LOS ANGELES _ Even as Aaron Donald released Joe Burrow from his ever-present fourth-and-one clutches at midfield with 39 seconds left to secure Super Bowl LVI for the Rams and send the Bengals to a 23-20 loss, Bengals fans were no doubt cataloging it among the great heartbreaks in franchise history:
_34 seconds left in Super Bowl XXIII and the 49ers' Joe Montana throwing the touchdown pass to John Taylor to erase the Bengals' 16-13 lead.
_Fourth-and-one late in the third quarter of Super Bowl XVI and the 49ers stopping the Bengals on fourth-and-one at the goal line on the way to a 26-21 victory.
_First-and-10 with 1:23 left in the 2015 Wild Card and Bengals running back Jeremy Hill fumbling the ball at the Steelers 9 with a 16-15 lead that turned into an 18-16 loss.
But after the Rams heisted Burrow's storybook and prevented another fabulous finish that has marked the 2021 postseason, he wanted to make sure they reminded themselves that the Bengals are the NFL's next big thing and not destined for sports history's dumpster.
So Burrow, who had gingerly walked to a media podium after the Rams had sacked him a Super Bowl-tying record seven times, related how just last week he had been watching "A Football Life," featuring a Rams quarterback, no less, Kurt Warner.
Wearing a black-and-white suit striped like the Bengals helmet, Burrow still looked Zooming 2020s chic even after discarding the wide-brimmed brim black hat and black sunglasses he wore to SoFi Stadium about eight hours before.,
"I kind of thought about this in the locker room when they lost one," Burrow said, "and later within the documentary they said, or he said, that they let it sting too much and that they didn't celebrate what they accomplished. So, we are going to, obviously it stings, but you know we had a great year, and it didn't come out this last game like we wanted to, but I think, we still have something to celebrate."
So Burrow led his locker room one more time in this AFC championship season at the subdued after-party at UCLA's Pauley Pavilion. As the clock neared midnight, Burrow's favorite artist, Ohio's own Kid Cudi, appeared on stage in Burrow's No. 9 jersey with Burrow's song list. By then, Burrow had transformed into Everyman with a beige wind breaker and jeans and joined him.
By the time The Kid was done, a bunch of teammates, significant others and some support staff had joined him to dance and sing through the list in what he wants them to believe is not one final act.
"We're a young team," Burrow had said at the podium. "You like to think that we'll be back in this situation multiple times over the course of the next few years. We'll take this and let it fuel you for the rest of our careers."
That's pretty much how this young team appeared to take the jarring finish, led by the 25-year-old Burrow, 38-year-old head coach Zac Taylor and a defense that continually made plays from guys no older than 27. Taylor tried to drive it home in the moments after the loss.
"Proud of them. It's a special group," Taylor said of his postgame remarks. "Stings right now but you have to find a way to really cherish what this group had together. It's a special group, it's rare that you get to coach a team like this. This team means a lot. Proud of the way that they fought. I thought they did a lot for our team, for our organization, and for our city. They need to be really proud of that."
"Obviously, it hurts when you are that close to winning a Super Bowl," said free safety Jessie Bates III, who had his second interception of the postseason. "I think that's the ultimate goal, the reason why we play this game. There are a lot of things we need to celebrate. We changed a lot of people's lives in Cincinnati almost with what we did this year. Like Joey B said, that you need to cherish this moment because like I said what we did this year was special."
That was how slot cornerback Mike Hilton, the best things the Steelers ever gave the Bengals, saw it.
"We will be back. That's point-blank period," Hilton said. We're young. We're going confidence and we're only going to get better."
The Bengals were dealing with things that had not happened this postseason. Burrow wasn't particularly sharp on 22 of 33 passing. The offense lurched into patches of inconsistency. They did it four straight times after scoring ten points in the first five minutes of the second half. The defense that had ended their stands in the three previous playoff game with interceptions, instead took three penalties in nine seconds inside their 8 in the final two minutes.
But his teammates heard what Burrow was trying to say.
"We know what it takes. We can be here; we know how to get to the Super Bowl. Now the next step is to win this game," said defensive end Sam Hubbard. "There is a lot of stuff that we went through this year that people never thought or even we thought was achievable, and now we know it's possible and how to get here. Now it's about taking that next step and that's what is going to be motivating us."
Burrow, who limped off the field when his right knee got twisted on the record sack with 11:38 left, wasn't the only one exuding Super toughness. Tight end C.J. Uzomah, who sprained his MCL two weeks ago in Kansas City, played 80 percent of the snaps. He had just two catches, but he caught a lot more admiration.
If anyone knows how life altering this season has become, it's Uzomah, a rookie in 2015, the last time the Bengals made the playoffs.
"Cincy's lit. Cincy is going crazy right now I'll tell you that, even today," said Uzomah of the boisterous fans that showed up. "Shoot, Cincy fans came in bolts, and they were going crazy. I love it. I love the city, I love them backing us the entire year, I love going out and people just yelling out randomly, 'Who Dey,' and trying to stop you in front of your car when you're at a red light. It's dope. It really is."
No question it stung. No doubt it will be catalogued. Burrow and his guys just want to make sure it doesn't define them.
"I think it's going to propel us into next year and we are going to have a really good offseason," Burrow said. "We have a lot of hard workers in that locker room that is going to attack this offseason like they did last year. Obviously, we are not satisfied with what we did this year. We are going to keep getting better and attack next year with the same intensity."