Joe Burrow is the soul-snatching, dream-stealing, January-villain of the AFC. Patrick Mahomes may be better. Josh Allen is certainly stronger. Both have more commercials.
Neither, however, is as unflappable or as unbeatable as the Cincinnati quarterback. At least not of late.
Buffalo had him where it wanted him on Sunday, inside a Western New York snow globe, surrounded by the Bills' table-busting Mafia. That included no less than Damar Hamlin, inspirationally looking down through the flakes.
All of Buffalo had been waiting one year and 13 seconds for this, another shot in the divisional round, another chance at the Chiefs, another push toward the Super Bowl. If not last year, then what year, they wondered? Well, if not now, then when?
Maybe when Burrow retires, which, considering he is 26 years old, is going to be awhile.
Cincinnati 27, Buffalo 10, and for Burrow and his Bengals, it's back to Kansas City, where they won the AFC title last year. For the Bills it’s back to historic misery.
“Domination,” Burrow said on CBS after. “From start to finish.”
It wasn’t just Burrow’s on-field performance, although that was impressive. He finished 23-of-36 for 242 yards and two touchdowns. He also rushed for 31 yards. The Bengals' ability to control both lines of scrimmage was the biggest difference maker, but that was some elite quarterback play, especially under the circumstances.
“Felt like football,” Burrow said. “It was fun.”
As much as anything, it is his demeanor, his confidence, his curiosity, not cowardice, in the face of a playoff environment out of the Bills' wildest imagination — snow, cold and noise.
All of that attitude rubs off on his teammates, on his coaches, on an entire organization and fan base that was known as much for its demoralizing despair, so much of it self-inflicted.
The Bengals, founded in 1968, won five playoff games in their history before Burrow arrived as the No. 1 draft pick out of LSU in 2020.
They’ve won five since, including three on the road.
“Joe Burrow, unbelievable,” running back Joe Mixon said. “In games like this, he always rises to the occasion.”
This isn’t just about Burrow’s ability to drop passes into tight spots or avoid turnovers or play at his best when his best was most needed.
In this case, it was the start of the game, where behind so much emotion and excitement, the Bills looked to set the tone and the mood. Instead, Burrow went 4-for-4 for 64 yards and a touchdown on the opening drive. When Buffalo went three-and-out, the Bengal pounced. Burrow went 5-for-5 for 41 yards and another touchdown.
Just like that, Cincy led 14-0 and Buffalo never fully recovered from the need to press, while surrounded by the pressure that comes from a fan base accustomed to doom.
And when Buffalo trimmed Cincy's lead to 17-10 midway through the third quarter, Burrow (and Mixon) shut the door with a 12-play, 75-yard touchdown drive that bled a precious 6:31 off the clock.
Cincinnati had arrived as a 5.5.-point underdog, despite being the reigning AFC champions. It’s not that no one thought the Bengals could win, but few thought they’d beat the brakes off the Bills like this.
“Job’s not finished,” Burrow said. “Got another big one next week on the road.”
That is a trip to play the Chiefs again. A year ago Cincy arrived and Burrow outdueled Mahomes, winning 27-24 in overtime in one of the toughest places to play in the league. The Bengals lost to the Los Angeles Rams in the Super Bowl, but the tone was set, even if too few people seem to realize.
Maybe the predicted NFL narrative featured the AFC being run by either Mahomes or Allen for the years to come, but Burrow has now defeated both in the playoffs.
And where the NFL rewrote its rules to set up a neutral site AFC title game if it was between Kansas City and Buffalo — a mini Super Bowl if you will — well, here was Cincinnati ruining that experiment.
“Better send those refunds,” he crowed about the tickets sold for a game that won’t occur.
“We just keep screwing it up for everyone,” Bengals head coach Zac Taylor deadpanned. “I hate that. We just keep screwing it up. So ... sorry.”
If anything, Burrow might be even better away from Cincinnati. Nothing seems to faze him. Not the big stuff. Not the small either.
He’s an Ohio kid, who couldn’t win the job at Ohio State, only to shrug his shoulders and go win a Heisman Trophy and national title at LSU and return as the Bengals' savior.
You think some snow showers and crowd noise are going to rattle him?
“It’s going to be a fun one,” Burrow said. “It’s going to be a great atmosphere.”
Maybe some in Kansas City believed that last year, but he proved them wrong. So they can pack Arrowhead in red and point to the predicted temperature in the teens, but that will likely make him only stronger.
“I think we are a more complete team [this year],” Burrow said. “I think we are a better team. Overall, I just think we are a better team than we were last year. We tend to make plays when it counts.”
Bring it on, Burrow is saying. Bring on the Chiefs. These aren’t the Bungles anymore and the AFC isn’t just about Mahomes and Allen.
Joe Burrow and Cincinnati run the conference right now, at least until someone proves otherwise.