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Watching from home: Why are the Bengals in the Super Bowl and not the Cardinals?

The Cardinals and the Bengals are very similar teams, yet the Bengals leapt ahead of the Cardinals’ timeline with their Super Bowl appearance. What can the Cardinals learn from the Bengals ahead-of-schedule ascent?

Kliff Kingsbury will presumably be watching the Super Bowl from this very couch.

This Sunday’s Super Bowl—sorry, I mean “The Big Game”—features an intriguing matchup between the Los Angeles Rams and Cincinnati Bengals. It’s no surprise that the Rams are there—they’re as close to an NBA-style super team as there is in the NFL. They were a team built with one goal in mind: to make it to the Super Bowl this year.

The Bengals are another story. Widely predicted to be one of the worst teams in the league again this season, their rebuild is well ahead of schedule. I mean, they were around +15000—not 1500, 15000—to make the Super Bowl in the preseason.

To bring it around to a local perspective, this is going to be a tough game to watch for Cardinals fans. Not only do we have to watch the Rams—a division rival who has owned us in recent years and absolutely dismantled us in the wild card round—but the Bengals are living out our very dream.

Our teams are constructed very similarly—recent #1 pick at QB, hotshot young offensive-minded head coach, scrappy veteran defense. So why are the Bengals in The Big Game in Year 3 under Zac Taylor (and Year 2 with Joe Burrow) while the Redbirds will be watching from their couches? Let’s try to find out and see what kind of takeaways there are for the Cardinals.

Continuity

The Bengals are about as consistent a team as there is. They’ve had the same GM since 1991 (owner Mike Brown), and they’ve only had three head coaches this century. That said, no one would have blamed Brown for moving on from Zac Taylor after last season. The Bengals were a combined 6-25-1 in his first two seasons, and didn’t look particularly close to being competitive even with Heisman winner Burrow under center last season. But Brown stayed the course and it paid huge dividends, with the Bengals winning their first division title since 2015 and ending a 31-year(!) postseason winless streak en route to their first Super Bowl appearance since 1988.

Takeaways for the Cardinals: It used to be that the Cardinals would cycle through coaches and GMs at an alarming rate, but that approach has largely changed under Michael Bidwill. Steve Keim has been given a long leash at GM since being promoted to the role in 2013, and our head coaches have had relatively lengthy tenures of late as well (aside from the one disastrous Steve Wilks season). Kliff Kingsbury will enter his fourth season in 2022 (although he’ll be on the hot seat). But Bidwill has had multiple changes to move on from both Keim and Kingsbury, yet he’s elected to stay the course like Brown. He’ll be hoping his faith is rewarded next season like Brown’s was this season.

Weapons

The best thing you can do for a young QB is to surround him with as much talent at the skill positions as you can. The Bengals have taken this approach to heart—just look at their depth chart and the draft capital invested in the RB/WR positions. Joe Mixon (2017 2nd round) is a top-10 RB, and the Bengals might have the best WR trio in the league: Ja’Marr Chase (2021 1st round), Tee Higgins (2020 2nd round), and Tyler Boyd (2016 2nd round). They took a bit of heat for taking Chase over LT Penei Sewell in April—especially after poor protection led to Burrow suffering a torn ACL late last season. But they stuck to their commitment to surround Burrow with talent, and Chase looks like a generational talent at WR. This will be a scary offense for the next decade.

Takeaways for the Cardinals: You can’t say the Cardinals haven’t tried. In recent years, they have spent 2nd-round picks on several WRs: Christian Kirk (2018), Andy Isabella (2019), DeAndre Hopkins (2020 trade), and Rondale Moore (2021). And they gave former Bengal A.J. Green $6M this offseason and traded for TE Zach Ertz just before the trade deadline, not to mention the James Conner signing. The approach just hasn’t worked as well here in the desert. Hopkins, Conner, and Ertz were home run acquisitions (although Green was mostly a bust), but Keim has largely failed in the draft. Kirk has been a complementary player at best, Isabella isn’t long for the NFL, and Moore was little more than a bit player his rookie year. It all added up to the offense being a shell of its former self after Hopkins got hurt. Then you have to wonder about the wisdom of drafting a pair of ILBs the past two seasons when a plethora of difference-makers at WR were available (Isaiah Simmons over CeeDee Lamb and Justin Jefferson keeps looking worse and worse). Keim has tried, but he just hasn’t been able to identify the right players in the draft to give Kyler the help he needs.

Playing through Adversity

After a Week 14 overtime loss to the 49ers, the Bengals were in 3rd place in the AFC North and out of the AFC playoff picture with just a 30% chance to make the postseason. But then they rattled off three straight wins to basically clinch the division—a defensive slugfest against the Broncos, a rout of the reeling Ravens, and then the first of two shocking upsets of the Chiefs. Then they slugged their way through playoff wins against the Raiders at home and on the road against the #1 seed Titans to set up a rematch with the Chiefs in the AFC Championship Game… where they promptly fell behind 21-3. But they fought their way back to take the lead in the 4th… only for Patrick Mahomes to do Patrick Mahomes things and send the game to OT… where the Chiefs won the coin toss. We’ve seen this story before, right? Wrong. The Bengals got the stop, then confidently drove down the field for the winning FG. This team has shown remarkable fortitude with their backs against the wall all season.

Takeaways for the Cardinals: Unfortunately, you definitely can’t say the same for the Cardinals this season. They lost every prime time game they played, including the wild card loss to the Rams. And while the Bengals were putting together a winning streak to save their season and earn a home playoff game to kickstart their Super Bowl run, the Cardinals were losing four out of five games—yet another collapse—to choke away the NFC West division crown and that critical home playoff game. And then they utterly laid down after falling behind early on the road against the Rams. This team just hasn’t shown the same fortitude that the Bengals have. Or the Rams, for that matter, who overcame their own three-game losing streak and a plethora of ill-timed Matthew Stafford interceptions. Unless this team can show strength in the face of adversity—from the GM down to the head coach down to the QB—they’d better get used to sitting on their couches in January and February.

Final Thoughts

I want to end this with a caveat—while the Bengals undoubtedly earned their spot in the Super Bowl, it does feel a bit fluky. If you were to replay these playoffs 10 times, I’m not sure the Bengals would win the AFC more than once. But that’s the nature of the one-and-one NFL playoffs. If the right team gets hot at the right time, anything can happen.

It happened to the Bengals this year, and it might’ve happened to the Cardinals in one of those hypothetical playoff restarts. This team has shown that its ceiling is absolutely getting to the Super Bowl.

But they weren’t the right team and they didn’t get hot at the right time. (Quite the opposite, in fact.) But if they can learn their lessons from this season (continuity), continue to add talent around Kyler (weapons), and figure out whatever it is that keeps causing them to collapse (playing through adversity), there’s no reason why they can’t be the right team getting hot at the right time next year.

That’s a tall order, though. Is this team up to it?

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