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Cincinnati Bengals safety Michael Thomas (31) and Cincinnati Bengals cornerback Eli Apple (20) react after a defensive play against the Buffalo Bills during the fourth quarter of an NFL division round football game, Sunday, Jan. 22, 2023, in Orchard Park, N.Y. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

Back in September, people thought they had the Cincinnati Bengals pegged. The defending AFC champions were 0-2, and all across America heads nodded knowingly.

Cincinnati, a somewhat stunning participant in Super Bowl LVI, was surely experiencing its inevitable comedown. In the regular-season opener, Joe Burrow threw four interceptions, and the Bengals lost 23-20 to Mitchell Trubisky and the Pittsburgh Steelers. The following week, Cooper Rush — subbing for the injured Dak Prescott — led the Dallas Cowboys to a 20-17 victory over Cincy, with Burrow getting sacked six times in the process.

It was the classic story of a perpetual bottom-feeder that had gotten hot, overachieved and was now plummeting back to reality … except, inside the Bengals’ locker room and coaches’ offices, nobody subscribed to that storyline.

“I just think we felt good in our locker room,” defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo told me last week on my podcast, “Open Mike,” in the wake of Cincinnati’s 24-17 first-round playoff victory over the Baltimore Ravens. “We never lost momentum from the Super Bowl. You know, yeah, we lost the first two games — they were both on the last play of the game … could have went either way.

“Here we are six months later, and we’ve won nine in a row. And really, I haven’t heard too much about that.”

Make that 10 in a row. Last Sunday, the third-seeded Bengals shrugged off a driving snowstorm, a charged-up Western New York crowd and the second-seeded Buffalo Bills, rolling to a 27-10 divisional playoff victory to set up an AFC championship game rematch with the top-seeded Kansas City Chiefs.

Though Sunday’s game will take place in Kansas City, Cincinnati has emerged as a slight favorite, and not just because of the uncertainty surrounding Patrick Mahomes’ high-ankle sprain. The Bengals have defeated the Chiefs three times over the past two seasons, including last year’s conference title game at Arrowhead Stadium.

Cincinnati is one of the two hottest teams in football, joining the San Francisco 49ers, and as Burrow and friends strive to hoist the Lombardi Trophy for the first time in franchise history, they aren’t shy about displaying their confidence. Burrow, the third-year quarterback who has already ascended to the top of his profession and emerged as Mahomes’ chief rival, has swag that extends far beyond his wardrobe choices and victory cigars.

Asked after Sunday’s game by CBS sideline reporter Tracy Wolfson about the Bengals’ spoiling of the NFL’s plan for a neutral-site AFC championship game — in response to the canceled Bills-Bengals regular-season game stemming from the Damar Hamlin medical crisis — Burrow, mindful of reports that 50,000 tickets had been sold for a potential Chiefs-Bills clash in Atlanta, replied, “Better send those refunds.”

Later, Cincinnati coach Zac Taylor piled on, giving a sarcasm-drenched answer to reporters that also made reference to another NFL-crafted contingency plan — a coin flip that would have decided the site of that first-round Ravens-Bengals game, rendered moot by Cincy’s victory over Baltimore in the regular-season finale.

“It is tough because they have to formulate the plans for coin tosses, and they got to formulate the plans for neutral-site games, and we just keep screwing it up for everybody,” Taylor said after the win. “And I hate that for people who have to endure all the logistical issues — we just keep screwing it up. So, I’m sorry.”

Then, on Monday night, Bengals cornerback Eli Apple went into full-mockery mode on social media, targeting Bills receiver Stefon Diggs while invoking Hamlin’s signature salute as collateral damage.

That might not have been the most sensitive approach, but Cincinnati’s persecution complex isn’t entirely unjustified. Though the NFL didn’t have a lot of great options after Hamlin’s cardiac event caused the cancellation of that pivotal Week 17 game — and some parties were bound to be unhappy — the league managed to railroad a complex and inconsistent solution that took the Bills’ and Ravens’ interests into account, but not the Bengals’.

Basically, scenarios were invoked based on the hypothetical outcome of that Bills-Bengals game that allowed for what would have happened had Buffalo won: the aforementioned pre-first-round coin flip and neutral-site AFC title game. However, there was no similar solution based on a hypothetical Cincinnati victory, which would have flipped the site of last Sunday’s divisional-round game against the Bills to Cincy’s stadium.

