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Cincinnati Bengals claim first AFC North title in six years behind Joe Burrow-led youth movement

CINCINNATI -- What now?

Some said their head coach was unproven, their nucleus too young and inexperienced, their defense too suspect at home to be considered legitimate Super Bowl contenders. And when those arguments failed to gain traction, there was always the lazy and ill-informed mantra of, Well, they're the Bengals.

While the franchise finished last in its division the past three seasons, out of the playoffs the past five years and currently is seeking its first postseason win in 31 years, no one should confuse this group with previous iterations. There is grit and resolve with these Bengals, who on Sunday claimed the AFC North title with a 34-31 victory over the Chiefs.

The outcome warmed the hearts of 64,505 long-suffering fans on a frigid afternoon in Paul Brown Stadium, and though it would be foolish to say the past is a distant memory, it is not a stretch to say this group has provided the next generation of Bengals fans with a reason to believe it will not have to endure the same heartache and heartbreak their parents did.

The Bengals overcame not only three 14-point deficits, but a team riding the crest of an eight-game winning streak and seeking to reach a third consecutive Super Bowl. They trailed 14-0 before some had even settled into their seats, which was reason enough to buckle the knees of a young team. But Cincinnati was not intimidated. In fact, the youngsters played brilliantly, notably the franchise's two most recent first-round draft picks.

Second-year quarterback Joe Burrow´╗┐, who in the privacy of the locker room lit up a victory cigar just as he had done after leading LSU to a national championship, followed up his 525-yard passing performance the previous week against Baltimore with 446 yards and four touchdowns against a defense that had allowed an average of just one aerial score in its previous five games. He was under consistent duress but coolly avoided danger with his pocket mobility, becoming the first player this season to have consecutive games in which he threw for at least four touchdowns and 400 yards, per NFL Research.

The performance of wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase, a favorite of Burrow's during the Bayou Bengals' NCAA title run, was equally sublime as he routinely exploited man coverage for 11 receptions, three touchdowns and a league-record 266 yards for rookies. He is the first rookie to have at least 200 yards receiving in multiple games since at least 1950, and on Sunday, he dominated every level of the defense -- taking an out route 72 yards for a score, snaring a fade for an 18-yard touchdown, and getting deep along the sideline for a 69-yard trip to the end zone. He even left cornerback Charvarius Ward tossing up a hand in exasperation after beating him for a 30-yard reception on third-and-27, allowing the Bengals to continue their march for the decisive field goal in the final minutes.

"If you're going to play him one-on-one, a lot of times it's going to be a long day for you," Burrow said of Chase. "He's a great player and he's going to be a great player for a long time."

Chase said, "Everything is overwhelming right now. I'm excited but overwhelmed."

For good reason. The recent past has been lean for the franchise -- four wins last season, two the year before that, and a maximum of seven in each of the three preceding that. It almost felt like the Bengals would never get it right. Even when they were good, it turned out bad -- with seven one-and-done playoff appearances under coach Marvin Lewis.

A lot of people arched their eyebrows two seasons ago when owner Mike Brown hired Zac Taylor to replace Lewis. Taylor had never been a head coach or a full-time coordinator. His claim to fame was that he was on the same Rams staff with Sean McVay, the beautiful-minded coach who took the franchise to the Super Bowl in his second season. Was Taylor ready for the job at that time? Perhaps not, but ownership believed he was smart and capable and would grow into the position, a belief that has proven to be true.

Burrow saw the same things in Taylor while visiting with him coming out of college. There was a zen between the two when they met at the scouting combine.

"I knew exactly what kind of coach we had, and I knew exactly where I wanted to be. He's a great offensive mind and a great leader of men. He does a great job. I couldn't have asked for a better situation."

When Taylor sat down to meet the media Sunday and was asked his thoughts on winning the division, he paused for 15 seconds, fighting back his emotions. Then he said he was "very proud." Pressed on the reason behind his emotions, he didn't have to elaborate: "You guys have sat in here and seen what we've been through."

