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Close, But A Cigar, Too, As Bengals Celebrate Family and AFC North Title

The scoreboard and Joe Burrow's smile tell the story.
The scoreboard and Joe Burrow's smile tell the story.

It took an excruciating two minutes that seemed to last longer than the six years since Jeremy Hill fumbled and two penalty flags hit the Paul Brown Stadium turf in the Wild Wild Card Game that turned victory into defeat.

But if it took the Bengals seven soul-sapping snaps from the Kansas City 1, two of which were incomplete fourth down passes reversed by flags on the other side, their franchise quarterback and his legion of 64,505 that gaped in horror, and then in joy, will gladly take the exorcism that was sealed with the puff of quarterback Joe Burrow's victory cigar.

That seemed to be the only thing to call Sunday's 34-31 victory over the two-time AFC champs that gave the Bengals the AFC North title for the first time since they lost that surreal playoff game to the Pittsburgh Steelers.

It also means they'll return to PBS in two weeks to play another Wild Card Game after Burrow continues his unworldly play. After throwing for 525 yards last week and four touchdowns, he damn near did it again, hitting 30 of 39 for 446 yards and four more touchdowns. Not only is it the best back-to-back games in Bengals history, but he fell just four yards shy of the two most prolific back-to-back games in NFL history.

"We knew we were going to have to go score a touchdown. You guys know the guy on the other sideline," said Burrow of the Chiefs' incomparable Patrick Mahomes. "We were going to have to punch that ball in. We got a little lucky with the calls at the end, but we've been unlucky for two years; we'll take a little luck on our side."

Two years? Bengals president Mike Brown and one of his defensive captains, Cincinnati native Sam Hubbard, may have to catch up Burrow on that timeline.

"I just had one of the people involved in the organization tell me how happy Mike Brown was," Hubbard said. "He was on the verge of tears. That gives us a special feeling. It really is a great family run organization. They take care of us. To get this win for this city, this team, it means a lot."

As is his want to wait for the post-game traffic to disappear while he watches the tape of the game, Brown was still here in his corner office about an hour-and-a-half after he watched from his suite Evan McPherson's 20-yard field goal give them his team's fifth AFC North title this century.

Just like he was in his office that awful morning, maybe less than eight hours after the other two flags hit the turf.

And Mike Brown was beaming.

"How about that? Wasn't that something? I feel really happy for our coaches and players," Brown said. "We just kept making play after play."

It was not lost on Brown who his team had beaten. He has high regard for Mahomes and Chiefs head coach Andy Reid and thinks them quite worthy of the last two AFC titles and the possible No. 1 seed this year. He also knew his team has gone from last to first in the division, the first time they've done that since 1990 and the 17th time it's happened in the NFL the past 19 seasons.

But what really gave him a kick was his head coach, Zac Taylor, planned to celebrate by taking one of his sons to his basketball game.

"I like that," said Brown.

Hubbard's Buckeye buddy, Burrow, is another guy that appreciates how Brown is doing it. If Brown, a Massillon native a Cleveland schoolboy and Cincinnati builder, loves Burrow's own Ohio roots, then Burrow gets what Sunday means for a franchise that hasn't won since the Wild Card.

"I would say it means more because I'm from Ohio. I know the history of the Bengals," Burrow said. "I know the ownership that we have has taken a lot of heat, but they do a great job and have done a great job building this team. A lot of credit to the Brown family for doing that. Like I said, they did a great job hiring Zac. Couldn't have asked for a better situation from ownership all the way down."

The first NFL scouting combine of the 2020s is where Burrow first met Brown and Taylor. Before Burrow and Taylor got to down to the brass tacks of Xs and Os, Brown chatted easily with Burrow about the drive down Route 32 to Burrow's hometown of Athens. When Burrow told him how long it took him to drive it, Brown kidded him about driving it a bit quickly.

Now in his second season, Burrow has driven to a division title quicker than Ken Anderson (three), Boomer Esiason (five), Carson Palmer (three) and Andy Dalton (three).

"When I had my first meeting with Zac at the combine, I knew exactly what kind of coach that we had and I knew exactly where I wanted to be," Burrow said. "He's a great offensive mind and a great leader of men. He does a great job, and I couldn't have asked for a better situation."

It's mutual and you've got to figure that Taylor won't let Burrow go anywhere near next Sunday's regular-season finale in Cleveland.

Or any of the starters for that matter. It's a longshot to get the bye, so make this Sunday the bye on the Lakefront. We'll see how Taylor plays it.

So even if Burrow didn't get his right knee rolled on the pass that drew the second and last flag, Chiefs cornerback L'Jarius Snead's illegal use of hands on wide receiver Tyler Boyd, he may have had the rest of the regular season off.

Burrow limped off so backup Brandon Allen could spike it, but Taylor says he would have been able to come back if needed.

"I was a little sore after the (Dec. 5) Chargers game, I think it was," Burrow said. "Just re-aggravated it a little bit. Nothing serious … I would've come back in. But it was just the knee and I knew we were going knee it and then clock it, so I figured take myself out of risk and let Brandon go in there and do that."

There is video of Burrow dancing and smoking his stogie, so it looks like he's OK as he channeled his 2019 national title cigar for LSU. But it wasn't his idea. A few weeks ago running back Joe Mixon left it on the chessboard at his locker.

"I didn't really know who gave it to me until today. He said 'I gave it to you a couple of weeks ago.' I said 'Oh, thanks, Joe. Appreciate it. Perfect timing,'" said Burrow, who wasn't even sure yet if the cigar was meant for a North title. "I don't know. You'll have to ask him on that one. It just kind of appeared one day."

But this AFC North title had been in the making for years.

Six, to be exact.

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