Joe Burrow's last career playoff loss informs the Bengals' unlikely Super Bowl run

When it’s win-or-go-home time, Joe Burrow’s teams seem to win.

LSU did so twice en route to the 2019 season's national championship, winning two College Football Playoff games by a combined 52 points. Now Burrow’s Cincinnati Bengals are 3-0 this postseason as they prepare to face the Los Angeles Rams in Super Bowl LVI, harrowingly imperfect in each game yet unflinching and, strictly speaking, unbeatable.

It all flows so naturally through Burrow. Those who’ve known him longest speak of the same intrinsic tranquility he has displayed throughout this playoff run, where his 842 yards, four touchdowns and two interceptions belie a competitive stubbornness — a refusal to yield to football’s chaotic downpours that spreads like an antidote through his teams. Pile on the adversity, and somehow Burrow believes only more.

“I think he just understands, what’s the point of getting all worked up over all this stuff?” said former high school teammate Ryan Luehrman, who has been friends with Burrow since the second grade. “Because it’s not going to help you.”

There was, however, an instance when Burrow was worked up, when he did lose in the playoffs as a starting quarterback. “Worst day of my life,” he immediately called Athens High School’s 56-52 loss in the 2014 Ohio Division III state championship game.

“Oh, man, I think about that game all the time,” Burrow said on Wednesday. “We were so close, and playing with a group of friends for our entire childhood up to that point. It was kind of a culmination of a lot of hard work and time that we had put in together, and we just didn't get the job done. So I still think about that one all the time.”

Did it birth in him some kind of inextinguishable fire? Or perhaps pour gasoline on the fire that was already there?

“It definitely did something,” said former Athens High head coach Ryan Adams. “There’s no doubt that it impacted him. It impacted all of us. There’s no doubt in my mind that that loss put a whole bunch of fuel in his tank to work extremely hard to not feel that way again.”

To this point, he hasn’t.

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What happened the last time Joe Burrow lost a playoff game?

In the 2014 state semifinals, Burrow’s Athens Bulldogs beat Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary (yes, LeBron James’ alma mater). Right after Toledo Central Catholic won the other state semifinal, head coach Greg Dempsey reached out to the SVSM staff to get their impressions on Athens, whom Dempsey had never seen live and would face the following Thursday at Ohio State’s Horseshoe.

They called right back.

“You’ve got to stop their quarterback,” Dempsey said they told him, “and that’s a whole lot easier said than done.”

Burrow was named Mr. Football in Ohio the night before the state title game. He completed 72.3% of his passes for 4,445 yards, a hair under 300 per game, and 63 touchdowns against just two interceptions. “Video game numbers” feels like a disservice to his performance, since video games actually exist.

Joe Burrow led Athens High School to the Division III state championship game in 2014. It remains the last time he lost a postseason game. (Ohio High School Athletic Association)
Joe Burrow led Athens High School to the Division III state championship game in 2014. It remains the last time he lost a postseason game. (Ohio High School Athletic Association)

Athens had never won a playoff game in nearly a century of playing football before Burrow. The son of Jim Burrow, a former NFL defensive back who spent 14 years as defensive coordinator under Frank Solich at Ohio University in Athens, Joe led the Bulldogs to the state quarterfinals in his sophomore and junior campaigns, too. So in some ways, his senior year paid off potential that had been building ever since he joined the varsity program.

“It sounds silly, but within that first week, I knew he was different than anyone I’d ever coached,” said current Athens head coach Nathan White, who was previously the offensive coordinator. “He was 15 years old, couldn’t drive a car, and by the end of that summer he was our leader. And that’s with juniors and seniors and just his command of what we were doing offensively.”

It carried over. The same resolute certitude Burrow has brought to the Bengals existed during his formative years. Especially at halftime against SVSM, when Burrow, Luehrman and other veterans vocally rallied the team in the locker room down 17-7.

“I’m gonna be honest,” said former defensive coordinator John Rogers. “As a coach, I’m like, ‘These guys are more confident than me.’”

Burrow, to this day, has a reason for being confident late in seasons.

“I feel like I get better as the year progresses, just because you have more reps, more film under your belt,” he said this week. “You corrected all the mistakes that you’ve made, and I’m good at recalling that kind of stuff. And so when you get to the end of the year, you just have all those reps banked.”

Athens edged SVSM 34-31 and set up the state final with Toledo Central Catholic, which boasted a formidable rushing attack led by University of Cincinnati commit Michael Warren.

Burrow had weapons of his own, including Luehrman and his twin brother Adam, both of whom were all-state wide receivers and later played at Ohio University, and future Northwestern Wildcat Trae Williams, who played running back.

Most important, Burrow had his relaxed disposition.

