“We’re a more complete team,” said quarterback Joe Burrow, who was 23 of 36 for 242 yards and two touchdowns. “A better team. We make plays when it counts. Our offensive line is better. Our running game is better. Our defense is better.”
They are also a team playing with an edge born of what they believe is disrespect. As they made their way up to the tunnel and into their locker room after the game ended, players looked into a bank of cameras and echoed the same line: “Better get those refunds.”
That was a biting reference to the NFL’s announcement that 50,000 tickets had already been sold to Chiefs and Bills season-ticket holders for a potential neutral-site game next week. The Bengals had chafed at how openly the league was planning for life without them.
They were aware that the Bills were the sentimental favorite, that Damar Hamlin’s health crisis and stirring recovery had moved the nation and driven the interest of even the most casual fans. Hamlin attended Sunday’s game, and when he was shown on the scoreboard sitting in his suite, the crowd — including the Bengals fans here — roared in delight and waved to him.
But the Bengals also felt slighted that the league had made provisions to level the competitive playing field for the Bills and Chiefs, but not for them, who might even had been subjected to a coin flip to determine where their Wild Card Round game against the Ravens would be played. That issue was rendered moot when the Bengals defeated the Ravens in the regular-season finale, assuring last week’s game would be played in Cincinnati.
“It is tough,” Bengals coach Zac Taylor said, with a grin. “They have to form plans for coin flips and neutral sites. We keep screwing it up. So, I’m sorry.”
If this is not exactly the conference championship game so many planned for or expected, it will almost certainly not be a disappointment, although this might not be the opponent the Chiefs most hoped for. The Bengals erased an 18-point deficit in last season’s AFC Championship Game, stunning the Chiefs, 27-24, in overtime at Arrowhead Stadium. Burrow is 3-0 head-to-head against Patrick Mahomes, who is expected to play despite suffering a high ankle sprain in the Chiefs’ Divisional Round victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars on Saturday. Burrow is the only quarterback to have faced Mahomes multiple times and still be undefeated, and the most recent victory came in Week 13, when the Bengals scored 10 fourth-quarter points to beat the Chiefs, again by the score of 27-24.
That victory came in the middle of what is now a 10-game winning streak. The Bengals last lost on Halloween.
“We’ve got some dogs in this locker room,” said Bengals receiver Ja’Marr Chase, who caught five passes for 61 yards and a touchdown. “The record speaks for itself. Everything is going our way right now.”