Joe Burrow can handle the pressure, but can he handle the playoffs?

Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow is clutch under pressure with one glaring caveat: he has not yet truly played a “win-or-go-home” game in the NFL.

He will take on that challenge on Saturday against the Las Vegas Raiders in the Wild Card Round of the 2021 playoffs.

In the final stretch of the Bengals’ regular season, the stakes have gradually been raised higher and higher, but Saturday’s playoff game will be Burrow’s most critical test of nerves.

The pressure cooker of all other games, the million-dollar poker bet to win it all.

Though Burrow’s record speaks for itself in such high-pressure season games, he enters the playoffs with a completely blank slate. Burrow (and most of this 2021 Bengals squad) has never been in this particular position — the playoffs — before, so how are analysts supposed to predict his performance?

ESPN’s Dan Orlovsky brings up quite a few impressive stats from Burrow’s previous games, but aside from his college achievements, those “have to have it” games in 2021 don’t really translate to “must win” games.

Week 16’s matchup against the Baltimore Ravens was not a win-or-go-home scenario. Had the Bengals lost, they would still have a chance at making the postseason, but the path would be much more difficult.

Cincinnati Bengals’ Joe Burrow will play with everything on the line vs. Raiders

Week 17’s matchup against the Kansas City Chiefs also should be viewed in the grand scheme of the Bengals’ playoff hopes. Winning that game just meant the Bengals clinched their division and get an automatic playoff berth. Had they lost that game, they wouldn’t necessarily be knocked out of postseason contention, either.

Now, the Wild Card Round against the Raiders does pose a genuine “must win” scenario. Playoff games, by virtue of being the playoffs, are all “must wins,” and herein lies never-before-conquered territory for the Bengals’ reigning leader.

The statistics will show Burrow has been “clutch” throughout the season: the Bengals second-year passer was listed as the third-most “clutch” player after Cooper Kupp and Tom Brady.

NFL’s Nick Shook wrote about Burrow’s ability to convert on third-and-longs in the fourth quarter against the Chiefs with the division title on the line:

Burrow has thrown the most touchdown passes of 10-plus air yards in the fourth quarter this season (eight), owns a +7.9 completion percentage over expected on third and fourth down this season (second-best in the NFL), and is even good under pressure, posting a +10.5 completion percentage over expected against the blitz in the fourth quarter, the third-best mark in the league.

Even in close defeats, such as Cincinnati’s overtime loss to San Francisco, the Bengals didn’t lose because Burrow couldn’t throw under pressure. He made key deep passes to Chase and Boyd to tie the game late in the fourth quarter and never got the opportunity to showcase his arm in OT (Zac Taylor’s timid play-calling hurt the team more than Burrow’s interception-prone plays ever could).

So yes, Joey Franchise has been “clutch” in 2021 when the team needed him most, but “clutch” asterisked with the fact that none of those games had quite as high stakes as this one.

Saturday’s game against Las Vegas will be a monumental event for many Bengals players, Burrow included, as Cincinnati look to win their first playoff game in 31 years.

Burrow could very well throw for 400-plus yards and multiple touchdowns as he’s done under immense pressure before.

He could also, as terrified as we are to say it, choke.

In the playoffs, more so than in regular season, nothing is ever guaranteed.