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Playoffs Dawn With Bengals Blazing Their Own Trail: 'This Team Is The 2021 Bengals'

The Bengals need another big day from Joe Mixon against the Raiders.
The Bengals need another big day from Joe Mixon against the Raiders.

Zac Taylor doesn't want to hear about the Curse of Bo Jackson as he prepares for his first playoff game as Bengals head coach, set for 4:30 p.m. Saturday (Cincinnati's Channel 5) against Bo's Raiders in the fifth Wild Card game ever at Paul Brown Stadium.

"Sometimes they don't know what they don't know, and that can be a really good thing," said Taylor Sunday after the 21-16 playoff tune up loss in Cleveland. "You certainly can't avoid some of the narrative that surrounds us sometimes with our playoff experience, but again, these guys don't have that playoff experience. There are a lot of things they've done this year to change some of those things. This week will be no different."

Count Taylor as one of those guys who doesn't know what he doesn't know. For one thing, Taylor had never heard of such a thing when the media asked about the Curse of Bo last week. For another, only two of his players expected to be active Saturday, punter Kevin Huber and long snapper Clark Harris, were alive on Jan. 13, 1991 when the Bengals very nearly beat the Los Angeles Raiders in the AFC playoffs.

Coming off a 41-14 crushing of the Houston Oilers in a Riverfront Stadium Wild Card Game, the Bengals clung to a 10-3 lead veering into the fourth quarter at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. But even though the great Jackson had to leave early in the third quarter with what he thought was a hip tweak that wouldn't keep him out of the next week's AFC title game in Buffalo, the Bengals couldn't hold on and lost, 20-10.

It turned out that Jackson's injury wasn't a tweak, but a career-ending injury and the Bengals haven't won in the playoffs since.

"This team is the 2021 Bengals. That is all that matters," Taylor said. "That's our approach all year and we've done some really good things to put ourselves in a position to play a home game in front of our fans and be able to take the next step."

Taylor was all of seven years old, his dashing Rookie of the Year candidate Ja'Marr Chase wasn't even born in the 1990s and the Raiders are in Las Vegas now, where the Bengals beat them 50 days ago, 32-13, in one of their biggest wins of this breakthrough season.

"It would mean a lot to the organization and to the community too. Just having the opportunity to make it happen for the Bengals," Chase said of what a win on Saturday would mean. "They have not done it in a long time and that is all we constantly hear. Finally having everyone say the opposite of what they used to. That is what we are trying to do here. That is our goal."

The Bengals lost to the Browns with their backups, but their starters, led by quarterback Joe Burrow, the hottest quarterback on the planet, are rested, healthy and confident with his three-game winning streak that includes last week's humongous AFC North-clinching win over the two-time AFC North champion Chiefs.

"They don't feel that pressure. They don't think about that stuff at all," Taylor said. "It's more just stories and people that maybe have been here longer than we have that talked about it."

With Burrow, Chase, running back Joe Mixon and wide receiver Tee Higgins the first quartet in NFL history to have a 4,000-yard passer, two 1,000-yard receivers and a 1,000-yard rusher all younger than 26 years and playing in their first postseason, the Bengals aren't bereft of positive playoff experience.

Thanks to free agency, they have about a dozen players that have played in at least one playoff game who have helped steer the kids here.

Guys like slot cornerback Mike Hilton, the old Steeler, who knows the difference between confidence and cocky.

"We know we are one of the most talented teams in the league and we have the opportunity to do that against the other most talented teams in the league," Hilton said after his end-zone pick on Sunday. "I feel like when the playoffs come, scheme can only take you so far. We know as players, you have to win those one-on-one matchups and have to make the big plays on both sides of the ball. We feel confident in the guys we have in this locker room, and are excited about the opportunity because a lot of them haven't been this far. I know they are looking forward to it and they know there is a lot on the line."

Burrow and the Bengals knew how tough the Raiders were even before that Nov. 21 tussle in the desert. Raiders defensive coordinator Gus Bradley has been a friend of the Burrow family since he and Burrow's father Jimmy coached together at North Dakota State at the turn of the century.

Bradley runs a grinding take-away-the-big-play Cover Three defense and he didn't let Burrow complete a ball longer than 17 yards and held him to a career-low 148 yards. But the Bengals punched out a win thanks to Mixon's 123 yards on 30 carries that led to 19 fourth-quarter points. It was Burrow's six-yard touchdown pass to Chase on third down with 5:03 left that broke open a 16-13 lead.

In his last two games, Burrow has been getting 148 yards before he brushes his teeth with 16 passes longer than 17 yards. Bradley figures not to give him that much room. After keeping Burrow home this weekend to rest his sore right knee, Taylor is confident his guy is going to be on his game mentally as well as physically.

"His approach has always been second to none. He's right though," Taylor said. "There is a mental strain through the course of the season. He probably didn't even know what that felt like until it hit him that you're not preparing to go and beat the Cleveland Browns necessarily. You can slow your brain down a little bit. I'm expecting to get Joe's best next week. He'll be ready to go (Monday)."

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