The Bengals were at midfield and one touchdown away from winning the first Super Bowl in franchise history. Seven months later, the Jets can essentially end the Bengals’ season in September.
One of last season’s best stories has become a cliché. The long-suffering franchise that unexpectedly won the AFC now appears to be the latest victim of a Super Bowl hangover.
A step back was not unexpected for Cincinnati. Even with Joe Burrow, 25, entering his prime, the Bengals were going to struggle to again emerge from a loaded conference that features the Bills and the Chiefs. But it appeared as if the Bengals at least would have the chance to defend their AFC title in the playoffs.
Then Week 1 ended with a home loss in overtime to the Mitch Trubisky-led Steelers. Week 2 ended with another last-second loss to the Cooper Rush-led Cowboys. The Bengals became the first team in the Super Bowl era to lose their first two games of the season after being favored by at least a touchdown in each game.
The Bengals now will attempt to become the first team since 2018 to make the playoffs after losing their first two games, a feat that only 12 of 125 teams have accomplished since 2007, leading sportsbooks to make the Bengals -175 favorites to miss the postseason. If it occurs, it would be the third time in the past four years that the Super Bowl runner-up failed to make the postseason the next season.
The Bengals enter Sunday’s game at MetLife Stadium as five-point favorites. But less than one year ago, the Jets upset the Bengals in New Jersey as Mike White threw for 405 yards and three touchdowns in his first career start, leading the Jets back from an 11-point fourth quarter deficit.
“Everyone is frustrated, but we’re not panicking,” Burrow said. “Two games in, we’ve got 15 left, let’s all just take a deep breath and relax.
“We’re going to be fine. We’re not worried.”
Maybe he should be.
After being sacked 70 times last season — the third-highest single-season total in NFL history, which includes the seven by the Rams in the Super Bowl, tying a record — the Bengals thought they repaired their Achilles heel by bringing in four new starters on the offensive line, including veteran center Ted Karras. Through two games, Burrow has been sacked 13 times — putting him on pace to break David Carr’s single-season record of 76 — and the quarterback began Week 3 ranked 28th in the league in yards per attempt (6.0) after leading the league last season (8.6).
Burrow had become conditioned to believe the best was ahead. He is just three years removed from winning a Heisman Trophy and a national championship, turning him into the No. 1 pick in the 2020 NFL Draft. After suffering a season-ending knee injury as a rookie, he returned to lead the Bengals to their first playoff win in 31 years and had his team ahead with less than 90 seconds remaining in the Super Bowl.
“We’re a young team, you’d like to think that we’ll be back in this situation multiple times over the course of the next few years,” Burrow said after the game. “We take this and let it fuel you for the rest of our careers.”
But young and talented cores have collapsed countless times. Second chances aren’t written in the stars.
Dan Marino was 23 in 1984 when he authored the greatest season ever by a quarterback and made his lone Super Bowl appearance; the Dolphins followed with just one postseason berth in the next five years. Joe Namath was 25 when he fulfilled his Super Bowl guarantee; he played in one more postseason game. Ralph Sampson’s knees fell apart after the 1986 NBA Finals. Shaq and Penny broke up one year after reaching the 1995 NBA Finals. The 2012 Thunder were the second-youngest team in Finals history and never went back.
If the Bengals don’t recover this season, they have plenty of time to avoid joining that list. But their improbable playoff run elevated expectations to a level that Josh Allen, Patrick Mahomes, Justin Herbert and/or Lamar Jackson may not let them reach again.
The Bengals were 49 yards from a championship. You can’t be surprised if they never get closer.
Today’s back page
Bite of Apple for Judge’s No. 61?
All eyes turn to Apple TV+.
Aaron Judge failed to tie Roger Maris’ single-season American League home run record Thursday night at Yankee Stadium, going 0-for-2 — including one extremely loud out to the warning track in center field — with three walks in a 10-inning, 5-4 win over the Red Sox. The Yankees clinched a postseason berth with the win.
The MVP front-runner now will attempt to hit an historic 61st home run of the year for a reduced local audience on Apple TV+.
The Friday night game — 7:05 p.m. ET, Gerrit Cole vs. Rich Hill — will be presented free on the streaming platform. Contact a Gen Z family member if you have trouble signing up.
Today’s back page (early edition)
A quiet goodbye
Oh, and you’ll need a cable package that includes Tennis Channel, too.
Roger Federer will not receive the grand farewell he deserves — the type of send-off Serena Williams recently received at the U.S. Open — but the 20-time grand slam champion will give fans the chance to say goodbye tonight in London, where he’ll play doubles in the final match of his career alongside Rafael Nadal against Americans Frances Tiafoe and Jack Sock in the Laver Cup.
“I’m nervous going in because I haven’t played in so long,” Federer said this week. “I hope I can be somewhat competitive.”
Federer, 41, hasn’t played since losing in the quarterfinals of Wimbledon last year. He had hoped to resume his career before his troublesome right knee forced the Swiss superstar to quietly end his legendary career.
“I’m not sure if I can handle it all, but I’ll try,” Federer said.
Much has been said about his artistry and grace and gifts, but one of the most unique wrinkles of Federer’s career is that he may be the lone player in major sports history to be considered the greatest player of all time in his sport in the midst of his career, only to be surpassed — twice! — on the court before his career was over.
(There may be others who qualify, but I spent a long time thinking and researching other cases and no obvious candidate emerged. Babe Ruth had dominated long enough to have been considered the greatest ever when Ty Cobb retired in 1928, but the Tigers star still earned the highest percentage of Hall of Fame votes in Cooperstown’s inaugural class of 1936.)
While Federer is unquestionably the most popular player of tennis’ golden era, he will finish his career with fewer major titles than Nadal (22) and Novak Djokovic (21), as well as losing head-to-head records against both rivals. Federer went 16-24 against Nadal (4-10 at grand slam events) and 23-27 against Djokovic (6-11 at grand slams).