ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. _ The Bengals' confidence these days is as long and as well-earned as the cigar Bengals cornerback Eli Apple made sure to puff Sunday in front of the media that documented its second straight trip to the AFC title game with an old-fashioned 27-10 pasting of the Bills in the AFC Divisional that was as much a coaching masterpiece as it was another clutch effort.
In the last decade, only two teams, the Chiefs (Sunday's foe again at 6:30 p.m. in Arrowhead) and Patriots have gone to the game for the Lamar Hunt Trophy two straight times. And they stretched their longest winning streak ever to ten Sunday when the defense again ripped the heart out of a big-time quarterback.
Last month it was Patrick Mahomes and Tom Brady. On Sunday, it was Josh Allen frustrated by the Bengals rampaging front that was game ball worthy. Allen, the NFL's all-time postseason leader in averaging combined yards per game, didn't break 300 Sunday, held to just 26 yards rushing and 265 yards passing.
It was a five-star effort by Taylor's coaching staff that coaxed maximum discipline. On defense, they didn't let Allen get out of pocket. On offense, the new offensive line handled the noise and games and stunts and inexperience of working together with just two false starts and one sack allowed.
"It was never close," Apple puffed. "It should have been 31-10, but they took a touchdown away from Ja'Marr (Chase)."
There's a sense the Bengals believe they're better than the team that came within 39 seconds of a Super Bowl championship last season. And got there by beating the Chiefs in Kansas City.
"I think we're a more complete team. I think we're a better team," said quarterback Joe Burrow. "We just seem to make plays when it counts. That's all there is to say.
"I think our O line is better. I think our run game is better. I think our defense is better. I think our special teams is better. We're just overall a much better team than we were last year."
Now, with five, head coach Zac Taylor has as many playoff wins as Super Bowl winner Doug Pederson and one more than Matt LaFleur and Mike Vrabel combined. Also with five, Burrow has as many postseason wins as Jimmy Garoppolo and one more than Allen, Matthew Stafford and Matt Ryan.
Taylor isn't smoking any cigars, but he can feel the confidence in his locker room. He could hear it through the wall of the interview room as the music blared like the disrespect they felt from the NFL for how they were treated for playing a 16-game schedule.
"We're built for this. It doesn't matter what anybody thinks about us. We don't care who's favored, who's not. We're built for this," Taylor said. "It's just these moments. Our whole team. You just look at the leadership in every position".
The Bengals have become famous for not being famous. For playing well with chips on their shoulders and a point to prove in their hearts and minds. Taylor has brilliantly tapped into that emotional arm of this crew he has assembled along with Bengals president Mike Brown and director of player personnel Duke Tobin, sensing they thrive on it rather than shrink from it.
Take Taylor's Saturday night message.
"They were 13-1 at home in the playoffs, the best home winning percentage in NFL history," Taylor said of mainly the Marv Levy Jim Kelly Bills. "And I wanted to show that to the team because I knew what that would do to them. That wouldn't put fear in them, Oh my God, we're walking into an environment that people don't win. It was going to be the opposite. And it was."
It may go down as "The Refund Game." When the NFL began making arrangements for a Chiefs-Bills AFC title game, it was like Taylor wrote it himself for group motivation.
If anyone has a finger on it, it is nose tackle DJ Reader, one of those key free agent acquisitions from winning teams that helped Taylor change the culture.
"It's a bunch of guys who were doubted. A bunch of guys who didn't get their second contract in the places they were drafted to," Reader said. "And the young boys we drafted, they work hard as hell. They compete. It's a bunch of people that have been doubted. Especially on our defense. We've got, what? One, two first-round draft picks on our defense? We're out there playing ball. That's what matters."
One of those first-rounders is Apple, one of those guys who didn't get a second contract. The other one is the first-rounder now, safety Dax Hill, who probably lasted longer than he thought at No. 31. He had something to say Sunday, when he came off the bench for the injured Tre Flowers and defended tight end Dawson Knox in the end zone on a third-down pass.
"It felt like a movie scene," said slot cornerback Mike Hilton of the day that played out with Bills safety Damar Hamlin in the building. "What happened between them and us, the snow and a playoff game. You couldn't write the script any better."
Hilton is one of those leaders oozing with the right stuff. Jilted by the Steelers for a new deal, he gladly kept his relentless versatility and rep as the NFL's most complete slot defender in the AFC North. He was also one of the guys waving to the crowd after it was over Sunday.
"We're not going to Atlanta. Y'all not going to Atlanta. We'll see you in Kansas City," Hilton said. "No matter who we play, where we play, we feel like we're the best team on the field and we know if we execute, it's hard to beat us and we did that today."
Defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo again used Hilton like a newfangled device from Silicon Valley. He lined him up in the slot to blitz, he lined him up in the slot to drop, he lined him up in the slot to cover. He responded with a team-high eight tackles, two hits on Allen, a tackle for a loss and a pass defensed.
Early in the fourth quarter when the Bills still had a glimmer in the snow after Allen hooked up with wide receiver Stefon Diggs for 32 yards on first down, Hilton blitzed Allen on the next snap to get things back under control and he hurried an incompletion. Then one play later Hilton blitzed again and blew up Allen (with help from edge Trey Hendrickson) and Hendrickson's fumble recovery was overturned into an incomplete pass. But the Bills had been stopped and a few plays later Apple defended a fourth-down ball to end the suspense with about eight minutes left.
But as if to show how connected they are, the lone turnover of the game came on rookie cornerback Cam Taylor-Britt's first NFL interception, a read-and-leap in a Cover 2 at the goal line in the last minute.
"I just went up and got it. Had to go get it," Taylor-Britt said of a ball he gave to his mother after the game for safe-keeping. "I've got a man cave with some cabinets."
It's safe to say the Bengals are a confident bunch. But there's only one way to know if they really are better than last year, they say. Asked if they were better than last year, Apple puffed and thought of the Lombardi Trophy.
"Got to get the football," Apple said. "Then we are."