After watching some film Sunday, the Bengals took time to reflect on how they got here, which is one game away from the Super Bowl when they go to Kansas City this Sunday (3 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 12) for the AFC title game.
By the way, the defense was so good in Tennessee Saturday and nose tackle D.J. Reader so impactful that a defensive coach urged tight end C.J. Uzomah to watch some of Reader's clips.
And the chemistry is bubbling at such a high boil that Uzomah couldn't wait after Zooming with the media to take a look. All season they've underlined how important the locker room culture has been and how well head coach Zac Taylor has cultivated it, and, naturally, his quarterback has been in the middle of that, too.
They are about to play their 20th game, breaking the record of 19 set in the Super Bowl seasons of 1981 and 1988, and the Jan. 30 AFC title game marks the latest they've ever played in a season. So it's easy to forget that voluntary spring workouts were not a given around the NFL as the league and NFL Players Association grappled with the pandemic. But the Bengals, off a six-win run in Taylor's first two seasons, had virtually perfect attendance.
"I think we're probably one of the only teams that came back," said free safety Jessie Bates III, a big reason why as the NFL Players Association rep. "Some guys were like well, maybe we should go with the (rest of) NFL and nobody goes to OTAs. And you got me, Joe Burrow, and Joe was like, 'We won four games last year. Why wouldn't we go?' And we had everybody show up and I feel like that's really where it all started. We really built the foundation of what we wanted to be about, what that standard was. And I feel like it's truly paying off."
Burrow's steel-belted performance in his last six starts of 13 touchdowns and an interception while completing 75 percent of his passes have ushered him into the elite conversation. He didn't throw a touchdown in Saturday's AFC Divisional for the first time since Nov. 7, but his stage craft in the face of a record nine sacks gave the Bengals' their first road postseason win ever.
Yet the numbers can make you forget what he means off the field.
"I feel like he's starting to really step out of that shell, where he can hold people accountable," Bates said. "It's okay, Joey B. You can go cuss somebody out and we'll be fine. I think that's where he's really stepping into his own. He's really just putting everything on himself."
That got Bates to thinking about the Friday night team meeting in the hotel, where Taylor told the captains to talk to the team instead of the coaches.
"Joe Burrow was like, 'I am not going to say anything.' I don't have anything to say and then next thing, he pops up and says something which wasn't a lot of words," Bates said. "But it meant so much to our team and just having a franchise quarterback like that, that can keep that poise and keep a team together says a lot. So that's Franchise Joey for a reason."
That's the now famous speech where Burrow basically told them to stick the "Why Not Us?" narrative because he thinks they're selling themselves short. It was such a good speech that the author of "Why Not Us?" has bagged it, too, after listening to the guy he calls, "Franchise."
Now the term is, "It Is Us."
"It hit me to say, 'It is us,' after "Franchise," Uzomah said. "Why not us makes us sound like the underdogs and we're not. In our heart of hearts we believe we're the best team in this league. Kind of having that, 'why not us?' thing is kind of like we're being passive and we're being shy."
Uzomah is also credited with slapping the "Franchise," tag on Burrow and he's being so casual with that he actually slipped during the last game and called him, "Franch," for short.
Uzomah remembers the spring, too, because he was dying to get back on the field and in the locker room after he missed all but two games in 2020 when he blew out his Achilles'. He remembers Burrow being a force as they tried to get everybody in, but he also recalled how big guys like Bates and Vonn Bell and Sam Hubbard were in pulling it together.
"It was more positional groups. The leaders of each position group, we kind of got together. We wanted it," Uzomah said. "Everyone felt the same way. We didn't want to have the season we had last year. I wasn't about to be part of that crap again and nobody wanted that. He was. Sam Hubbard was. I was. Vonn was. Jessie was. Everybody. We've got to get in there and do everything we can to make sure that we're ready to go."
PLAY LIKE A BENGAL: For years the Bengals have had to hear from Baltimore, "Play like a Raven." Or "The Patriot Way." Taylor has crafted his idea of a Bengal and Uzomah has a pretty good handle on it:
"A Bengal is a physical, hungry, accountable teammate that is willing to do their all for the betterment of the team and that's what we have," Uzomah said. "We have each individual person willing to do whatever it takes to get the job done. It doesn't matter what it is. It doesn't matter what their role is."
