Burrow, Bengals falter but should stay among AFC contenders
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By MITCH STACY
CINCINNATI (AP) Joe Burrow and the Cincinnati Bengals didn't have another fantastic finish left in them.
That had been the specialty of a talented team with a generational quarterback who could find creative ways to win games.
The Bengals were supremely confident after winning 10 in a row heading into the AFC championship game against the Kansas City Chiefs, a team they had beaten three times in the past 13 months, including in the AFC title game last year.
But too many mistakes doomed the Bengals in Sunday night's 23-20 loss.
"In football - it's either winning or misery," center Ted Karras said. "We're on the misery end tonight."
Cincinnati's patchwork offensive line had trouble protecting Burrow, who was sacked five times. The defense couldn't do enough to contain Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes, even though he was playing on a sprained right ankle.
Mahomes led the Chiefs into position for the winning field goal in the final seconds.
The decisive drive began with a poor punt by Cincinnati's Drue Chrisman. Skyy Moore took Chrisman's low line drive down the middle of the field and returned it 29 yards to the Kansas City 47.
Three plays later, on third-and-4, Mahomes scrambled for a first down and Bengals defensive lineman Joseph Ossai hit the Chiefs' QB out of bounds, drawing a 15-yard penalty. That gave the Chiefs the ball on the Cincinnati 27 with 8 seconds left.
Harrison Butker converted the game-winning 45-yard field goal.
MAGIC RUNS OUT
There were no last-minute heroics for Burrow this time. Cincinnati had the ball with 2:30 left and the score tied, but the Bengals' final drive ended with a sack that forced Chrisman's punt.
"It felt like the tide was turning our way, and it felt like we were going to find a way to win this game," Burrow said.
"What a fantastic opportunity we had, and I'm very grateful that I got to be here and play in these big games and do what we did this year," Karras said. "Unfortunately ... it's over and the opportunity is lost, but we can't forget about all of the effort, hard work and all of the good we did this year. It will hurt for a while.
"These two weeks going into the Super Bowl will be kind of sad but after that, let's get ready to go for 2023."
The defending AFC champs lost their first two games and started the season 4-4. The low point was an embarrassing 32-13 loss to Cleveland on Halloween.
A 42-21 win over Carolina the next week started the 10-game win streak. Cincinnati won its second straight AFC North title and beat Baltimore at home and Buffalo on the road in the playoffs.
Cincinnati got there while managing injuries at various times to running back Joe Mixon, receivers Ja'Marr Chase, Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd, and defensive linemen Sam Hubbard and Trey Hendrickson.
The Bengals faced Buffalo and Kansas City with backups playing for three injured starters on the offensive line. The patchwork group held up well in snowy conditions against the Bills but faltered against Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo's blitz-heavy scheme.
KEEPING THE CORE
Most of Cincinnati's key players will be back.
The Bengals already have begun restructuring their finances so they can offer Burrow a rich, multi-year contract extension to keep him in Cincinnati. Burrow said this season that the Bengals' championship window would last his "whole career."
Like Burrow, Higgins just finished the third year of a four-year rookie deal and is eligible for an extension. Chase will be in the same position after next season.
"I'd love to play with Joe for a while," Higgins said. "He's a great guy and a great quarterback. We have developed a really good friendship, but you know how the league works. I still have another year on my deal, though, so we'll see.
There will be new faces.
Safety Jessie Bates III played with the franchise tag this season and will be eligible for free agency in March. Other unrestricted free agents include tight end Hayden Hurst, running back Samaje Perine, and defensive backs Vonn Bell and Eli Apple.
"The future is bright, for sure," Hubbard said. "But this one is going to hurt for a while. This team is special. There will be guys who won't be here next year. That's sad."
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Updated January 30, 2023