To get to the Super Bowl, the Cincinnati Bengals will first have to win Sunday night in Kansas City’s Arrowhead Stadium, one of the NFL’s toughest venues for opposing teams.
The crowd will be deafening, the weather frigid (forecast low of 12 degrees). The Chiefs are 8-1 at home this season.
It’s just how the Bengals like it.
“We’re built for this,” Cincinnati coach Zac Taylor said. “It doesn’t matter what anybody thinks of us. We don’t care who’s favored, who’s not. We’re built for this, and we’re excited to go on the road to Kansas City.”
The Bengals are brimming with confidence as they prepare for the AFC Championship game, and for good reason.
For one, they knocked off the Chiefs last year in the same exact scenario, overcoming a 21-3 deficit to win, 27-24, in overtime, at Arrowhead, to advance to the Super Bowl.
For two, the Bengals are 3-0 against the Chiefs in the last 13 months, winning each contest by exactly 3 points.
For three, the Bengals are coming off a dominant 27-10 win over the Bills on the road, in front of a similarly raucous crowd, in swirling snow. The Bills had been 8-1 at home this season, and 13-1 at home in the playoffs since the 1970 merger.
And for four, the Bengals have been road warriors the last two years, with a 14-5 overall record.
Most impressively, they get tougher as the season progresses, with a 9-0 road record from November through January the last two seasons. Included in that is a 3-0 road record in the postseason (not including a loss in last year’s Super Bowl at a neutral site).
“We’ve been in these spots. We know what it’s going to take,” Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow said. “Our communication has been great on the road. It was flawless last week in Buffalo, a really loud, hostile environment. That’s something we take pride in, is communication and being on the same page.”
Sunday’s game certainly will be the Bengals’ biggest challenge this season, even with Chiefs star Patrick Mahomes playing on a sprained ankle. The Chiefs have the NFL’s No. 1 offense, and their defensive front, led by Chris Jones and Frank Clark, could make life miserable for Burrow as he is protected by three backups on the offensive line.
But the Bengals follow their leader in Burrow, who oozes confidence and makes it look easy. Taylor said it’s because of the way Burrow prepares.
“He trusts his preparation, and your preparation leads to confidence,” Taylor said. “We all know what it feels like to scramble at the last second when you’re not prepared for something. And you know the difference when you put in all the work and you walk up there and you nail it.
“I feel like our team embodies that. I think Joe is a great example of our team and just that calmness of being prepared when you walk out there on Sunday.”
The Bengals certainly didn’t let the moment get too big for them when they went down, 21-3, in the second quarter of last year’s AFC Championship game. Burrow led a touchdown drive right before halftime, and the Bengals slowly clawed back in the second half as their defense forced an interception and shut down the Chiefs.
The Bengals, who are 14-4 this season and have won 10 straight games (five on the road), don’t appear fazed over having to win at Arrowhead again.
“We know what to expect and we know how to come out victorious and what it will take,” running back Joe Mixon said. “We’re clicking more than ever right now. Lean on your teammates, stay poised in the noise, and that’s what it’s going to be.”
The Bengals play with poise and confidence, and have developed an edge that borders on cockiness. Except they back it up.
The Bengals spent all week leading up to the Buffalo game reminding reporters that they, not the Bills or Chiefs, were defending AFC champions. After the win, Bengals defensive backs howled into the camera, “See y’all at Burrowhead!” Running into the locker room, players cackled about the NFL having to give refunds for tickets it had sold to a potential Chiefs-Bills AFC Championship game at a neutral site.
Even Taylor got into it.
“People have to endure all those logistical issues and then we just keep screwing it up, so I’m sorry,” Taylor quipped.
During Taylor’s team speech the night before the Buffalo game, his main theme was that the Bills were 13-1 at home in the playoffs.
“I wanted to show that to the team, because I knew what that would do to them,” Taylor said. “That wouldn’t put fear in them, that, ‘Oh my God, we’re walking into an environment that people don’t win in.’ It was going to be the opposite for our guys.”
The Bengals were thrilled when they lost the coin toss and received the opening kickoff.
“Our guys believe. They walk on the field ready to attack,” Taylor said. “We were taking the ball whether we won the coin toss or not. Those guys want to walk on the field and start attacking the other team, and that’s what happened today.”
Center Ted Karras, who played through a knee injury against the Bills, suggested something similar could take place in Kansas City.
“Get a fast start, play with a lead, temper the crowd’s excitement a bit,” he said.
The Bengals know that winning Sunday night on the road won’t be easy, but they have thrived in these situations.
“I just think this year we’re a more complete team from top to bottom,” Burrow said. “It’s just more gratifying when the road that you’ve been on has been tough. It’s always more satisfying when you pull it out in the end.”
Ben Volin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.