Bengals out to prove last season was no ‘fluke’

Cincinnati Bengals cornerback Mike Hilton (21) celebrates and interception he made against Tennessee Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill (17) during the second half of an NFL divisional round playoff football game, Saturday, Jan. 22, 2022, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

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Cincinnati Bengals cornerback Mike Hilton (21) celebrates and interception he made against Tennessee Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill (17) during the second half of an NFL divisional round playoff football game, Saturday, Jan. 22, 2022, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

CINCINNATI — Mike Hilton says the Cincinnati Bengals are just as hungry this year coming off a Super Bowl run as they were trying to turn around a four-win 2020 record.

The Bengals’ second-year slot cornerback still feels like this team has something to prove, not just because Cincinnati came up just short of its first Super Bowl championship. The Bengals were two minutes away from a win but couldn’t hold on as the L.A. Rams rallied to beat them 23-20.

Hilton said the members of the team believed along they could do it, despite being doubted throughout the season. The Bengals bring that same underdog mentality into 2022.

“Everything’s still in front of us,” Hilton said Tuesday on the second day of this year’s voluntary offseason workout program. “I know a lot of people outside this city and outside this organization think last year was a fluke. But we’re confident in each other and we’re just going to build off the success from last year. And, with that the guys that we’re bringing in, we feel like we bettered ourselves and gave ourselves an even bigger opportunity this year.”

This offseason, the organization worked to address the issues that needed improved to have a chance at repeat success, including signing three new starting offensive linemen in free agency, and adding depth in the secondary and pass rush through the draft.

Hilton said the Bengals “definitely got some lucky breaks” in terms of their overall health last season, but the team’s success was no fluke and there’s no reason the 2022 team couldn’t be better.

“When people call it a fluke, we just smile and take it on,” Hilton said. “We’re ready to go out there and prove it again.”

Last year, the Bengals had full participation in the offseason workout program because of a commitment to get better after combining for just six wins in Zac Taylor’s first two seasons as coach.

Taylor indicated some players are staying home to stick with their own routines this offseason, and the coaches understand because of how long the 2021 season was and the hope for another deep run this year. But his message to the players who showed up Monday for the first day of workouts was that they need to stay hungry.

“We made it as far as we did, but we’re back at square one now,” linebacker Logan Wilson said. “Which is kind of how this league works. What happened last year at this point, honestly, it doesn’t matter. We’re moving on towards next season and we’re hungry to get back to it and hopefully win it.”

Special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons said that message seems to have been well-received by the players.

“The unique part about this business and what we do is we don’t get to pick up where we left off,” he said. “We have to hit reset. We’re all at 0-0. We’re not a Super Bowl team. We played in the Super Bowl last year, but the roster is completely different. Everything is still right out in front of us the same way it was a year ago ... I think our guys know and understand that. It will be something similar to what we hit on throughout the rest of the offseason and into training camp, ‘We’re starting over. We’re at ground zero again. The same place all 31 other teams are, too, because they’re battling for the same thing, just as we were a year ago.’ I think it’s proof that if you put a good product together and get a group of guys that believe in what you’re doing and believe in one another that everything is out in front of you.”

Hilton said the Bengals also are motivated by how close they came to winning the Super Bowl and a desire to get another shot. He watched the game one time on the flight back from Los Angeles and hasn’t seen any film of it since then because it was tough to take.

That disappointment isn’t a lingering feeling, though Hilton said there were things to learn from the loss.

“There were some possessions where we really beat ourselves,” Hilton said. “Coming out of half after Tee’s touchdown we got the interception on the 30-yard line and we walked away with three. The next possession they drove down the field on us and we gave up three. Then it started snowballing after awhile. Defensively, we weren’t able to get off the field on that last drive and we just weren’t able to finish the job. Nobody is hanging their heads on it, it’s over now and we’re looking forward to this season.”

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