No, it wasn’t as important as Hamlin’s health, and it wasn’t part of some broad conspiracy against the franchise and owner Mike Brown. However, it did speak to a larger sense among the Bengals that they’re not being given their due, something stemming from the franchise’s long run of postseason futility (including the infamous Meltdown at Paul Brown) in the three decades between Cincinnati’s second and most recent Super Bowl appearance and Burrow’s arrival.

That history helped fuel skepticism about this year’s Bengals, doubts that continued after their Week 5 defeat to the Ravens (also on the game’s final play) and a blowout loss to the Cleveland Browns on Halloween night that dropped Cincinnati to 4-4.

Since then, the Bengals have been scary good, not to mention undefeated. For the record, the only game they didn’t win — the one against Buffalo that got canceled after Hamlin’s collapse — ended with Cincinnati up 7-3 with 5:58 left in the first quarter, having just recorded a first down at the Bills’ 48-yard-line. It’s impossible to know how the rest of that contest might have played out, but it’s not like the Bengals believed they were overachieving.

Cincinnati is now 5-1 over the past two postseasons, with three of those victories having come on the road (Tennessee and Kansas City last season, Buffalo this season). And in the Bengals’ lone defeat during that span — in Super Bowl LVI at the Los Angeles Rams’ home stadium — they weren’t exactly exposed. Remember, Cincy had a 20-16 lead until a flurry of defensive penalties (including a controversial defensive-holding call on a third-and-goal incompletion from the Bengals’ 8-yard-line with 1:44 remaining) set up L.A.’s game-winning touchdown.

Even then, Cincinnati drove to the Rams’ 49-yard-line with just under a minute to go, and, on the fourth-and-1 incompletion that ended the Bengals’ hopes, Burrow came within a split second of throwing a likely touchdown pass to a wide-open Ja’Marr Chase in the face of pressure from Aaron Donald.

Confetti fell, the Rams celebrated — and the outside world largely forgot about Cincinnati. The Bengals quietly had an aggressive and productive offseason, addressing their one obvious weakness — an offensive line that allowed 55 sacks during the 2021 season and another 19 in four postsesason games — by signing free agents Ted Karras, Alex Cappa and La’el Collins.

It worked: The Bengals got better, allowing just 44 sacks in 2022. Then, at season’s end, injuries ravaged the line, threatening to derail the operation.

Collins, the team’s starting right tackle, tore his ACL and MCL in late December. Cappa, the starting right guard, suffered a left-ankle injury the following week and has missed the first two playoff games. Left tackle Jonah Williams suffered a dislocated left kneecap during the first-round victory over the Ravens and missed the Bills game. Karras hurt his right knee in the first half against Buffalo but gutted out the pain.

Cincinnati persevered, with Burrow taking just one sack and Joe Mixon rushing for 105 yards. Taylor said he hopes Williams and Cappa can return for the AFC title game. Whatever happens on Sunday, he and offensive coordinator Brian Callahan have already shown they can come up with a winning plan against a tough opponent under challenging circumstances.

Anarumo, meanwhile, has been simply amazing. The so-called master of the halftime adjustment — Exhibit A being last year’s conference championship game, when Mahomes and the Chiefs were completely flummoxed after taking a 21-10 lead into the locker room — came up with a divisional-round plan that confounded Josh Allen, neutralized Diggs and made the Bills’ attack look strangely impotent. The previous week against the Ravens, the Bengals’ winning touchdown came on defensive end Sam Hubbard’s 98-yard fumble return in the fourth quarter.

They’re not booing; they’re saying “Loooooouuuuuu.”

As of Tuesday, Anarumo, who interviewed for the New York Giants’ head coaching job last year, had yet to be contacted by any of the five NFL teams currently conducting searches. It makes very little sense, but hey, the Bengals are used to being overlooked.

“This is a great group of guys who are very prideful in what they do,” Anarumo said. “And we feel good about every (team) we line up against, no matter who it is.”

As they should. Since last January, when they clinched the AFC North by defeating Kansas City, the Bengals have put together a better body of work than any team in football. They’re two victories away from validating that success with their first championship, and they’re not just viewing this as a short-term thing.

Yes, Burrow is still on a rookie contract, and the massive extension he’ll soon sign will make it harder to maintain a top-notch roster under the salary cap. However, based on what we’ve seen so far, Burrow may be the type of transcendent quarterback who can overcome that lack of overall spending power.

