Bengals rewriting playoff history with Joe Burrow: 'The game is not too big for him'

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One of Joe Burrow’s biggest fans watched the Bengals win its first playoff game in 31 years from the comforts of his mother-in-law’s basement. 

That fan couldn’t stop texting his three kids, who attended the AFC wild-card matchup against the Raiders. They sent countless pictures of the scene inside and outside Paul Brown Stadium after the 23-16 victory on Jan. 15. That fan can’t wait for Saturday’s AFC divisional playoff game against the Titans, and he is looking forward to meeting Burrow in person someday. 

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That could describe just about any Bengals fan at the moment. In this case, the fan in question is former Bengals quarterback Ken Anderson. 

Anderson won the 1981 NFL MVP award and led Cincinnati to its first Super Bowl appearance in the same year. He is a franchise icon who was part of the Bengals’ first Ring of Honor class this season along with Paul Brown, Anthony Munoz and Ken Riley. Anderson was impressed with how Burrow, who passed for 244 yards and two TDs against the Raiders, handled that first playoff start. 

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MORE: Inside the Bengals’ playoff history

There is another Cincinnati legend in the making, and Burrow is ahead of schedule. Or is he?  

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“I think it might be surprising to everybody, but it’s not surprising to him,” Anderson told Sporting News. “He’s 25 years old. Some guys in their second year could be 21 or 22. He’s played in the College Football Playoff, won a national championship and played all kinds of big games in the SEC. He’s used to big games, and as the old Paul Brown would describe it, ‘The game is not too big for him.'” 

Burrow can achieve another milestone if the Bengals beat the Titans on Saturday. Among the quarterbacks who have been drafted with the No. 1 pick in the NFL Draft in the Super Bowl era, Burrow could be the first one to take his team to the conference championship round in just his second season.

A total of 26 quarterbacks have been selected with the No. 1 pick in that stretch. Seven of those quarterbacks did not win a playoff game in their career. Here is a look at how Burrow compares to the ones with at least one postseason victory and how long it took those quarterbacks  to get to their first conference championship and Super Bowl. 

No. 1 pick QBs in playoffs (min. one playoff win) 

Joe Burrow 2020 2 2 ? x
Matthew Stafford 2009 3 13 ? x
Jared Goff 2016 2 3 3
Andrew Luck 2012 1 2 x
Drew Bledsoe 1993 4 4
Michael Vick 2001 2 2 x
Eli Manning 2004 4 4
Troy Aikman 1989 3 3 4
John Elway 1983 1 4 4 4
Terry Bradshaw 1970 3 3 5 5
Cam Newton 2011 5 5 6 6
Peyton Manning 1998 2 6 6 9
Alex Smith 2005 8 8 8 x
Jim Plunkett 1971 10 10 10 10
Vinny Testaverde 1987 8 8 12 x
Carson Palmer 2004 3 13 13 x
Steve Bartkowski 1975 4 4 x x
Baker Mayfield 2018 3 3 x x
Jeff George 1990 10 10 x x

It took Stafford, the other active former No. 1 pick in this year’s playoffs, 13 years and a trade from the Lions to Rams to get to this spot. Burrow, meanwhile, has the Bengals on the cusp of making the AFC championship for the first time since the 1988 season. He didn’t celebrate the victory against the Raiders like everyone else.

“The fans were very excited, but I tried to downplay it and all that because this is how it’s gonna be from here on out,” Burrow said at a press conference Tuesday. “This is a great win for us, but this is the standard for the bare minimum for every year going forward.”

Who is going to dispute Burrow on that?

Bengals rewriting playoff history with Joe Burrow: 'The game is not too big for him'
© Provided by Sporting News Joe-Burrow-012222-GETTY-FTR.jpg

‘You’re either accurate or you’re not’

Burrow also smacks down comparisons to another Hall of Fame quarterback Bengals fans know well. San Francisco 49ers legend Joe Montana beat Cincinnati in Super Bowl 23 and Super Bowl 26. CBS analyst Phil Simms made that comparison after the Bengals beat the Baltimore Ravens 41-17 on Oct. 24. 

“Let’s relax,” Burrow responded. “Let’s relax with all that. Let me be me.”

In Burrow’s first postseason start, he made a Montana-esque play late in the first half against Las Vegas. Burrow scrambled to the right, bought as much time as possible then fired across his body to a wide-open Tyler Boyd in the back of the end zone for a touchdown and a 20-6 lead. That’s a play that might be remembered for the accompanying whistle after the ball was released, but it accentuated Burrow’s remarkable composure.

