The Cincinnati Bengals are used to being laughed at and mocked in NFL circles. In the past several decades, the Bengals have either been cellar dwellers or one-and-done postseason attendees.
Heading into Sunday's wild-card showdown with the Las Vegas Raiders, running back Joe Mixon isn't hearing anyone laughing anymore.
"Everybody was sleeping on us, everybody was not wanting to count us in," Mixon said, via the team's official website. "Now, we got all the right pieces here, we got all the things that we need to be able to play in games like this and where we're able to compete for championships. That's what Zac (Taylor) brought these guys in to do.
"Back then, everybody used to laugh at us on the schedule and be like, 'Oh, we finna play the Bengals. It's just a stat week. Now it ain't no laughing, ain't no playing and joking no more, they know what's going on, they know how we coming."
The Bengals improved their record by six wins in 2021 after finishing 4-11-1 in 2020 (Cincinnati and Dallas were the only teams to have a six-win increase this season) and made the playoffs and won the AFC North for the first time since 2015.
Cincy went 10-7 in Taylor's third season after going an NFL-worst 6-25-1 in his first two campaigns. The Bengals averaged 27.1 PPG and 259.0 pass YPG and recorded a +84 point differential (top 10 in the league) in 2021, just one year after averaging 19.4 PPG and 319.8 total YPG and logging a bottom-five point differential (-113).
The explosive offense led by Mixon, Joe Burrow, Ja'Marr Chase, Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd gives the Bengals legitimacy heading into the postseason. Cincy can put up points with anyone.
The Bengals offense averaged their most PPG in a season (27.1) since 1988 (28.0) when they won AFC Central and lost Super Bowl XXIII.
Cincinnati is also the third team in NFL history with a 4,000-yard passer (Burrow), a 1,000-yard rusher (Mixon) and a 1,000-yard receiver (Chase) all age 25 or younger in a season. The Bengals are the only team in NFL history to have multiple such receivers (Chase, Higgins).
The Cincy defense has also improved this season, giving the Bengals a well-rounded crew that could make a deep push into the postseason.
Cincinnati hasn't won a playoff game since the 1990 Wild Card Round -- the longest active drought without a playoff win (30 seasons). The Bengals are 0-8 in the playoffs since their last playoff win. The Raiders, their wild-card opponent has the fourth-longest such drought at 18 seasons.