The tricky thing about swag is, you've got to have the game to back it up. If you show up at the stadium decked out like the NFL's version of Fashion Week and then you go chuck four interceptions in a loss, well, you're just playing dress-up. Social media may love the bus-to-locker-room strut, but everybody else wants wins.
Joe Burrow knew exactly what he was doing Sunday when he showed up in New Orleans sporting a Ja'Marr Chase LSU jersey, a tangible reminder of the last time he'd played on that field. That night, the 2019 national championship, Burrow, Chase and the rest of their LSU teammates capped one of the greatest seasons in college football history by pounding Clemson 42-25.
For most players, that would have been the pinnacle of their careers; for Burrow, it was a base camp on the way up the mountain. Two years later he was in the Super Bowl, and he rolled into this season as one of the league's star quarterbacks, verging on elite.
Two straight losses to open the season killed a whole lot of the preseason buzz, though. Cincinnati lost to a generally terrible Pittsburgh team in overtime to start the season, then followed that with a loss to the Dak Prescott-less Cowboys a week later. Two losses don't squander all the goodwill from a Super Bowl season, but in a place like Cincinnati, where futility has been the norm, two losses summon up memories of mediocrity like shambling zombies ready to feast on the city's fresh new hopes.
Credit Burrow and the Bengals, though; they're shrugging off the last of the Super Bowl hangover. They won their first game of the season in Week 3 against the Jets, then followed that with a win against the Dolphins. A narrow loss to division rival Baltimore last week hurt, so they came into New Orleans needing to get back to the surface. You've got to beat the teams you're supposed to beat, and Cincinnati was a three-point road favorite heading into the game.
Nothing's coming easy for the Bengals this year, though, and Cincinnati nearly gave away this game before Burrow hoisted the Bengals on his shoulders a few different times, starting with a lumbering 19-yard run with his team down 10 late in the first half:
Burrow finished the game with four touchdowns on an even 300 yards passing, capped by a beauty of a pitch-and-dash to — who else? — Chase to take the lead with two minutes left in the game.
With Cincinnati's run game struggling — the Bengals only managed 75 yards Sunday — Burrow stepped up, finding six different receivers even as the Saints keyed on him.
"Sometimes when it looks like things are really bleak and dead, Joe finds a way out of the mess," Bengals head coach Zac Taylor said after the game. "You don’t know how he does it. He just does it. It's special to see when it happens."
The Bengals have lost their three games by a combined total of eight points, meaning they're one possession away from being undefeated. (Sort of.) If Burrow continues to back up the swag, last year could become the norm rather than an aberration.
“I think we’re finding our stride, slowly but surely," Burrow said prior to Sunday's game. "We’re learning a lot of lessons from each game."
Next up for Cincinnati: another NFC South challenge, the surprisingly spry Atlanta Falcons at home. Then the Bengals will face the Browns, Panthers, Steelers and Titans — winnable games, all — before a playoff rematch against the Chiefs. The Bills loom later in the year, too. But if Cincinnati is going to follow up on last year, it'll need to face down those challengers ... and it'll need Joe Burrow to keep on playing like Joe Burrow.
Contact Jay Busbee at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @jaybusbee.