Free at last, free at last, great God almighty, we’re free at last…. Free from the burden of the playoff drought, that is.
At long, long, loooooooooooong last, the Bengals finally did it! That sound you heard circa 8 p.m. last Saturday night was the spontaneous release of three decades of frustration, blown to kingdom come by Joe Burrow, Germaine Pratt, and the rest of this team that’s now undoubtedly the most popular squad to wear the Stripes since the 1988 version came so close to winning it all. The air seems cleaner, food tastes better, we sleep the sleep of the satisfied and pure at heart.
Of course, these being the Bengals and the fact that no burden of that weight can simply be shrugged off, the game provided several mini-strokes for the faithful, coming right down to the final seconds and a last-ditch attempt by the never-say-die Las Vegas Raiders. But Pratt preserved the 26-19 win with the (new) most famous interception in franchise history, though it should be noted that it was fourth down and simply knocking the ball away would have been enough and that for some reason Derek Carr threw it shy of the end zone, so even a completion probably wouldn’t get the job done for LV. But why quibble with such a clean denouement?
The game rightfully should have been another blowout during a weekend full of them. Cincinnati was easily the better team and probably should have had 24 or 28 points on the board at halftime but for some red zone inefficiency—especially disappointing given the fact the Raiders were a brutally bad red zone defense all season.
As for the inadvertent whistle that got way too much attention postgame, it happened with the ball about a foot and a half from Tyler Boyd. No one stopped, it didn’t alter the play one iota, and in fact it detracted from an amazing ad lib by Burrow to get seven on the board instead of settling for yet another field goal. Ideally in that spot the Bengals would have gotten a first down and drained the clock so the Raiders had no opportunity to match the touchdown before halftime, which they did. It was much ado about nothing, except being yet another notch in the “Jerome Boger is a terrible official” belt.
The Raiders’ offense is potent, so the fact the Bengals held them under 20 points for the second time this season is deserving of much praise. Obviously, the loss of defensive tackle Larry Ogonjobi and defensive end Trey Hendrickson to injury had a major effect in the second half as the depth waned and the remaining defenders dug deep to finish the drill. The Bengals held LV out of the end zone in the second half despite no pass rush. Pratt’s final pick was awesome, but he also made several other big-time plays, both in run defense and in coverage, to help fill the gap. For the second time, Mike Hilton did an excellent job on Raiders slot receiver Hunter Renfrow. And Jessie Bates made several crucial plays that might just earn him the lucrative contract extension he’s seeking.
As for Ja’Marr Chase, what more can be said about Uno? Other than not scoring a touchdown, it was a pretty impressive playoff debut, though hardly surprising given the season he’s turned in. Yards after catch, catching balls in traffic, even running the rock on end arounds—he can do it all.
Even Brent Musberger, calling the game for the Raiders’ radio network, seemed excited for Cincinnati, and the aftermath of the drought-breaking was heartwarming—from the ecstatic locker room to Burrow’s too-cool-for-school shades in the postgame press conference to Zac Taylor taking the game ball to various watering holes so fans could share in the win. It was everything we could have asked for in the wake of such a momentous victory.
Of course, most NFL franchises don’t need to treat a wild-card victory over a below-average opponent as the equivalent of scaling Everest. Now is the time to reset our expectations upwards, as Burrow has clearly done. So in that vein, it’s on to Nashville and a divisional round matchup with the top-seeded Tennessee Titans!
Amazingly enough, the Titans are ranked just 20th in DVOA, and with a -3.0% score they’re the only No, 1 seed ever in Football Outsiders history to have negative DVOA for the season. By this metric, they are not just the easiest possible opponent for Cincinnati in this round but clearly the worst top-seed since 1983.
Now the playoff history of even poor top seeds is pretty good. The power of the bye week, plus matchups with generally weaker opposition, means that of the 13 worst top seeds since 1983, only two lost in the division round: the 1992 Steelers (yay!) and the 1985 Rams.
Just a glance at the injury report gives a hint to why that is. Tennessee is the healthiest they’ve been all season, and not playing last week helps achieve that. Derrick Henry is expected to return for his first action since breaking his foot back on Halloween. Ordinarily, one running back wouldn’t make much of a difference, but Henry is no ordinary back. Both A.J. Brown and Julio Jones should be in the lineup, too, and Brown in particular is critical for Tennessee—the Titans were 10-2 in games that he caught a pass, 2-3 when he was out or too injured to make an impact.
Meanwhile, of course, Cincinnati lost a key cog in Ogonjobi last weekend, and Hendrickson is in the concussion protocol and iffy. They can manage to eke by without Og, important as he’s been this year. They likely have no chance without Hendrickson, the lone consistent pass rusher.
Cincinnati does enter the game with one major advantage: Burrow. He is the better quarterback in the game, with Ryan Tannehill 27th among QBs in both DVOA and DYAR and looking up at Joey B. in any statistic you want to cite. Yes, the injuries on the Titans offense played a role in that, but overall Tennessee is a run-first team. Their aim is to keep the ball away from Burrow and limit the possessions Cincinnati has on offense by hogging the ball. They can be effective at that strategy, but it does have limitations, especially if the game script flips in the Bengals’ favor. Early points (especially touchdowns) will force the Titans to throw it more than they like, and a high-scoring game favors the Bengals.
Even if the early going doesn’t go Cincinnati’s way, their attack is potent enough to keep them in touch all the way to the end. As a road team in the playoffs, all you can ask for is an opportunity to win the game in the fourth quarter. The Titans aren’t built to blow out the Bengals unless their defense forces turnovers. On the season they forced just 22 takeaways, one more than Cincinnati did, hardly a daunting figure. The key to the late season run by the Bengals has been avoiding turnovers and dumb plays in general. Keep that trend going, and they will certainly have a puncher’s chance on Saturday afternoon.
But—and I may be in opposition to Burrow on this one—we are playing with house money at this point. Even a loss on Saturday won’t tarnish what’s been a glorious season of rebirth and possibility. It culminated with the achievement of January 15, 2022, when for the first time in my adult life I could go to bed savoring a playoff victory by my favorite team.