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Bengals Past And Present Writing Improbable Script At The Super Bowl

Willie Anderson: Ruler of the Jungle.
Willie Anderson: Ruler of the Jungle.

Andrew Whitworth, born the December the Bengals were running to their first Super Bowl, is about to become the oldest lineman in either trench to play in the NFL's big game at age 40. But the script gets even better than that.

He reiterated Monday night from Los Angeles that it looks like Super Bowl LVI is going to be the last game of his brilliant 16-year career that began in the Paul Brown Stadium draft room. It happens for the Rams against the team that molded him into a franchise bookend and indispensable locker room leader for teams that made the playoffs six times in the eight seasons he played Bengals left tackle.

"It's really hard to even imagine this is possible," said Whitworth, a day after helping the Rams stage a Bengals-like comeback to get to his second Super Bowl in four years. "I feel like there's piece of me in both places. I couldn't be prouder of both franchises. I just love and believe so much in the people on both sides of this thing. It's really special, to be a part of it."

Write this stuff?  You couldn't even whisper it to yourself.

After Whitworth's second year with the Rams in 2018, the quarterbacks coach, Zac Taylor, interviewed to be the head coach of the Bengals. Whitworth advised him to take it.

"We sat down and talked ball. I have a lot of belief in him," Whitworth says. "I was excited for him and how excited he was. He understood the job in front of him and it's cool to see this.

"You just watch his poise and demeanor and all that on the field. He's a rare guy and a good leader."

Whitworth is the only former Bengals playing but far from the only one enjoying the ride. Other key figures from those Marvin Lewis Bengals that reestablished the franchise in the city and the league are loving the team taking them where they couldn't reach.

Carson Palmer, "Franchise," when Joe Burrow was an Athens, Ohio grade schooler, can't get enough of the guy wearing his No. 9 jersey breaking tackles on third-and-eight.

"He looks like he did when he was running around the SEC," says Palmer, whose similar knee injury in a Wild Card game darkened all ensuing Bengals postseasons until this one. "He's stepping into throws, he's not tentative in the pocket. He looks quick, fast, strong. It looks like nothing happened."

But he knows something has.

"I'm just so happy for the city. I'm just so happy for the fans. They always believed this day would come," says Palmer, who comes back at least annually to hunt. "My phone was blowing up on Sunday. From old neighbors to my wives' friends. People I did business with, people from church. There's too many good people out there not to be happy. A hundred percent I've been pulling for them."

Firebrand wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh, one of four Bengals with 500 catches, still burns so hot that when he screamed so long and hard as Evan McPherson's overtime field goal went through in Kansas City they stopped the softball game he was coaching in Los Angeles.

"They thought something happened," Houshmandzadeh says.

Willie Anderson, still "The Bridge," 25 years after the Bengals took him with the tenth pick in one of their lowest selections of the '90s, moderates Twitter with an old-school eye. And something has definitely happened there.

For one thing, he's a Pro Football Hall of Fame finalist on the weekend of the Super Bowl, when the 2022 class is revealed. Best believe no one wrote the Bengals would be sharing the weekend with him.

"You can't really find any Bengals haters right now because everyone is on the train," Anderson says. "You can't find anything about Joe Burrow's career being ended and Cincinnati is such a bad place to play. It's just the opposite. It's kind of scary.

"This is for the fans. This young team has rewarded them and it's great to see."

Anderson not only bridged the Bengals rise from the AFC Central basement to AFC North power in the first decade of the 21st century, he's also a conduit for his teammates to Taylor's new regime. A Ruler of the Jungle before November's win over the Steelers at PBS, Anderson, one of Marvin Lewis' pillars, regularly texts with Taylor.

"Give Zac Taylor credit. He's done a great job forming this team," Anderson says. "Marvin definitely started the foundation. He brought us from so far down and made us a relevant team. He showed everybody how to win."

Houshmandzadeh, a Fox analyst, has called for Bengals wins in all three postseason games. Just like Anderson, he can't get enough of the defense and is happy for his old boss, Bengals president Mike Brown. And he thinks Brown is going to be happy for a long time. Why Not Us, he says, is Not Like Us.

"For him, it's a long time coming I'm sure," Houshmandzadeh says. "This is not going to be like us. They're better than us. They've got staying power. This team is the first of many. It's not going to be easy. The AFC is loaded. Baltimore is going to be back. The Chiefs. The Bills. The Chargers. But the Bengals are always going to be in the mix because of all the young players they've acquired. All their best players are on rookie contracts. They can do something."

Anderson thinks they can do something because of Burrow and their defense. He is enjoying this team's persona.

"I just like their confidence and spunk," Anderson says. "It starts with Joe, but the guys on defense play with so much confidence and spunk. There's a lot of confident guys on this team. Being down 21-3, there is no woe is me. When something bad happens, the train doesn't come off the tracks. Keep giving us time. Something good is going to happen. Someone is going to make a play. That's a credit to the coaching staff, to Zac to the leaders of the team. Never thinking it's over."

Anderson loves this defense. The turnovers. The sack strips. The passes defensed. "The things we'd always see the other teams do."

"When I played, Marvin's defenses were so much better than what we had before," Anderson says. "But from 2011 to 2015, I was saying, 'If we only had this defense when I played.' Now, this defense is better than that one because they're doing it in the playoffs."

And don't get on the offensive line in Anderson's presence. Yeah, they're not perfect and he knows they'll upgrade. But he's also thinking about Sunday's last drive in Arrowhead.

"I'm proud of these guys. They can run the ball," Anderson says. "They put on their big boy pads and play big boy ball. And they may get beat on pass protection some, but they've given Joe a clean pocket for 15 to 17 plays and he's good enough to take advantage of it five, six, seven times a game for a big play."

Or, much to Palmer's delight, he'll run it. He's getting texts from his Cincinnati buddies saying they still see him even though Burrow is wearing the No. 9 he wore for eight years.

"He wears it better than me," says Palmer, still amazed Burrow escaped from the Chiefs' Chris Jones on a third-down scramble. "Chris Jones doesn't miss like that … I'm pretty sure my number nine didn't go around the corner 4.4 on third-and eight."

But the Super Bowl, the last game for Whitworth, one of the greatest Bengals, is belonging to stories you can't make up. There were some hard feelings when he left after 11 seasons following the 2016 season. But there is plenty of love on both sides and there is that thing called time.

"I don't know if its time, but just stepping away from it a little bit. It's so emotional," Whitworth says. "We both made decisions, but it takes nothing away from the 11 years we built there and how we did things."

When the Bengals won the AFC North last month, Whitworth texted congratulations to Bengals vice presidents Katie and Troy Blackburn and asked them to convey the message to Bengals president Mike Brown.

"And that I miss them," Whitworth says. "And I mean it."

Other than quarterbacks and kickers, Whitworth joins Jerry Rice as the oldest Super Bowl player. At 40, the eighth oldest. He has an idea what the last game holds.

"We were getting ready to warm up and we were watching their game," Whitworth says of Championship Sunday. "You just had the feeling if Kansas City was going to make a mistake, they were going to start rolling. That's what they've done. They're never out of it."

Palmer, the old franchise, is even coming in for a few days from Idaho to take care of a few things.

"Maybe I'll bump into you in L.A.," Palmer says.

Maybe you can't make this stuff up. But you can write it.