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The Bengals find some luck in the Year of the Tiger, and Cincinnati is celebrating

The Cincinnati skyline is lit up in orange the night the Bengals beat the Kansas City Chiefs to land a spot in this year's Super Bowl.
Jeffrey Dean
/
NPR
The Cincinnati skyline is lit up in orange the night the Bengals beat the Kansas City Chiefs to land a spot in this year's Super Bowl.

Tuesday is the first day of the Year of the Tiger and fans in Cincinnati are hoping that this year will also be the year of the Bengals.

Each year of the Lunar New Year is represented by one of 12 animals with 2022 being the Year of the Tiger. That just happens to coincide with a Cincinnati Bengals playoff run that has the team in its first Super Bowl since 1989 after defeating the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC Championship game on Sunday.

"The merging of the Year of the Tiger and the Bengals winning, that was pretty epic," said Susanna Wong, whose family owns two restaurants in Cincinnati called Oriental Wok.

A family's embrace of the Bengals

Susanna's father, Mike Wong, moved his family to Mason, Ohio, a rural suburb of Cincinnati, in the 1970s when she was 3 years old. The skyscrapers of Hong Kong were replaced with cornfields as far as the eye could see and Susanna found herself in a whole new world.

"It was a real culture shock," she said.

It didn't take long for the family to embrace its new Midwestern home, and Mike Wong was excited to have his children try American foods like pizza and cheeseburgers. Susanna's dad also embraced the local sports culture, becoming a huge Cincinnati Reds and Bengals fan during the heyday of the two clubs, the Bengals going to the Super Bowl twice in the 1980s and the Reds winning the World Series in 1990.

But since then there's been nothing but heartache and misery in the Queen City, as Cincinnati is known. A whole generation of fans have never seen their teams play in a championship game.

"This is my hometown," Wong said. "It always really is your home team. It's your home. Through thick and thin, they're your people."

Clearing out the old, including a history of losses

Lunar New Year festivities can last for days, with different customs and practices observed depending on the day. On the 28th day of the last lunar month it's tradition to have a big cleanup in people's homes. This year that day fell on Jan. 30, the day of the AFC Championship game.

"You kind of sweep out all of the old bad stuff," says Wong. "I guess it represents cleaning out the past to welcome the new."

The Bengals have their fair share of bad stuff to sweep out.

If you're not from the area it's hard to really express in words the pain this fanbase has experienced.

There's the most recent 2016 meltdown which saw a series of penalties push the Pittsburgh Steelers into field goal range, with Pittsburgh winning 18-16 in the final seconds.

Or there's Kimo von Oelhoffen tearing Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer's ACL on the first passing play of the 2006 wild card game, which they went on to lose, 31-17.

In the Bengals' most recent Super Bowl appearance in 1989, Joe Montana put together an 11-play, 92-yard touchdown drive in the final seconds of the game, sticking a dagger into the collective hearts of Cincinnati fans, winning the game 20-16.

Even the team's prized possession, quarterback Joe Burrow, tore his ACL and MCL during his rookie season — a reminder that this would always be the same old "Bad Luck Bungals."

Finally, some good luck

But something is different this year. The young, upstart Bengals, who went 4-11-1 last season, swept both games against division rivals Baltimore and Pittsburgh on their way to winning the AFC North. On Jan. 15, they banished the curse of Bo Jackson by defeating the Las Vegas Raiders — their first home playoff win since 1991.

They beat the No. 1 seeded Tennessee Titans for the franchise's first-ever road playoff win. And, as luck would have it, on Jan. 30 the Bengals won the AFC Championship game on the road in Kansas City against last year's Super Bowl runners-up, who were decked out in their red uniforms, which is traditionally associated with luck and prosperity during Lunar New Year.

It didn't work out so well for the Chiefs this year, but luck was, for the first time in decades, on the side of the Cincinnati Bengals. The moment rookie kicker Evan McPherson's overtime kick went through the uprights it sent the whole region into the stratosphere.

"I mean, it's some kind of special pride that you can't even verbalize," Wong said. "It's this weird pride that you didn't even know you had because you were kind of bummed for so long, and you're like, 'Hell yeah, we came back!'"

Although the city has found itself in a moment of euphoria, there is still one game left to play and the Bengals opponents, the Los Angeles Rams, might still have a page to write in this book yet. But for the city of Cincinnati, the Year of the Tiger has already ushered in a new era for fans.

"It's powerful. In fact, I woke up this morning going, 'Man. They won. You're really going to the Super Bowl,' " Wong said. "Cincinnati isn't just a dot on the map anymore."

Maybe, for once, the Bengals really do have luck on their side. And for one night in February they have an underdog's chance make the Rams wait another year for a Super Bowl trophy. Or maybe beyond. The core of this Bengals team is young, hungry and might be poised to make the Rams wait until 2027 when it's the year of the ram.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jeff Dean
Jeff Dean is the 2021 Military Veterans in Journalism intern for NPR reporting for the Business Desk and Newsdesk teams.