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After two rebuilding seasons, the Cincinnati Bengals are on the verge of immortality

Cincinnati Bengals tight end C.J. Uzomah reacts during the Super Bowl LVI Opening Night Fan Rally Monday, Feb. 7, 2022, in Cincinnati. [Jeff Dean / AP]
Cincinnati Bengals tight end C.J. Uzomah reacts during the Super Bowl LVI Opening Night Fan Rally Monday, Feb. 7, 2022, in Cincinnati. (AP Photo/Jeff Dean)

The Cincinnati Bengals are headed to the Super Bowl for the first time in more than three decades. After two rebuilding seasons, the Bengals are looking to prove they're not underdogs anymore.

It was only two seasons ago the Cincinnati Bengals were the worst team in the NFL, finishing with only two wins. Now, they're one game away from being Super Bowl champions.

The excitement surrounding the Bengals this year is both palpable and unexpected. Football fans around the country are rooting for the underdogs this Sunday, and yes, that even includes some fans of the Cleveland Browns, their in-state rivals.

A lot of the excitement revolves around Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow. On social media, you can see him wearing funny sunglasses or smoking cigars. On the field, you'll see him leading game-winning drives and commanding the offense. On Sunday, he could become the first quarterback to ever win a Heisman Trophy, a College Football Championship, and a Super Bowl. Bengals radio play-by-play announcer Dan Hoard says Burrow is exactly what the franchise has been looking for.

"A great leader, a tremendous quarterback, and perfect for Cincinnati," Hoard said. "The Bengals were fortunate to be really bad two years ago and be in a position to draft Joe Burrow."

The stunning turnaround certainly caught Cincinnati by surprise. And now the city is abuzz for its underdog team. Buildings are lit up orange; people are lining up to buy limited edition Bengals beer; and some are even chugging cans of Skyline Chili in the streets. The last time the Bengals were in the Super Bowl was 1989, where they lost by four points to the San Francisco 49ers. That was the last game of Pro Bowl receiver Cris Collinsworth's career, who's calling the Super Bowl for NBC this Sunday.

"I think for a Midwestern city, when they get this kind of opportunity, when they get the chance to go on the world stage — in many ways for the first time in over 30 years — that there’s a buzz and an excitement and a coming together for a city," Collinsworth said.

The Bengals have only managed nine winning seasons since their last Super Bowl appearance. Katelyn Snyder was born after that season and has been a fan her whole life.

Molly Steele (left) and Katelyn Snyder (right) pictured here at a Bengals game in 2014. That season, Cincinnati lost in the AFC Wild Card round of the NFL Playoffs. [Katelyn Snyder]

"You have to just keep telling yourself that next season's going to be the season, that we're going to do better next season," Snyder said. "I feel like every season, you know, 'OK, we're going to do better this season. This is the season."

And this season, not only is the quarterback shining, but so is the kicker. The rookie Evan McPherson kicked game-winning field goals in the Bengals' last two playoff games. Shortly before taking his kicks, a nun from Old St. Mary's Church in Cincinnati knelt and prayed. Sister Marie Cecile says they see how much the Bengals are uniting the city. She saw that firsthand after they defeated the Kansas City Chiefs.

Nuns from Old St. Mary's Church located in Over-The-Rhine, knelt and prayed before rookie kicker Evan McPherson's game-winning field goals in back-to-back games. [Cory Sharber / WVXU]

"Walking outside on Monday morning going for a walk, everyone was saying, 'Who dey! Who dey!' They don't even know each other," she said. "They've never even seen each other, probably sometimes, but just the joy and reaching out and seeing each other again and recognizing each other, that is something you don't see often."

And it's not just the team's success uniting the city, but also its underdog status. Dan Hoard says the team is embracing that.

 Bengals analyst Dave Lapham (left) and play-by-play announcer Dan Hoard. [Dan Hoard]

"Tight end C.J. Uzomah famously said at the beginning of training camp at a fan gathering, 'Why not us?' That kind of became the rallying cry early and then at the end of the year, Joe Burrow flipped it and said, 'You know what? I don't like that anymore. We're no longer underdogs. We've proven we can beat anybody on our schedule, so let's change it from, ' Why not us?' to ' It is us.' "

Fans here will be cheering on their team at multiple gatherings throughout the weekend. After years of shortcomings and rebuilds, Bengals fans finally get to experience something few expected this year: a shot at winning the big game.

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