TWO CHECK KERR: The Bengals are also getting big-time contributions from guys who were nowhere around here in the spring. Heck, one guy didn't show up until last week. But the personnel department keeps proving there's more to this thing than the draft and free agency.
Tre Flowers, a cornerback with safety dimensions, was plucked from the waiver wire on Oct. 14 and has emerged as their designated tight end stopper. You'll hear a lot about him this week because he was one of the reasons they held Chiefs All-Pro Travis Kelce to 25 yards a month ago.
He played just five scrimmage snaps Saturday, but got his hand on a pass. With their two best gunners out the last month, Flowers has stepped in for injured Brandon Wilson and Stanley Morgan, Jr., for his most work at the position in his four NFL seasons. With 2:43 left in the game he dropped Chester Rogers right where he caught a punt at the Titans 16 for one of two special teams tackles he made on a day he played the most kicking-down snaps with 21.
Then there's linebacker Clay Johnston, another waiver wire claim, this one from Nov. 9. In his only scrimmage snap on Saturday, he made one of the plays of the game when he came screaming off the left edge to keep Titans running back Derrick Henry from scoring a two-point conversion on the right edge. He's been here to mostly play on teams (the move was made in the wake of linebacker Akeem Davis-Gaither going on injured reserve), where he took 16 snaps Saturday.
Before Saturday Johnston had taken 44 snaps in a Bengals scrimmage, 41 in the season finale in Cleveland. He's one-for-one on career playoff snaps.
And then there's defensive tackle Zach Kerr, a veteran of 92 regular-season games who got his first 12 postseason snaps, one of them on the critical two-point conversion. A week ago Monday, he was on the sidelines for Arizona's Wild Card loss in Los Angeles knowing the Bengals had plucked him from the practice squad and he was probably headed to Cincinnati.
Since he had been activated to the roster but inactive for the game, he got paid and his new teammates immediately dubbed him, "Two Check," not long after his first practice on Wednesday.
"You watch him, he made a huge play. But then if you turn on the film, you watch 69 on the sideline getting hyped like he's been there since day one," Bates said. "t just says a lot about how we welcome people into this locker room and how special these guys are … I think Zach's first day everybody's like 'hey, what's up man, how you doing? You just played last Monday in a game and you come over here. Go get a win.' A lot of guys been calling him Two Check Kerr. It's just very special, a special group that we have in this locker room. Guys they know their role, they embrace their role."
Taylor and the coaches made the right call there to make Kerr active since Josh Tupou's knee allowed him to go only five snaps. Since Kerr has been practicing all year and had played in seven games for two teams, his 12 snaps on Saturday were no problem for a third.
"He's not a young guy. He's a veteran. He's played ball before so it all makes sense to him," Taylor said. "He's played in games so it's not too big for him. So it's good to have him in the fold for us. I mean, Clay Johnston making the play on the on the two-point conversion there. You know, Vonn (Bell) finished it off, but Clay comes ripping off the edge, that's a guy that we just picked up a couple weeks ago."
Bates knows all about Flowers because they were safeties in the 2018 draft, where Bates went in the second round and Flowers went to Seattle in the fourth.
"I love that dude," Bates said. "He sits right next to me in the meeting room and you can tell that he cares. Tre was a starter for three years at Seattle and he could've easily come over here like 'why am I not playing defense?' But instead he comes in on packages, he does his job and then he goes and plays gunner for the first time ever and makes huge plays in that aspect of controlling the field. I can't say enough about like I said, there's plenty of guys that I could point out."
As for Johnston, he says, "It could have been a different game if its 8-6.".
Taylor thinks those contributions reflect on the chemistry, too.
"There's a lot of guys like that. Tre Flowers on defense and on special teams, just kind of guys all over the map that have jumped right in, fit in to what we want here," Taylor said. "They bought into the coaching staff and the leaders have done a great job helping mold them into what we want them to do and a lot of guys have stepped up and made plays for us."