“In pregame, it felt like just another game,” Rogers said. “All the way through those five games in the playoffs, it never felt like not another week.”

That said, a high-scoring affair felt so inevitable that when TCC led 21-19 at the break, the game seemed tame compared to expectation. It didn’t last.

Athens and TCC combined for 68 second-half points, trading 10 touchdowns on scoring plays that averaged 23.4 yards a pop. Burrow’s ability to comfortably operate at that pace is something that has stuck with Adams.

“You just feel so much confidence when he’s in that mode, and it has the whole team locked in the same mode,” Adams said. “Needless to say, we’re all in the headsets as coaches and staff and we totally had the feeling this is going to come down to who had the ball last. Unfortunately, that ended up being Central Catholic.”

TCC quarterback Marcus Winters scored on an 8-yard run with 15 seconds to play, which proved to be the decisive moment.

Meanwhile, Kevin Wiseman, who covered the game for the Athens Messenger newspaper, points to the one blemish on Burrow’s 446-yard, six-touchdown day: an interception he threw right after the defense forced a missed field goal late in the third quarter.

“It was shocking, because you’re sitting up there and you just expected, ‘OK, Athens is going to take control,’” Wiseman said. “That’s the moment I remember in the second half, because after that, I didn’t think anybody was gonna get a stop the rest of the game.”

For Joe Burrow, in a sense, the Bengals are just the new Athens High School. (Photo by Emilee Chinn/Getty Images)
For Joe Burrow, in a sense, the Bengals are just the new Athens High School. (Photo by Emilee Chinn/Getty Images)

Burrow and the Bulldogs also failed to convert a pair of two-point attempts after their first two touchdowns of the second half … and lost by four points. It wasn’t much, but taken together with the interception, they were scattered blinks of the eye in a game where any one could prove costly.

White said the kids were crushed. Luehrman said he didn’t sleep for a week, and then barely got any sleep the next one. Even Dempsey, whose TCC team lost in the state title game the following season, sympathized with how much Athens' defeat hurt.

“Nothing matters except that loss,” Burrow told the Messenger at the time.

Ask others, and they’ll tell a different story.

Joe Burrow lifts all boats

In a sense, Burrow helping lead an Ohio team without much championship history to the brink of a title isn’t surprising. The Bengals are just the new Athens.

“When he’s on the field, he gives off so much confidence in his play,” Adam Luehrman said. “He gives the city an identity, and it’s been a while since Cincinnati’s had a sports star like that.”

There’s an old economic aphorism that “a rising tide lifts all boats.” So, it seems, does Joe Burrow.

When asked what he remembers most about the 2014 state title game, Adam Luehrman notes the fan support at the Shoe. Just Monday, the Bengals held a fan rally at Paul Brown Stadium, where “M-V-P” chants drowned out Burrow when he tried to talk.

Communities aren’t shy about letting Burrow know what he means to them. Perhaps because he’s not shy about what they mean to him.

“I wouldn't be here without all the people that supported me in Athens,” Burrow said this week. “And I'm still in contact with a lot of those people and try to, you know, help the area out in any way that I can. And I hope I'm making everybody proud.”

During his Heisman Trophy acceptance speech in 2019, Burrow used some of his time to call attention to widespread hunger across southeast Ohio. Two days later, donations to the local food pantry numbered in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

It stems, in part, from an empathy Burrow possesses — Rogers calls him a “chameleon” — that extends to his football teams.

“We have a pretty eclectic group of people,” said Adams, who still lives and teaches in Athens. “You get five minutes outside of town and everybody’s kind of the same, but in Athens there’s a nice cross section of different types of people.

“And the thing that really caught my eye was how willing and able Joey was to be able to reach across all those different types of folks and have good, positive interactions with all of them.”

Burrow’s crossover appeal has bubbled to the surface these playoffs. It was easy enough to root for Burrow already after the ugly torn ACL he suffered as a promising rookie. Now he even has opponents like fellow LSU alum Odell Beckham Jr. shouting out his cool.

It’s innate. It’s also, in some respects, a byproduct of winning. Good vibes beget good vibes, but there’s no denying Burrow’s legend has grown exponentially because of his teams’ performances in the postseason.

On Sunday, he’ll get the chance to add the ultimate honor to that ledger. Don't expect him to be anything other than his calm, confident self. Somewhere deep down, he'll likely embrace the frustration of that last playoff loss in 2014.

There's reason to believe he'll win the Super Bowl. And it starts by being open to the notion that football doesn't always cooperate.

“I plan on winning the Super Bowl eventually. We plan on doing it this week. If it's not this week, we plan on doing it eventually,” Burrow said. “And that that state championship in high school is going to be one that that eluded me.”