The 2021-22 sports year is hellbent on healing wounded fan bases. The state of Georgia saw its M.L.B. franchise and college football program win titles, Milwaukee won its first N.B.A. championship since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was tossing up sky hooks, and the Cincinnati Bengals are now Super Bowl-bound for the first time in 33 years, after a 24-21 overtime win in Kansas City.
All season, it felt as though the football world was ready to crown a new quarterback as the ‘face of the league,’ a player ready to step in for the exiting generation that has defined the N.F.L. so far this century. The daytime sports debate shows, podcasts and social media accounts with display names like @[Quarterback]IsTheGOAT2022 played a five-month game of name-the-successor. One week it was Justin Herbert, then it was Kyler Murray, and Josh Allen after that, even as the old guard of Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady and Ben Roethlisberger battled their way into the postseason.
But as has been the case for the past four seasons, Patrick Mahomes again stepped into the breach and led Kansas City to the A.F.C. championship game, again hosted in Arrowhead Stadium. By the halfway point of Sunday’s game against the Cincinnati Bengals, a third-straight Super Bowl appearance felt like fait accompli: Mahomes already had three touchdowns, the Bengals couldn’t get Ja’Marr Chase open downfield and Kansas City was the better team up front.
Then, Joe Burrow happened.
Activating the same quarterbacking magic-that’s-not-really-magic that he’s used since his 2019 national championship campaign at Louisiana State, Burrow was elite in moving around the pocket and recognizing coverages and blitzes before the snap. On multiple occasions — and what felt like every third down — Chris Jones and the Kansas City pass rush had Burrow dead to rights, only for him to duck under or slide away and move the chains with his arm or legs.
Once Burrow recognized that Kansas City was going to have a safety over the top of Chase for most of the day, he settled into picking out Tee Higgins in the middle of the field, operating against linebackers and safeties that have struggled to stop offenses all season.
Burrow shouldered a major load on Sunday, especially given Cincinnati’s inability to run the football in regulation. He didn’t do it alone, though: the Bengals defensive coordinator Brian Callahan deserves at least half of the credit for the win. Cincinnati started the game playing the same two-deep coverages that slowed Patrick Mahomes and his explosive receiving corps in the regular season, to no avail. Mahomes patiently worked underneath passing windows until Callahan lost his patience and played man-to-man — and was punished by Tyreek Hill over the top.
Even when all of Kansas City’s receivers were perfectly covered, Mahomes extended plays with scrambles until someone broke open or a running lane was revealed. And, after having his game plan beaten for 30 minutes, Callahan made a pivotal adjustment that is almost never seen at the professional level: He conceded the pass rush entirely to contain Kansas City’s speed.
Dropping eight into coverage, Cincinnati held up on the back end while Mahomes scanned the field, gambling that the former M.V.P. would get impatient and force throws or be susceptible to coverage sacks. On Mahomes’s first interception, in the third quarter, the edge rusher Trey Hendrickson dropped into a throwing window, forcing a low throw that was deflected and corralled by B.J. Hill.
Down 3 points in the fourth quarter, Kansas City milked the clock in the final six minutes of regulation on what looked to be the game-winning touchdown drive. But the Bengals’ defense again dropped back into coverage, forced back-to-back sacks on second- and third-and-goal, and forced Kansas City to settle for a field goal and overtime.
Then, on the final offensive play of Kansas City’s season, the same kind of coverage led to a forced pass to Tyreek Hill that was picked off by Vonn Bell.
Like Mahomes, Andy Reid will face much second-guessing on what he could have done differently. And, as in any N.F.L. loss, there are options. To end the half, Kansas City took one more shot at the end zone — a swing pass to Hill, who was tackled well short of the goal line — instead of taking a chip-shot field goal that would have stretched its lead to 14 points. Once it was clear that the passing game had lost its rhythm and the Bengals were playing deep in coverage, there were missed opportunities to gain easy rushing yards.
But the truth is, Cincinnati snatched the game away much like it did against Tennessee in the divisional round, thanks to Burrow’s toughness and the adjustments Callahan made defensively. This isn’t about destiny or magic; the Bengals earned their spot in Super Bowl LVI by outplaying Kansas City.