KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- It was the midpoint of the NFL season and the Cincinnati Bengals had just lost two in a row, their fast start slipping away. With the bye week ahead of him, Joe Burrow didn't have to wait to know that he was being doubted again, as he had been when he was coming out of high school, when he was on the bench at Ohio State, when he suffered a severe knee injury last season.
"Everyone is kind of writing us off again," Burrow said that day. "And we're going to do our best to get back in the win column, and then we'll get rolling."
They got rolling and haven't stopped, the Bengals spinning a surprising season into a stunning Super Bowl appearance with a 27-24 overtime victory over the Kansas City Chiefs, who had represented the AFC in the last two Super Bowls. Burrow is the NFL's new Joe Cool, heir to Montana's temperament and field vision. Both have quickly elevated Burrow -- and the Bengals with him -- into the NFL's elite, a placement that would have been laughable just eight months ago and looked to be nearing a crashing end in the first half.
"I never felt like we were out of it, but obviously 21-3 isn't the most exciting position to be in," Burrow said with a smile.
Burrow is almost perfectly constructed for the franchise he joined. The Bengals didn't need him to provide just elite play. They needed him to provide bountiful confidence, a resistance to the feeling of impending doom that has felt like it has surrounded the franchise for decades.
That he was capable of fulfilling that mandate was apparent even on that November day, when Burrow was as cool staring down a losing streak as he was on Sunday, facing an 18-point deficit against the game's premier quarterback, in a road game with a Super Bowl appearance on the line. As cool as he was leading the methodical second-half drives that brought the Bengals back. As cool as when he was slowly moving them into field-goal range in overtime. As cool as Burrow was, meeting Ickey Woods in the middle of the celebration and doing a few steps of the Ickey Shuffle, linking the last time the Bengals had great success with this sudden revival. As cool as he was explaining the enormous diamond-encrusted "JB9" pendant he wore after the game.
"They're definitely real," he said. "I make too much money to have fake ones."
The Bengals are going to the Super Bowl -- not a misprint -- for the third time in franchise history because the Chiefs ran a misguided play at the end of the first half, squandering a chance to extend their lead by a margin that would have won the game, the first of six straight scoreless possessions. They are going to the Super Bowl because their defense dropped more men into coverage in the second half, blanketing Patrick Mahomes' targets and finally getting pressure on him.
But most of all, they are going to the Super Bowl for the first time since 1989 because Burrow was as unruffled by the daunting circumstances the Bengals faced Sunday as he was by that now-laughable, two-game losing streak or the enormity of the Bengals' cursed history.
That the Bengals were even in this situation, in this game, was a marvel. The Bengals won two games two years ago, the perpetual also-ran then a laughingstock, too. And then Burrow, son of Ohio, so at ease with the stage that the indelible image of him is of Burrow smoking a stogie after winning the national championship for LSU, was the first overall pick and brought his brand of extreme confidence and competence to a team that hadn't had much of either in more than 30 years.
On Saturday night, Burrow told head coach Zac Taylor that he was going to run for 100 yards and Burrow explained later that it was because he had not used his legs much when the Bengals beat the Chiefs in the regular season, so he figured the Chiefs might not account for that. He didn't quite get to 100 Sunday -- Burrow ran for 25 yards -- but his elusiveness extended plays over and over, especially on the drive that led to the field goal that gave the Bengals their first lead of the game. On a third-down play, Burrow was nearly engulfed by the pass rush before he somehow squirted free and scrambled to his left for the first down.
"He just finds ways to make plays when there isn't a play to be made," Taylor said.
Burrow greeted all these developments with the sanguineness that has become his trademark. He was more animated disclosing that one of his favorite musical artists, Kid Cudi, reached out to him over the weekend. Where he is socially -- provoking runs on sunglasses he wears, being asked about his jewelry -- that is surreal, he said. The football? This is exactly where Burrow has expected the Bengals to be all season.
"If you'd told me coming into the league when I got drafted that we'd be here this year, obviously it would have been a shock," Burrow said. "But now I'm not surprised. Playing this whole year, I felt we'd have a chance to be here."
Defensive end Sam Hubbard, an Ohio native who has known Burrow since they met at Ohio State, has been a Bengal since 2019. He and some of his teammates have been miserable over the years, as the Bengals have struggled. When Burrow was in position to be the first overall pick two years ago, when there were suggestions he should refuse to play for the Bengals to salvage his career, Hubbard and Burrow talked.
"We need you," Hubbard said he told Burrow. "You're the guy who can turn this around, I know it."
The turnaround is complete and the Queen City might soon have its crown. Hubbard was right about something else.
Burrow is, indeed, the guy.