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Joe Burrow celebrates after winning the AFC Championship Game in 2022.
Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Is it better to be oblivious or driven by the past?

To put it another way, is Joe Burrow in a better position to win the Super Bowl before he has been “Bengalized”? Or is Matthew Stafford ready to win now that he has been “de-Lionized”?

The two quarterbacks meet Sunday in Super Bowl 56, which is also only the second meeting of two No. 1 overall draft picks at quarterback. The first was in Super Bowl 50, when an aging and injured Peyton Manning was carried to his second title by a Denver defense that hammered NFL Most Valuable Player Cam Newton and Carolina.

This matchup figures to be drastically different, especially if Burrow and Cincinnati can find a way to handle the Rams pass rush. But as one player put it, the bigger issue may be about whether Burrow can win before the inevitable happens.

Joe Burrow and the Cincinnati Bengals Curse

Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow celebrates a touchdown in 2021.
Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

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“He better win before he gets Bengalized,” a former Cincinnati player said, referring to the belief among many former Bengals players that the organization is doomed to lose because of the ineptitude of management.

“It gets to you. Whether it’s the little things or the big things, you start to wonder, is this really the best we can do to win? I heard it from guys before I played there and even after I was gone. It’s not always about winning. The commitment isn’t there all the time. Guys just shake their head. They know.”

Prior to this season, the Bengals had gone 31 years since winning a playoff game. That’s atop the fact that the Bengals are one of only eight teams founded in the 1960s that hasn’t won a Super Bowl.

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It’s a story not unlike what Stafford suffered through for 12 years in Detroit as the Lions organization failed to put a good team around him. Detroit never won a playoff game in that time. More to the point, Detroit and Cleveland are the only two teams that date from before 1970 that haven’t been to the Super Bowl at all. Now in his 13th year, Stafford has finally arrived at the Super Bowl after getting traded to Detroit in the biggest trade of last offseason.

“Personally, I can tell you how much pressure it felt like to get to the Super Bowl after 13 years, and I wasn’t even starting,” said former quarterback Matt Schaub, who got to the title game with Atlanta in the 2016 season. “You appreciate it so much because you realize how hard it is to get there and that it might be your only chance.”

Which leads to an inordinate amount of pressure in a game that is already pressurized to begin with. With that in mind, Schaub was asked, who would he rather be in this situation? Burrow or Stafford?

“That’s really tough. Joey is making it in his second season and he probably feels like he’s playing on house money. No matter what happens, he thinks this is great and you’ll get there a bunch more times. You haven’t gotten down the line and realized how hard it is. But maybe if you’re Stafford, you’re more focused because you know how hard it is to get there,” Schaub said.

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For his part, Burrow has been unfazed by the pratfalls that have occurred this season, such as being sacked a league-high 51 times in the regular season and another nine times in the second round of the playoffs against Tennessee. He also wasn’t fazed when he led Cincinnati to second-half comebacks against Kansas City twice in January, including the second time in the AFC Championship Game.

As for Stafford, he has helped guide the Rams through the playoffs, overcoming games in which the Rams committed turnovers and made other mistakes. Those games were a test of Stafford’s mettle after concerns arose earlier in the season during a three-game losing streak.

That skid came against Tennessee, then at San Francisco and at Green Bay as the Rams tumbled from 7-1 to 7-4 and doubt began to creep in. The Rams went from averaging more than 30 points a game over the first eight games to averaging less than 20.

Never mind that those three teams comprised the No. 1 seeds in both the AFC and NFC and the team that the Rams would eventually have to beat in the NFC Championship Game. Never mind that the Rams lost starting wide receiver Robert Woods after the Tennessee game and that Odell Beckham was working his way into the lineup. And certainly, never mind that the Rams running game had turned south after some early-season gains.

Officially, Stafford was in a slump. He had thrown five interceptions in those three games and there were those who believed he had that look of the same guy who often was overwhelmed by the lack of help in Detroit.

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Former NFL Quarterbacks Describe the Super Bowl’s Pressure

John Elway stands on the sideline during a 2019 Broncos game.
Photo by Justin Edmonds/Getty Images

“You get that feeling that it’s all on you and that you have to make every play,” Schaub said. “The game is hard enough, but then you get worn down by not feeling like you have support.”

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The situation is not very much different from what John Elway dealt with late in his career. In 1996, Elway led Denver to the best record in the league in the regular season and a first-round bye in the playoffs. Then Jacksonville put together the famed “Mile High Massacre” to upset the Broncos in Denver.

Elway was so distraught after the game that he broke into tears, thinking he would never get another chance to win a title. He later screamed at head coach Mike Shanahan about the loss and the failures in the game plan. Ultimately, Denver went on to win the next two Super Bowls, but the tension for Elway was visceral.

“You get to that moment and the swings in games become so enormous. Every play becomes gigantic and you have to do everything to keep your focus on what do I have to do on the next play,” said Elway, who lost three Super Bowls earlier in his career before finally winning. “It’s always a big deal, but the way it worked for me in the end was really magnified. I tried to convince myself it wasn’t going to be a big deal, but it was.”

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Jason Cole has covered the NFL since 1992 and has been a selector for the Pro Football Hall of Fame since 2012. He is the author of seven books, including the biography of John Elway (Elway: A Relentless Life).
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