On Saturday, Joe Burrow will take center stage in the National Football League playoffs for the first time in his professional career.
Burrow and the AFC North champion Cincinnati Bengals will host the Las Vegas Raiders in Paul Brown Stadium at 4:30 p.m.
Burrow has already come into his own in just his second season with the Bengals, becoming a fan favorite in Cincinnati.
Sweeping both Pittsburgh and Baltimore in the regular season, Burrow and the Bengals disturbed the AFC North hierarchy for the 2021 season.
Now, the Bengals will try to end a 31-year drought without a playoff victory on Saturday against the Raiders.
It’s a scene that played out in Athens County a little over nine years ago on the high school level.
In 2012, Burrow was a sophomore quarterback for Athens, a program that had never won a playoff game to that point.
Nathan White, Athens’ current head football coach, was the offensive coordinator that season. He said that Bulldogs’ team believed they could break through in the postseason in large part because of Burrow.
“He gained the confidence of our kids very, very quickly,” White said. “He was a sophomore and our juniors and seniors, it was clear to see, believed in him and had a lot of confidence that we could go get it done. I think Joe was a big part of everybody’s confidence, and that includes coaches.”
Of course, Burrow’s first foray into the postseason was a successful one. He had eight total touchdowns — four rushing and four passing — in a 63-28 victory against Circleville.
Athens reached such heights in Burrow’s three years that it can be easy to forget how big of a deal it was for the Bulldogs to break down the door in the postseason. Athens had an all-time playoff record of just 0-2 before Burrow took over the offense.
“Running the offense that we ran, you have to have a guy at quarterback that everybody believes in,” White said. “And if you’re going to have success in the playoffs, if you’re going to get there and then have success when you’re there, a big part of it is on that guy.”
Burrow’s second playoff game was just as spectacular. Athens traveled to Hamilton Township to take on Springfield Shawnee, a program that played in the state title game a season earlier.
As the game wore on, it appeared Shawnee might have had the upper hand. The Braves led 35-22 in the fourth quarter.
That’s when Burrow engineered his first playoff comeback. His 6-yard touchdown pass to Adam Luehrman brought Athens to within 35-29.
Trae Williams’ 1-yard touchdown run gave Athens the lead with 5:57 remaining, 36-35. It was a 13-play, 82-yard drive in crunch time.
Burrow had 268 yards passing and three touchdowns, adding 109 yards rushing and another touchdown. The Bulldogs were on their way to a regional final.
Even at that young age, White remembers not being surprised at Burrow’s ability to lead Athens in crucial situations.
“I don’t remember being in awe at that point because I think by week 12, it already kind of felt normal,” he said. “I just expected Joe to step up and make big plays. That sounds kind of crazy, but at that point he didn’t feel like a young kid to me anymore.”
Playoff success became the norm for that group of Bulldogs. They won eight playoff games in Burrow’s three seasons, advancing at least to the regional finals all three seasons. His senior year peaked with an appearance in the 2014 Division III state championship game.
“In high school football, the playoffs kind of feel like a bigger stage,” White said. “I think all of those kids, especially Joe, have always enjoyed and thrived on the kind of bigger stage.”
Burrow went on to win the Heisman Trophy and a national championship in 2019 at LSU, as more big-game efforts became the norm. The image of Burrow smoking a cigar after beating Clemson in the national championship game has become the stuff of legends.
“I have great people around me, great coaches that prepare me for the moment and just staying even keeled through the ups and the downs,” Burrow said of the key to his big-game success. “Throughout the game, don’t get too excited, don’t get too down on yourself. If you make a mistake, just play this game like you have all year and we’ll get the job done.”
Burrow’s big-game plays are starting to feel expected in Cincinnati, but it hasn’t been without some hurdles to overcome. A knee injury ended Burrow’s rookie season, and a long rehab followed.
White said he was able to talk to Burrow some during that process, and that it required working all day to make sure he was ready for the opener.
“The work that he put in to get that knee healthy, and was it 100% when he started the year? I think everybody knows it probably wasn’t quite yet, but he’s looked very different in the second half of the season as far as moving in the pocket and is pretty close to being back to 100% now,” White said.
In leading the Bengals to the division title, Burrow completed 70.4% of his passes for 4,611 yards, 34 touchdowns and 14 interceptions.
Burrow finished strong, not throwing an interception in his last four games. His last two games, victories over Baltimore and Kansas City, saw Burrow throw for 971 yards and eight touchdowns.
“I think anyone who has known Joe for a long time, has gotten to know his personality and work ethic, to see the commitment to every little detail of being a great quarterback and great player, there is not one part of this that is surprising,” White said.
Burrow broke out the victory cigar after the 34-31 win over Kansas City clinched the division. It was Cincinnati’s first division title or playoff appearance since 2015, when Burrow was a true freshman at Ohio State.
Burrow led Athens to unprecedented heights in the playoffs more than seven years ago. He will try to do the same with the Bengals.
Cincinnati’s last playoff win was 41-14 over the Houston Oilers on Jan. 6, 1991. The Bengals made the playoffs seven times under head coach Marvin Lewis, but were never able to break through.
The Bengals have played in two Super Bowls, following the 1981 and 1988 seasons, but are just 5-14 in the postseason since the franchise was born in 1968.
Burrow said the players aren’t paying attention to any previous playoff setbacks by the franchise.
“No, we’re not worried about that,” he said. “We’re going to go out and execute the way we need to on Saturday to try and get the win.”
The Bengals and Burrow will try to do so against the Raiders, a team they beat 32-13 in the regular season. Las Vegas won its final four games to clinch a playoff spot, and finished overall with the same 10-7 regular season record as the Bengals.
Burrow certainly appears poised to be in this position many times with the Bengals and their young group of skill players, led by receivers Ja’Marr Chase, Tee Higgins, Tyler Boyd and running back Joe Mixon.
The next step in Burrow’s football career is Saturday, as he gets his first taste of an NFL playoff game. White said Burrow has always enjoyed the challenges that come with big games.
“We watched that here,” he said. “We watched that at LSU, and it’s kind of repeating again now in Cincinnati. I hope they can get over that hump and make a little run.”
Burrow said the Bengals will be ready to go against the Raiders on Saturday.
“Everyone’s excited,” he said. “You can kind of feel in the intensity in the locker room as soon as you walk in in the morning, you have the music playing, guys walking around with a little pep in their step. Guys are ready to go.”