He added: "There's no better way to draw it up, to be honest with you -- winning the division championship and going to the playoffs and doing great things. But we didn't skip any steps to get to this point. And I don't want to talk like it's over; this is just the beginning for us, to be quite frank with you."

The Bengals did not skip steps. They built through the draft, beginning with Burrow, who showed why it's not blasphemy to mention his name in the same sentence with Patrick Mahomes and the other great quarterbacks, despite being only two years in the league. And when they had to decide whether to select an offensive tackle to protect Burrow after he was sacked 32 times in 10 games and sustained a season-ending knee injury as a rookie, they opted to give him a playmaker in Chase rather than a protector, much to the disdain of critics.

No one is faulting the move now. Chase, who took heat in the preseason for dropping passes, has been a revelation. He has made the sensational appear routine. And it was his ability to turn nothing into something that got the Bengals going Sunday, after falling behind 14-0 and looking as if they were going to be run out of their own stadium.

Late in the first quarter on second-and-7, he ran a quick out to get the first down, only instead of continuing toward the sideline he cut back to the inside, sprinted into the heart of the defense and left a vapor trail as defenders pursued in vain. The 72-yard score breathed life into not only the Bengals but the crowd, which likely had been thinking Here we go again! after the team fell behind so quickly.

"He made a bunch of great plays today, but the first touchdown was the best," Burrow said. "It was 'cloud' coverage and he had the out route. He felt the cloud corner out there who was going to be able to intercept the ball and he settled right in the zone. So I was able to stop him with the ball and he did the rest."

Burrow spoke as if the two were grizzled vets, but the fact is they have a chemistry that comes from their time together in college. They are able to read not only routes but each other. It allows Burrow to have full confidence to look for Chase in any situation, particularly single coverage when he decides to put the ball up regardless of the initial play call.

"Having him as my quarterback feels similar," said Chase, who caught 84 passes for 1,780 yards and 20 touchdowns during his final season at LSU with Burrow. "We're getting older and smarter, and things are working out."

He is not exaggerating. Burrow said he believes he's playing his best football, even better than his senior season on the bayou. He is seeing things more clearly and quickly, winning plays before the ball is even snapped. It's both frightening and exciting to think of how much better he can get. If the defense can build on Sunday, there really might not be a ceiling on this team.

The unit had had some issues at home this season, allowing at least 21 points in every game but one. But in its previous five games at Paul Brown Stadium, it had surrendered 15 scoring drives of 50 yards or longer, including 11 of at least 60 yards. More of the same appeared to be in order after the Chiefs marched up and down the field in the first half.

But adjustments were made at halftime -- defensive end Trey Hendrickson declined to provide the details -- and the result was an impressive performance in which Kansas City managed just three points. The Chiefs had five plays of 20 or more yards in the opening half but none in the final two quarters.

The script was reversed for the Cincinnati offense, which had only one play longer than 20 yards in the opening half but four in the second half. Three of them were by Chase, the other by Tee Higgins for 39 yards. Like Burrow and Chase, Higgins, 22, is among the team's nucleus of players 25 or younger. The good thing for them is that they do not have the scar tissue of repeated failures of seasons past. They are the foundation for what figures to be sustained success in Cincinnati.

Taylor believes so strongly in them that he chose to go for it on four-and-goal from the 1 with 58 seconds to play and the score tied, rather than kick the seemingly sure field goal. It was partly about not wanting to give Mahomes a chance to work his magic, but it also was about making a statement. According to Taylor, the goal was to take the division title not settle for it.

But typical of the type of day it was for his team, things turned out right even when they went wrong. Running back Joe Mixon was stopped for no gain on the reception, but offsetting holding calls gave the Bengals another opportunity that resulted in Chiefs cornerback L'Jarius Sneed being cited for illegal use of the hands. That allowed Cincinnati to run down the clock and kick the field goal as time expired.

"I've got a ton of faith in our defense to come up there, but the things worth having -- you've got to go get them and not wait for someone to give them to you," Taylor said. "I thought that's what our guys did today."

Same ol' Bengals? Not this group.

Follow Jim Trotter on Twitter.

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