After the Cincinnati Bengals defeated the Las Vegas Raiders on Jan. 15, the team’s first NFL playoff win in 31 years, John Lynch and his brother Jeff planned to buy tickets for the Bengals’ divisional-round game against the Tennessee Titans the following week.

But then the die-hard Bengals fans decided instead of heading to Nashville they would drive 12 hours from their homes in Iowa to College Corner, Ohio, where their parents are buried. Their sister Tina joined them, and they watched the game at their parents’ gravesite before placing a Joe Burrow jersey and an AFC North championship hat on their headstone.

Two other siblings weren’t able to make it, but the stars aligned that Saturday afternoon with perfect weather, a 24-hour roundtrip drive in one weekend, and a memorable change of scenery spent with family as the Bengals pulled off an upset win. Lynch posted a photo of the headstone to a Bengals Facebook group, and soon it went viral, garnering more attention as Cincinnati continued its unexpected run to Sunday’s Super Bowl against the Los Angeles Rams.

“It was the best trip,” John Lynch said. “And as much as it would have been cool to be in Tennessee, there was no better way I would rather have spent that divisional round.”

Lynch’s first Bengals memory was going to games at the since-demolished Riverfront Stadium with his father, James.

The last time the Bengals had playoff success before this season, Lynch, 43, was a kid — he was just 9 when the Bengals lost Super Bowl XXIII to the San Francisco 49ers in 1989, and he was 11 when the Bengals beat the Houston Oilers in 1991, their previous postseason victory before last month.

Shortly after the Bengals’ playoff victory in 1991, James Lynch died. But John’s memories of watching games with family were ones that he cherished as the Bengals suffered through one disappointing season after another in the decades since.

Lynch said he believed the Bengals were going to be serious contenders before — from the Jeff Blake days in the ’90s to the Carson Palmer era in the 2000s to the stretch of success with Andy Dalton and A.J. Green in the 2010s. But misfortune, injuries, mistakes and playoff heartbreak plagued the Bengals until this year.

“It took a long time for that ball to come full circle and start bouncing our way,” Lynch said. “But it’s given us new life as far as the love for the Bengals and what it means to us.”

Lynch was at his daughter’s volleyball tournament during the AFC championship game, so he recorded the game on his DVR and turned off his phone off until he was able to get home and watch without spoilers.

The Bengals fell behind the Kansas City Chiefs 21-3 and trailed 21-10 at halftime, and Lynch admitted that in years past he might have had reason to lose hope. But this year felt different, and it was: The Bengals erased the deficit and eventually won, 27-24, in overtime to advance to Super Bowl LVI.

All of the years of disappointment have made this year “nothing short of miraculous” for Lynch, who joked that he told his wife he had no idea how much fun it was to talk about the Bengals this late into the NFL season.

Lynch had planned to return to his parents’ gravesite with family for the Super Bowl, but his schedule won’t allow for the trip this time. Still, Lynch remains grateful for the opportunity to spend time with family for the divisional round, especially after Lynch’s mother, Ann, died during the pandemic.

“It was very important for us to take advantage of that time and just be together and see one another,” Lynch said. “I don’t get back home that often just with life in general. And the pandemic makes things even more difficult to go and do things.”

Lynch has also been extremely thankful for this year’s Super Bowl run bringing his extended Bengals family together. He raved about the number of people who have sent him positive messages since he posted the photo of his parents’ gravesite online.

Amber Conley, of Liberty, Ind., helped the Lynch family pay homage to their parents, designing a custom shirt with a Super Bowl logo. Conley FaceTimed Lynch as she placed the shirt on his parents’ headstone in the midst of a snowstorm this week before the big game.

And although Lynch won’t be with his family in person Sunday, he and his siblings plan to watch the game together on FaceTime. Lynch will be at home with his wife and two kids, who have become Bengals fans themselves, creating what he hopes is a new memory similar to the ones he made with his dad.

“I think they’re smiling and just proud of the individuals that we’ve been,” Lynch said about his parents. “I think my dad especially [is] proud in the way that I’ve instilled the love for the Bengals in my two kids. … I think they’re pretty happy with the whole situation this year.”