Cincinnati rejoices as Bengals slay decades-old demon

Fans stayed long after the clock hit double zeros, embracing the moment, as the party in downtown Cincinnati was only just beginning. (Jack Savage/MEDILL)

By Jack Savage
Medill Reports

The record-setting crowd at Cincinnati’s Paul Brown Stadium – 66,277 fans — stood on their feet, screaming at the top of their lungs for 59 minutes and 43 seconds. Then, for a split second, during a palpable silence so intense, you almost hear all 66,277 fans in attendance groan, “Here we go again … I’ve seen how this ends.”

Holding on to a 26-19 lead over the Las Vegas Raiders with 17 seconds left to go in the game, the Cincinnati Bengals were looking to capture their first playoff victory in over 31 years. Quarterback Derek Carr drove the Raiders down the field to the Cincinnati 9-yard line, facing a fourth and goal, looking to tie the game and possibly take the lead.

“Here we go again,” sighed the city of Cincinnati. Postseason heartbreak after postseason heartbreak has become the norm in the Queen City. And in that split second, the 66,277 in attendance froze, ready for history to repeat itself. That was until Germaine Pratt happened.

Pratt jumped in front of Carr’s pass intended for wide receiver Zay Jones and picked it off, sending Paul Brown Stadium into an absolute frenzy and delivering Cincinnati’s first postseason win since Jan. 6, 1991. Pandemonium ensued as hugs and tears of joy flowed throughout the stadium.

A three-decade-long drought went up in smoke, and it was time to celebrate. Who Dey chants carried through the night and into the morning, as Cincinnati fans partied until the sun came up. The night went down in Cincinnati sports history as a victory that has the potential to change the DNA of the franchise.

The win goes beyond advancing in the playoffs and impacting this football team. It impacts the whole city and its fans who have endured the darkest of times, yet stayed loyal through it all.

“This win has given the city of Cincinnati a renewed sense of pride,” said John Blohm, 28, who witnessed a postseason victory for the first time in his life. “For the die-hard fans who have been there since day one, for all the heartbreaks and close calls, to the new generation of fans, it is just building a lifelong passion for this team and this city.

“[Head coach] Zac Taylor giving game balls to the city of Cincinnati and going to the bars and handing them out himself just shows you how much culture truly matters and how much pride this team has for the city,” Blohm continued. “The drought is over, and now we can exhale and enjoy the ride.”

There seems to be a spirited energy surrounding the Cincinnati Bengals these days, slaying their demons of old. The Pittsburgh Steelers? Handled. Prime-time games? No problem. Playoff drought that suffocated the franchise and city? Vanquished. These aren’t the same old Cincinnati Bengals.

“This season … this season was different,” said Melissa Toole, 52, a lifelong Bengals fan. “It brought the fans and city joy, watching this young and hungry team, competing hard and having fun. For 31 seasons we were disappointed, getting let down again and again. It gets exhausting.

“That’s why this win means so much for the city. These players love playing for the Bengals and for the city. It really shows. They have brought excitement and joy to the city during a time when everyone needs something to cheer for.”

The moment had finally arrived for this iteration of the Cincinnati Bengals, and unlike many teams of the past, this team, Joe Burrow’s team, seized it. Less than two years after being drafted and one devastating knee injury later, Burrow has raised the expectations around this franchise.

“The fans were very excited,” Burrow said in his news conference the morning after. “I tried to downplay it and all that because this is how it’s going to be from here on out. This is a great win for us, but this is the standard for the bare minimum every year going forward.”

The people of Cincinnati better get used to days like Saturday, because Joe Burrow doesn’t plan on going anywhere.

Jack Savage is a sports reporter at Medill. You can follow him on Twitter at @jackksavage.

Editor’s note, Jan. 27, 2022, 4:45 p.m.: This story has been updated to correct that Las Vegas quarterback Derek Carr’s pass was intended for wide receiver Zay Jones.