INGLEWOOD, Calif. -- Joe Burrow used some of the time during the bye week before the Super Bowl to watch A Football Life about former St. Louis Rams quarterback Kurt Warner. In the locker room after the Bengals lost Super Bowl LVI to the Rams, 23-20, Burrow sat for a long while. One of the things he thought about was something Warner said during the show. The Rams, Warner said, had let their loss in Super Bowl XXXVI to the New England Patriots sting too much. They did not celebrate what they did accomplish. Burrow, his voice low, his right knee in apparent pain, wanted to celebrate what the Bengals had done, in stunning the NFL with a run to the Super Bowl just one season after winning four games.
"We're a young team," Burrow said. "I'd like to think we'll be back in this situation multiple times over the course of the next few years. We take this and let it fuel you for the rest of our careers."
They might, but when Burrow -- who completed 22 of 33 passes for 263 yards and one touchdown -- hopped awkwardly off the podium and then limped slowly away, before a golf cart picked him up, it was a reminder of how fragile an NFL team, an NFL season, is. The Bengals rode a razor's edge to the cusp of a championship. They lost eight games this season and five of their wins came by a field goal. It was Burrow who gave them the chutzpah to believe they belonged in contention all season. That he is brazen enough to think Super Bowl trips will become routine -- that he is sure enough to say it aloud -- is of a piece with the way the Bengals approached this game. They were not overwhelmed by their inexperience. They were not shaken when the Rams took an early lead. They threw right at Los Angeles' star cornerback, Jalen Ramsey.
"Our guys aren't afraid of anybody," Cincinnati coach Zac Taylor said. 'They got tired of the narrative of what other guys were going to do to them."
We will probably hear less of that next season, when the dynamic surrounding the Bengals is going to change dramatically. They will be one of the chased. Even in defeat, Burrow seems suited for that role. He wore his flashy custom-made suit to his postgame press conference and donned a coordinating hat for his exit, halting as it was.
Burrow said his right knee, which he clutched at after he was hit during the game, "feels good" but will be evaluated when he returns to Cincinnati. But Burrow's toughness under pressure has been the story of the season -- "I wasn't coming out," he said -- and it was the relentless Rams pass rush that eventually undid the Bengals season. Taylor noted that Burrow can play through a lot of pain, and even if nobody said as much, it was clear he was in some level of it.
The Bengals had seized the game's lead for the first time on the first play of the second half when Burrow -- who said this week he only started to feel like himself after the ACL tear that ended his rookie campaign at the midpoint of this season -- escaped the Rams' pressure and rolled to his right, before launching a pass to Tee Higgins all the way across the field, for a 75-yard touchdown. It was the kind of play that has become familiar in Cincinnati games; Burrow's mobility and ability to extend plays was critical to the Bengals' late-season surge. One play later, Matthew Stafford threw an interception, giving Cincy the ball on Los Angeles' 31-yard line with a chance to take a double-digit lead. But on third down, Burrow was sacked by Aaron Donald, who finished with two sacks and seemed to affect nearly every play. The sack essentially saved the Rams four points, and perhaps saved them a world championship. The Bengals settled for a field goal and never scored again.
Burrow was sacked seven times in all, tying the Super Bowl record and bringing his season total, including the playoffs, to 70 sacks. That is staggering punishment for any quarterback to endure, especially one playing on a surgically repaired knee, especially one as clearly the linchpin of the franchise as Burrow is.
"One time, let alone however many times it was, not even counting the things that weren't sacks, just him getting hit in general, so it has been tough," tight end C.J. Uzomah said. "I mean, that's franchise, right? You don't want to see your franchise quarterback getting hit as many times as he did. That's probably going to be a point of emphasis coming up."
The Bengals' loss, and Burrow's duress, were reminiscent of the beating Patrick Mahomes took from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in last year’s Super Bowl. Kansas City rebuilt its offensive line last offseason, and Cincinnati is in good position to do the same this offseason. The Bengals are flush with young skill-position talent, and the defensive rebuild in free agency was an under-the-radar strength. But their need to rely on quick passes to save Burrow from further punishment at the hands of the Rams' defensive front -- Taylor said screen passes are often foiled by that front, too, with tipped balls and interceptions -- meant Burrow could not hold the ball long enough to let big plays develop. As a result, they struggled on third down, converting just 3-of-14 third-down tries and just 1-of-3 fourth-down attempts.
This was the first postseason game Burrow has lost since his high school team lost the Ohio state championship. Burrow has said he thinks about that loss all the time. On Sunday, he said that losing the Super Bowl felt the same.
Burrow did not seem crestfallen -- none of the Bengals did -- perhaps because they are young enough to believe they will be back to the Super Bowl again soon, perhaps because they know they have the one irreplaceable piece that so few teams are lucky to have, and he is as resilient mentally as he will have to be physically.
"We're probably as hungry now as we were before the game," Burrow said.
A few moments later, he began what was going to be a long, slow walk to the team bus, before someone prevailed on him to let the golf cart take him. It was the first time this offseason -- and it better not be the last time -- that the Bengals had to protect Burrow from his own toughness.