Joe Burrow's steady confidence lifting Cincinnati Bengals

The evenness is part of what has made Burrow, in his second season since the Bengals drafted him first overall in 2020, an almost perfectly crafted quarterback for this franchise at this moment. Less than two years removed from a rock-bottom, two-win season, the Bengals are 7-4 in the AFC North, having responded to their first consecutive losses of the year with a convincing win over the Raiders in Week 11 and an even more convincing drubbing of the division-rival Steelers in Week 12. During that 2019 nadir, they were outscored by 141 points -- and now, they are ranked sixth in the league in scoring, positioned in the wide-open conference to chase both the team's first winning record and its first playoff appearance since 2015.

These Bengals are different, a fact that is best embodied by their first season sweep of Pittsburgh since 2009. And while the defense (they are also ranked sixth in points allowed) and run game (Joe Mixon is ranked third in the NFL in rushing yards) have played a part in the franchise's transformation, the steady Burrow -- completing 69.3 percent of his passes, with 22 touchdowns and 12 interceptions this season, the year after suffering a serious knee injury -- is at the center.

Burrow's intelligence made him a collegiate supernova who burst into the football consciousness with an out-of-nowhere senior season at LSU in 2019 following a switch in scheme that took advantage of what NFL Media draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah calls Burrow's superpower -- his field vision.

Burrow would have been a fit in any offense on any team. But two off-the-field moments gave a glimpse of the personality that has the Bengals believing they have finally found the franchise quarterback to erase years of futility and self-doubt.

The first: 30 seconds of a heartfelt speech, given as Burrow received the Heisman Trophy in December of 2019, about people in rural Ohio struggling with hunger and poverty. It highlighted Burrow's ability to command a room and reach the disparate personalities in it, a skill that his college and pro teammate, defensive end Sam Hubbard, sums up this way: "He can get along with anybody."

The second: A month later, an iconic photo of Burrow was snapped moments after LSU won the national championship. His legs are crossed, and his left arm is slung over a sofa as he contemplates the victory cigar he's smoking, like a cleats-wearing member of the Rat Pack. There, the nation saw what the franchise needed most: a supremely confident player who relishes being in the big moments and dismantling the doubts that have shadowed much of his career.

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