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IF JOE BLIZZARD CAN QUIET A DAMAR HAMLIN REVIVAL, IS A RING NEXT?
Burrow and the Cincinnati Bengals announced their championship ambitions in a persistent Buffalo snowstorm, on an afternoon intended to celebrate a man’s miraculous recovery from cardiac arrest
This was a postcard from Buffalo in the winter of Damar Hamlin’s miracle. As snow cascaded like Niagara Falls in thick, wet flakes, with temperatures hovering near freezing, thousands of Bills Mafiosos gathered for their Sunday services, ready to shout down the opponent from the city where their player collapsed and died on the field. If you have doubted the veracity of a near-tragedy, re-absorb the description used by Dr. Timothy A. Pritts, who treated Hamlin at the hospital in Cincinnati.
“Dead,” Pritts said of his life state when cardiac arrest left him crumpled three Mondays ago.
And in a suite inside Highmark Stadium, where smoke from concession stands billowed into the gloomy sky, there was Hamlin with family members, having beaten mortality twice that night, standing and greeting 71,000 fans with waves and heart-shaped salutes. America watched, souls collectively warmed. If not entirely “galvanized,” as Jim Nantz persisted in blurting on the CBS broadcast, a country continued to be inspired by the story, expecting the Bills to keep winning for Damar, all the way to the AFC championship game and then on to the Super Bowl, a game Buffalo finally might win after four successive failures in the ‘90s.
What the romantics didn’t consider in the fairy tale was Joe Burrow, once known as Joe Cool and Joe Brrrr, now known as Joe Tundra. Or Joe Blizzard.
They didn’t contemplate that he would be so cold-blooded in the chill. He’s the one bold enough to have said, when Tom Brady drew comparisons to his young self and Burrow: “I really just think that I play the game my own way. … He’s Tom and I’m Joe.” He’s the one who passes out cigars in the locker room after big victories. He’s the one who said this, at 26, when asked about his window of championship opportunities with the Bengals: “The window is my whole career.” He’s the one who gives us a Gen Z fashion show — remember the wide-brimmed black hat, zebra-patterned jacket, shades and earbuds at the Super Bowl last year? — every time he enters a stadium, earning him mention on the New York Times’ Most Stylish list. He’s the one who calls Kid Cudi a close pal, prompting the rapper to write a “love song” called “Burrow.”
So why would a man who has defied death — twice — unnerve Burrow? Why would he flinch in a snowstorm when he entered the game as the NFL’s only quarterback this decade who hasn’t lost in conditions 35 degrees or below? If his cold-weather numbers were stunning before the AFC divisional-round game, they’re mind-numbing after he melted the frost with two first-quarter touchdown passes on a 242-yard, mistake-free day. Even behind an injury-retooled offensive line, he eluded the slip-sliding enemy pass-rushers and was sacked only once. In the frigid games that live forever on YouTube and create legends, Burrow now is 7-0 with 16 touchdown passes, 2,171 yards, a completion percentage of 70 and a passer rating of 108.1.
And why wouldn’t he stand on the field after the 27-10 statement, as the Bills exited the postseason in exhaustion and the Hamlin family went home for a significant period of rehabilitation, and say more Joe Things.
“The job is not done,” said Burrow, beanie on his head, in a quiet stadium. “It was a complete game from everybody. We dominated from start to finish. That’s what we expected, and we’ve got another big one next week on the road. I’m excited for it.”
Notice how he mentioned “the road.” The Bengals have been miffed, from management and head coach Zac Taylor down to the players, about the NFL’s postseason response to the Bills-Bengals cancellation prompted by Hamlin’s cardiac event. The league arranged for the conference’s two top seeds, the Kansas City Chiefs and Bills, to play a neutral-field title game in Atlanta but left No. 3 Cincinnati out of the equation. So the Bengals will have to play the Chiefs and their hobbling MVP candidate, Patrick Mahomes, in Kansas City.
Said Burrow, snarkily, when asked about the neutral field dissolving after more than 50,000 tickets had been sold: “Better send those refunds.”
He also referred to himself and Mahomes as “two of the top guys in the league” — and you don’t need a long memory to remember Burrow and the Bengals upsetting the Chiefs late last January at whatever they’re calling Arrowhead Stadium these days, then nearly beating the Los Angeles Rams in their home palace in Super Bowl LVI. Is it possible the Bengals are returning to finish what they couldn’t close in last year’s Big Game? Is Burrow at 100 percent a smarter play than Mahomes at, say, 70 percent? Isn’t an offense purring with Ja’Marr Chase as the dangerous gamebreaker and Joe Mixon as the reliable ground-gainer? If the Bengals win, the sports world can brace for another dose of Joe Brrrr in Arizona. And anyone who asks him about Brady, who might work the game for Fox Sports as he weighs retirement, should know in advance what’s coming. He’s his own man.
“I really just think that I play the game my own way,” Burrow said. “I kind of have a little bit of everybody. I wouldn’t say there’s one thing I do the best. But I would say that I do everything with the best of them. I wouldn’t say I really have a glaring weakness. I like to be my player, my own person.”
An hour after his latest foray into our consciousness — it started with a perfect national-title season and Heisman Trophy at LSU, continued with immediate NFL success, crashed briefly with a torn ACL behind a bad line, then resumed his ascent into the quarterbacking elite — he downplayed the weather and hyped up his team’s title chances. “Feels like football in January, almost February. That was fun,” Burrow said. “Snow doesn’t affect the ball too much. It gets a little wet, but it’s not like rain or wind or anything like that. We’re confident in whatever the weather is. We like practicing in inclement weather. Is that the right word? I think it’s the right word.”
How confident are the Bengals? “That might be our most complete game of the season as a team,” he said. “We’re a more complete team than last season. We just seem to make plays when it counts. Our run game is better. Our defense is better. Our special teams are better. We’re a much better team than last year.”
Notice has been served to the Chiefs, who will spend the week tending to Mahomes’ high right ankle sprain. For now, Burrow is showered with praise as another installment in a budding rivalry approaches. “He’s the greatest,’’ said Taylor, a night after Eagles coach Nick Sirianni compared his Jalen Hurts to Michael Jordan. “He’s does a great job leading his team, managing situations. The bigger the moment gets, the calmer he gets. The team feeds off of that. Our guys walked onto the field ready to attack. We’re built for this. It doesn’t matter what anyone thinks about us — who’s favored, who says what. We’re excited to go on the field in Kansas City. Our guys believe.”
For the record, Burrow arrived Sunday in a Bengals-colored puffer jacket, shades and an olive beanie. We used to treat his wardrobe as frivolity. With every new triumph, we’re beginning to regard everything he does as history in the works. Damar Hamlin has the planet’s blessings as he carries on in life after death. Joe Burrow has paid his respects and now moves on to whatever the hell he wants, it seems.
Jay Mariotti, called “without question the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes general sports columns for Substack while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts and shows in production today. He is an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and talk/podcast host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects.