ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- For weeks, it had seemed that most of the NFL had forgotten about the Cincinnati Bengals. Forgotten that they were the reigning AFC Champions, forgotten that they had a chance to contend for the No. 1 seed before their regular-season game against the Buffalo Bills was cancelled, forgotten that as the regular season ended, they were playing the best football in the conference. And, most importantly, forgotten that while the Bills might have been the sentimental favorite, the Bengals were capable of interrupting the carefully laid plans for the AFC Championship Game to be played at a neutral site because the league wanted to make things equal for the Kansas City Chiefs and the Bills.
The Bengals did not need anybody to make anything equal. On Sunday, in their Divisional Round playoff game against Buffalo, they made that obvious. They are better. Better than the Bills, whom they beat easily, 27-10 -- "It was never close," said cornerback Eli Apple, puffing a celebratory cigar; "it should have been 31-10" -- and, they believe, better than the team that narrowly lost the Super Bowl last season. They ran for 172 yards. An offensive line that was without three starters allowed just one sack. The defense held the Bills to their fewest points of the season. All of it came in a constant snowfall. Next Sunday, they will go to Kansas City -- no neutral site needed, after all -- to prove it all again in the AFC Championship Game.
"I think we're a more complete team," said quarterback Joe Burrow, who was 23 of 36 for 242 yards and two touchdowns, when asked to compare this year's team to the 2021 Bengals. "I think we're a better team, and we just seem to make plays when it counts. That's all there is to say. I think our O-line is better, I think our run game is better, I think our defense is better, I just think our special teams is better. We're just overall a much better team than we were last year."
They are also a team playing with an edge born of what they believe is disrespect. As they made their way up to the tunnel and into their locker room after the game ended, players looked into a bank of cameras and echoed the same line: "Better get those refunds."
That was a biting reference to the NFL's announcement that 50,000 tickets had already been sold to Chiefs and Bills season-ticket holders for a potential neutral-site game next week. The Bengals had chafed at how openly the league was planning for life without them.
They were aware that the Bills were the sentimental favorite, that Damar Hamlin's health crisis and stirring recovery had moved the nation and driven the interest of even the most casual fans. Hamlin attended Sunday's game, and when he was shown on the scoreboard sitting in his suite, the crowd -- including the Bengals fans here -- roared in delight and waved to him.
But the Bengals also felt slighted that the league had made provisions to level the competitive playing field for the Bills and Chiefs, but not for them, who might even had been subjected to a coin flip to determine where their Wild Card Round game against the Ravens would be played. That issue was rendered moot when the Bengals defeated the Ravens in the regular-season finale, assuring last week's game would be played in Cincinnati.
"It is tough," Bengals coach Zac Taylor said, with a grin, "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. And I hate that, for the people that have to endure all those logistical issues, and then we just keep screwing it up. So, I'm sorry."
If this is not exactly the conference championship game so many planned for or expected, it will almost certainly not be a disappointment, although this might not be the opponent the Chiefs most hoped for. The Bengals erased an 18-point deficit in last season's AFC Championship Game, stunning the Chiefs, 27-24, in overtime at Arrowhead Stadium. Burrow is 3-0 head-to-head against Patrick Mahomes, who is expected to play despite suffering a high ankle sprain in the Chiefs' Divisional Round victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars on Saturday. Burrow is the only quarterback to have faced Mahomes multiple times and still be undefeated, and the most recent victory came in Week 13, when the Bengals scored 10 fourth-quarter points to beat the Chiefs, again by the score of 27-24.
That victory came in the middle of what is now a 10-game winning streak. The Bengals last lost on Halloween.
"We've got some dogs in this locker room," said Bengals receiver Ja'Marr Chase, who caught five passes for 61 yards and a touchdown. "The record speaks for itself. Everything is going our way right now."
In the closely packed visitors' locker room, the air was thick with smoke from the victory cigars that have become something of a Bengals hallmark. Down the hall, the Bills' erratic season had ended, and more than anything, they looked exhausted, perhaps spent by the extraordinary three weeks since Hamlin's collapse.
The Bengals may have been an unheralded defending champion, but that is likely to change now. They have a few more plans to screw up.
"We are not done yet," Apple said. "Win the Super Bowl. Then we'll be better."