The Cincinnati Bengals have to prove in 2022 that they weren't just a flash in the pan.
A one-year wonder. A fluke. They're all terms the Bengals have already heard used to describe them and their unlikely run to Super Bowl LVI. It's fueling their fire entering 2022.
"Because it's the Bengals -- point-blank, period," Bengals cornerback Mike Hilton said this week, via ESPN, explaining why his team is viewed as such even after dethroning the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC Championship Game. "When you think of the Bengals, you're like, 'Oh, the Bengals,' you know? But now, with this group of guys that we have and the coaches that we have, we're really turning this organization around. And we're just trying to get the respect we deserve."
Securing that respect will require, well, proving they're a winning team again in 2022. The Bengals certainly have the quarterback to do the job in Joe Burrow, and their cast of offensive playmakers is largely intact (save for the departure of tight end C.J. Uzomah). Cincinnati addressed it's biggest weakness in the offseason, signing three offensive linemen to bolster a unit that failed to protect Burrow in the late stages of Super Bowl LVI.
With that question answered on paper, the Bengals must now build on what they established. Oddly enough, it might end up being more important for the Bengals to avoid the pitfalls of complacency and expectation than merely keeping their crosshairs on the Lombardi Trophy.
Take their division rivals, the Cleveland Browns. The team named after the Bengals' founder ended the NFL's longest postseason drought in 2020, reaching the playoffs for the first time since 2002 and winning their first playoff game since the 1994 season.
A year later, the Bengals followed suit, returning to the postseason for the first time since 2015, winning their first playoff game since the 1990 season. They added a cherry on top of their redemption sundae by reaching their first Super Bowl since the 1988 season.
In 2021, Cleveland took a significant step backward, falling from 11-5 to 8-9 and missing the playoffs. The Browns ended up making a franchise-altering move at quarterback, acquiring Deshaun Watson via blockbuster trade and putting Baker Mayfield on the trading block.
Cincinnati doesn't have the same outcome in mind with Burrow, but it must avoid the same pitfalls -- complacency, inadequacy, internal strife and injury struggles -- Cleveland encountered in 2021. Coach Zac Taylor told his players their goals are still within reach even after losing Super Bowl LVI, and now it's about meeting their targets.
"We played in the Super Bowl last year, but the roster's completely different," Bengals special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons said, again via ESPN. "But (Taylor) is right. Everything is still right out in front of us, same way it was a year ago."
The Bengals will have to tune out the noise and the doubt much like they did in the postseason, ignoring nonbelievers and surprising the football world over the course of a full season -- not just three playoff games.
They seem mentally prepared to do so.
"When people call it a fluke, we just smile and take it on," Hilton said. "We're ready to go out there and prove it again."