and at the end of the day it’s going to come down to whichever team wants it the most and we’ve been showing that.”

Hubbard and quarterback Joe Burrow point as far back as the first wins against Pittsburgh and Baltimore being indications of what the Bengals were capable of this season.

The Bengals put the AFC North on notice when they went to Pittsburgh and won 24-10 in Week 3. It was the franchise’s biggest victory there since 1995. Logan Wilson produced two interceptions, Chase caught two touchdown passes and Joe Mixon ran for 90 yards to pave the way, and four weeks later, Cincinnati topped that effort with a 41-17 win at Baltimore in Week to improve to 5-2.

Although two disappointing losses to the Jets and Browns followed, Hubbard said the defense in the second half of the season was able to look back on that Ravens game as a reminder of how good it could be.

Credit: Rick Scuteri

Credit: Rick Scuteri

“It was a great example of our discipline, execution, all three levels, the new additions coming in and really, everyone having an impact in the game,” Hubbard said. “We were gonna be down some guys, some guys were gonna have to step up, but it really was a confidence boost. We won some games, but when you win a division game like that on the road against a team that’s really always had their way with us, you could tell things have changed as far as our standing in this division.”

Even the overtime win against Minnesota in the opener might have changed the course of the season had it gone the other way.

Chase had caught a 50-yard touchdown pass late in the first half to help the Bengals swing momentum to build a 21-7 lead early in the third quarter, but the Vikings came back to tie the game with a 53-yard field goal as time expired. Cincinnati ended up winning on Evan McPherson’s field goal as the clock ticked down to end overtime.

Bengals left tackle Jonah Williams said that game was the first big “wow moment” with Chase. He finished with 101 yards receiving and shook any concerns he might be slow to transition to the NFL, following a difficult preseason with drops.

“The Vikings one was exciting because that’s kind of the exact reason I feel we drafted him to be able to take the top off the defense and just to do that,” Williams said. “And it was the first time we saw him do it in a game so that was exciting.”

The Bengals battled through two close losses to the Bears and Packers in the next four weeks and later an overtime loss to San Francisco, and free safety Vonn Bell said even those moments were important for the team. After each of those three narrow defeats, Cincinnati bounced back with a win the next game.

Its only loss since Week 14 against the 49ers was in the finale at Cleveland when the majority of the starters rested.

“It’s really been the whole year and through the ups and downs, guys just kept on fighting,” Bell said. “We have a relentless group. Never too high, never too low. We just always going out there just trying to do our job at the best ability we can and just playing with one another and that’s the biggest thing. … I just say throughout the year it’s just having the relentless group effort with the coaches and players and guys just trying to find a way to win and get on track where everything we do.”

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