Joe Burrow and the Bengals had just completed their incredible comeback victory over Kansas City in a Week 17 game, erasing a 14-point deficit to win on a field goal as time ran out. When they met on the field after the game, Patrick Mahomes told Burrow, "See y’all in the playoffs."
Burrow proved Mahomes right.
Kansas City will host Cincinnati in the AFC Championship Game on Sunday.
Kansas City was a good bet to go at least that far, having been there the previous three seasons. Few, however, believed the Bengals would get to the AFC Championship Game this year.
Not after they won only four games in 2020, and certainly not after the way Burrow’s rookie season ended. In his 10th NFL game, h
e was carted off the field after tearing his left ACL and MCL in a loss to the Washington Football Team.
Burrow, the No. 1 pick in 2020 out of LSU, underwent reconstructive knee surgery less than 14 months ago. He had a long road back to resuming his career, let alone being a quarterback who can carry a team.
Burrow, miraculously, did that, though.
He didn’t miss a game because of injury, led the NFL in completion percentage (70.4) and was second to Aaron Rodgers with a 108.3 passer rating.
Burrow set the Bengals’ single-season records for passing yards (4,611) and touchdown passes (34). His connection with his former LSU teammate, dynamic rookie receiver Ja’Marr Chase, has put the rest of the AFC on alert.
The Bengals clinched their first division title in seven years after Burrow threw for 446 yards and four touchdowns against Kansas City. On Sunday, he will lead the Bengals into the AFC Championship Game for the first time since 1988.
It was hard to foresee all of this happening this quickly when Burrow was crumpled on the turf inside Paul Brown Stadium, reaching for his left knee.
"He really has overcome that," coach Zac Taylor said. "That’s been significant. I’m sure there was a lot of uncertainty on his end as well on how he was going to respond. He wanted to respond the right way. But he’d never been through something like that before.
"It has been impressive the way he’s played this last stretch of the season, particularly now that he’s felt fully healthy."
Burrow said he started feeling more like himself after the Bengals’ Week 10 bye. He was pretty impressive before it, leading Cincinnati to a 5-4 record while throwing 20 touchdown passes and 11 interceptions.
After it, though, Burrow has raised his game.
Cincinnati went 5-2 in Burrow’s last seven regular-season games. (With the division title already locked up, he sat out Week 18.) Burrow threw 14 touchdown passes to only three interceptions, completed 73.1% of his passes and had two rushing touchdowns and a passer rating of 115.2.
"I wasn’t able to do certain things that I’d been able to do in the past like make people miss in the pocket and extend plays," Burrow said. "I really couldn’t do that until after the bye week. That’s when I started to feel like myself, and I think that’s when I started to play my best football."
Burrow has won his last five games, playoffs included. Last Saturday, he was sacked nine times in Tennessee, but he completed all six of his fourth-quarter pass attempts and led Cincinnati on a game-winning field-goal drive in the final seconds.
"We never take him for granted," Taylor said. "There’s a lot of really impressive things that he does that maybe aren’t as impressive to us anymore because we’re used to it.
"It’s kind of his standard, his greatness. We do step back and always take a moment to appreciate what we’ve got there at the quarterback position."