Joe Burrow keeps the play alive and finds Tyler Boyd for a Bengals touchdown! #RuleTheJungle

— Pro Football Culture (@proftblculture) January 15, 2022

“That’s what you expect from the No. 1 pick in the draft,” Bengals coach Zac Taylor said in the postgame press conference. “Plays like that. Plays you cannot explain. Making a play when there is no play to be made. That’s a phrase that I’ve heard often in my career. Joe Burrow is the kind of guy who can make those types of plays. It’s pretty impressive.”

Maybe it is not “The Catch.” Yet Burrow, like Montana, showed he belonged in his first playoff start. Anderson would know. He was on the losing end of Super Bowl 26 against the 49ers later that season.

MORE: How Joe Burrow’s two-game stretch made him MVP candidate

Anderson and Burrow share a common link in their games, too. Anderson led the NFL in completion percentage three times in his career. Burrow led the league at 70.4% in 2021. Anderson uses yet another Hall of Fame quarterback when talking about Burrow’s accuracy.

“When I was coaching it was ‘You’re either accurate or you’re not,'” Anderson said. “You can improve a quarterback’s accuracy to a certain extent, but I go back to Sonny Jurgensen. Sonny knew where the ball was going no matter what arm angle he was at. It was going to go in the right direction. That’s Joe. He’s extremely accurate.”

Burrow closed the season with a flurry that put him in the MVP conversation alongside Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers and Tampa Bay’s Tom Brady.

Burrow led the Bengals to victories against the Ravens and Chiefs in his last two-regular season starts in a stretch where he totaled 971 yards, eight TDs and no interceptions. He took the next step against the Raiders, and it was reminiscent of the torrid stretch he put together in leading LSU to the College Football Playoff championship in 2019.

Despite the comparisons to Hall of Fame quarterbacks and sooner-than-expected success, Burrow continues to walk the line between confidence and arrogance with the charm that has made him an endearing player at every stop. For everything he accomplished Saturday, Burrow was trending for his accessory, a pair of rose-tinted, square-framed Cartier sunglasses.

“I just wear stuff that I like,” Burrow said. “I just see something online that I like or people buy me stuff that’s right up my alley. I just throw it on. If it’s cool, then I’m gonna wear it.”

MORE: Titans change ticket policy in attempt to discourage Bengals fans from attending playoff game

‘Let the magic go to work’

Now, the Bengals, a franchise that inherited the label “Bungles” for most of the 21st century, have become the trending NFL topic.. Burrow and LSU teammate Ja’Marr Chase, who had 12 catches for 116 yards against Las Vegas, have formed one of the best pass-catching combinations in the NFL. Cincinnati is asking that two-word question again, a catch-phrase that started when Anderson was leading that Super Bowl run.

“I go back to our ’81 season we went to our Super Bowl,” Anderson said. “We were the No. 1 seed and so we had a bye week and had both playoff games at home. It was the old Riverfront Stadium and that’s when the ‘Who Dey?’ chant started.”

History repeated itself in 1988 when Boomer Esiason won the NFL MVP award and led the Bengals to Super Bowl XXIII. Now, 31 years later, Cincinnati appears to have a quarterback who can keep the franchise in the Super Bowl conversation for several years to come.

Burrow does not take that success for granted, especially after suffering a torn ACL and MCL in his left knee that cut his rookie season short. At his press conference Tuesday, he smiled when asked about Tennessee coach Mike Vrabel, who was one of his favorite two-way players growing up. Burrow also put a spin on his experience when it comes to preparation that puts that fast-track success in perspective.

MORE: Officials from Bengals-Raiders game not expected to work playoffs again

“In the NFL, they can come up with a lot of things that you haven’t seen,” Burrow said. “I would say maybe Tom Brady has seen just seen just about everything that they can throw at him, but he got drafted when I was 3 years old. I have a lot more to see still.”

The good news? No matter what happens Saturday, it appears Burrow is going to be must-see TV for years to come. That means more moments like the tight-rope touchdown against the Raiders and perhaps an era of stability in Cincinnati. Burrow has made that possible. Those moments are when Taylor takes a step back.

“I’ve just learned,” Taylor said. “The more I’ve been around him I’ve just learned to shut my mouth and let the magic go to work.”

Anderson, meanwhile, simply looks forward to meeting Burrow in the future. Anderson said he has exchanged texts with Burrow, especially after big victories. This week, however, Anderson just wants to watch in the basement with his wife Cristy.

At this point, Anderson loves being a fan.

“That’s all I am when watching the game,” he said. “I make no apologies for it. I think my wife is worse than me yelling at the TV and encouraging them. It’s fun; just the electricity Joe has brought to the city of Cincinnati. I think he’s amazing.”

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