In the aftermath of the 27-16 victory over the Ravens that concluded Cincy’s regular season — and gutted the dreaded coin-flip scenario — Burrow was asked at his postgame press conference about the importance of maximizing the Bengals’ championship window.

“The window is my whole career,” Burrow said. “Our window is always open.”

The way things are trending, we should probably get used to it.

Can he be stopped?

One of Anarumo’s challenges this week will be to try to devise a strategy for containing Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce, who torched the Jacksonville Jaguars for 14 receptions, 98 yards and two touchdowns in last Saturday’s 27-20 divisional round victory. Kelce is now tied with fellow tight end Rob Gronkowski for third on the career postseason receiving yards list with 1,389 — 54 behind second-place Julian Edelman (who Kelce can catch Sunday) and 856 behind Jerry Rice (who is absurd).

In last year’s AFC championship game, Kelce caught 10 passes for 95 yards and a score. The terrific 33-year-old is a win away from a potential Super Bowl showdown against his brother (and fellow first-team All-Pro), Philadelphia Eagles center Jason Kelce.

With Tyreek Hill gone, all eyes are on Kelce as Kansas City’s preeminent receiving threat — and still, he is perpetually open. How can that be?

Before Sunday’s divisional round game between the 49ers and Cowboys at Levi’s Stadium, I asked three-time Pro Bowl tight end Greg Olsen, now a Fox broadcaster, for an explanation.

“There are a lot of reasons that have to do with scheme and the quarterback,” Olsen said. “But the bottom line is that Travis Kelce is just really, really, really good.”

Blast from the past

The New England Patriots made a shrewd move in bringing back Bill O’Brien, their offensive play-caller from 2009 to 2011, hiring him Tuesday as offensive coordinator. The Patriots kept that title vacant in 2022, instead relying on a pair of former failed head coaches, Matt Patricia and Joe Judge, whose areas of expertise had previously been elsewhere.

We warned you of the impending disaster before the season, at which point legions of self-appointed experts on social media told me I should have more faith in the all-knowing Bill Belichick. Often, I do. This time, I didn’t.

Enter O’Brien, who guided the Houston Texans to four AFC South titles during his six-plus seasons as the franchise’s head coach. I do have faith in him, and I expect New England’s offense to improve in 2023.

Stay strong

In the fallout of the Cowboys’ 19-12 defeat to the Niners, there has been a wave of pearl-clutching and hand-wringing about the losing team’s social-media feed, which (gasp!) dared to point out that quarterback Dak Prescott’s two interceptions had an adverse impact on Dallas’ fortunes.

First of all, Prescott can handle it — he accepted responsibility after the game, and his quotes were contained in the story linked to the team’s website.

Secondly, owner Jerry Jones is smart enough to understand that mercilessly insisting that an organization’s in-house media arm resemble Pravda isn’t the best business strategy, especially if you want consumers to consume said content and trust that it’s at least semi-journalistic. Put it this way: There’s no way I would have spent eight years at NFL Network — or eight minutes — had Jones’ (and some other smart owners’) influence on the product and philosophy not been so massive.

By the way, I feel like Tom Brady has a pretty good understanding of this concept, too — as evidenced by his decision to include a seemingly incendiary exchange about his future on his most recent “Let’s Go!” podcast. If the question had bothered Brady that much, he could have easily edited it out. And even if it somewhat bothered him, the fallout has drawn attention to … the podcast.

The fact that Brady chose to keep it in the episode tells you all you need to know.

The great fighting city of Philadelphia

After getting hired as Eagles head coach two years ago, Nick Sirianni had a couple of rough press conferences. As veteran defensive end Brandon Graham and I discussed on my “Open Mike” podcast recently, Sirianni owned his poor performances inside the locker room, which endeared him to his players.

It’s safe to say that, after Philly’s 14-3 regular season and 38-7 thrashing of the Giants in Saturday’s divisional round, Sirianni has found his comfort zone. In fact, he has gone full Philly, as evidenced by this viral exchange with an official.

After the Giants game, he called out a WIP radio host who has been critical of defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon.

If the Eagles defeat the Niners and get back to the Super Bowl, it surely won’t be long before Sirianni is running up the “Rocky Steps” and striking a pose.

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