It’s really happening. You’ve been walking on air for the last few days, hearing all the talk about the Bengals playing in the final four of the NFL as though underwater. But it’s true, every bit of it. Our Cincinnati Bengals defeated the top-seeded Tennessee Titans last weekend, 19-16, and will play for the AFC Championship Sunday in Kansas City. For the first time since 1988, Cincinnati is one game away from the Super Bowl. Let the chorus sing out, Why not us?!
I’m still a bit woozy from the drama, the intensity of the Bengals’ defensive effort, the pounding of Joe Burrow by the Titans front, the excellence of Cincinnat’s kicking game, and the primal release when “Future 10x All-Pro” Evan McPherson’s field goal split the uprights and victory—the first road playoff win in franchise history—was assured.
We are in rarefied air here, people. Two years ago, as we all know, Cincinnati won two games. Two! Last year it was four, and presumed franchise savior Burrow required extensive knee surgery. Now they’re in the final four. The immensity of that accomplishment by Burrow and the team is impossible to overstate. Regardless of whether the Bengals get to the Super Bowl, let alone lift the Lombardi Trophy, the dramatic rapidity of the turnaround is astonishing, and we need to appreciate it.
More NFL games are lost than won, and the Titans did everything they could do lose it—Cincinnati wisely stayed out of the way and let it happen. For example, the final possession was tricky for Tennessee, fearing the fact that Burrow would get the ball and win it at the end. But as Patrick Swayze famously noted in Point Break, “Living in fear will cause your worst fears to come true.” Sure enough, Tennessee dawdled too much, and Tannehill left himself a situation where he had to force a ball into coverage with time dwindling. Eli Apple deflected it, Logan Wilson intercepted it, Burrow hit Ja’Marr Chase with a Cover 2 beater along the sideline (quite reminiscent of Andy Dalton finding A.J. Green in a similar fashion in Pittsburgh to clinch a playoff spot in 2012), and the Titans saw it all blow up in their faces.
Tennessee head coach Mike Vrabel didn’t have his finest hour on the sideline, but give him credit for designing an A-plus defensive game plan. The Titans obviously gave the Bengals’ O-line fits with their simulated pressures, stunts and twists, leaving multitudes of unblocked rushers to flatten Burrow. Cincinnati’s front five struggled mightily to communicate, to pass along changes, to adapt. Some of that was crowd noise and a defective headset in Burrow’s helmet, but a lot of it was also the Titans’ scheme and Jeffery Simmons being a monster. Meanwhile, they also did an excellent job disguising coverages, forcing Burrow to hold the ball too long on a number of occasions. In terms of actual pressure rate by play, the Raiders did better than the Titans, counterintuitive as that might seem. But when Tennessee did get pressure, down went Burrow.
Then he rose and kept firing, in an epic display of toughness and amnesia. Burrow embodied the Buddhist maxim, “Knocked down nine times? Get up 10.” (He was actually sacked two other times that were wiped out by penalty.) Somehow Burrow threw for 348 yards in the game—granted a sizable chunk of that was empty calories at the end of the first half, but still—which is how you overcome 68 yards lost to sacks. He wasn’t rattled into bad throws, either; his only interception deflected off the hands of his receiver, and we all know the Titans defender didn’t catch that ball before it hit the turf anyway.
But four turnovers are worse than nine sacks. Yes, the Titans had four turnovers, as I count the fourth down stop of Derrick Henry midway through the fourth quarter as a turnover. Every one of them was incredibly significant for the Bengals, but I go to that Jessie Bates interception on the game’s first play. Excellent job of diagnosis by Bates, and it allowed Cincinnati to grab the game’s first points.
More importantly, the turnover made Tennessee question their identity as an offense. They want to run the ball and use play-action to out-leverage defenses stacked to stop the ground game. When the Bengals turned the very first play-action attempt into an interception, the Titans got gun-shy. It wasn’t until they fell behind by 10 points that Tennessee offensive coordinator Todd Downing felt he had no choice but to allow Tannehill to be aggressive. Those 30 minutes of cautious football were key to the upset.
That’s because the return of King Henry wasn’t much of a coronation. To paraphrase Shakespeare in Richard II, let us sit upon the ground and tell happy stories of the death of kings. Led by Wilson and especially D.J. Reader, the Bengals’ defense never let Henry get going, holding him to 62 yards on 20 carries; backup D’Onta Foreman, thanks to one long run, had 66 on four totes. All week the talk was that the way to defuse Henry was to hit him first, hard, and often, and the Bengals sure did that. All anyone could talk about was how tough the Titans were, but Cincinnati was the game’s tougher team.
We could relive the deliciousness of last Saturday forever, but it is on to Sunday. (One quick aside: Can’t we play the AFC title game on Saturday? After these last two weeks, I’m going to petition the league to play 24 hours earlier.) The Bengals, of course, beat the Chiefs 34-31 to wrap up the AFC North about a month ago. Kansas City, coming off that epic overtime win over Buffalo, is a 7-point favorite, understandable given their pedigree, home field advantage, and continuing disrespect of the Bengals by Vegas. Being a road dog is a comfortable place for Cincinnati under Zac Taylor, who after the Titans game is 13-7 in the 20 games he’s coached under that scenario.
That said, I think we all know it will take a monumental effort to beat KC and Patrick Mahomes, just like it did last time. On the one hand, a rematch after beating them just a few weeks ago is problematic; on the other hand, Burrow is better the second time around as seen against Las Vegas, Baltimore, and Pittsburgh (it’ll be tough to improve on his 446 yards and 4 TD passes against KC the first time, but it’s true). One would imagine the emotional and physical exhaustion of last weekend’s overtime game would leave the Chiefs a bit flat, though I actually think that would have been the case more with Buffalo than KC, whose experience and ability to score in bunches should offset any hangover. Cincinnati is good at shutting down run-first teams, but of course the Chiefs are all about Mahomes and his right arm.
The first encounter was defined by Burrow torching repeated Chiefs blitzes, with Chase going wild in one-on-one matchups on the perimeter. Surely the Chiefs D will sit back and let their front four attack the iffy Bengals O-line, right? Maybe, maybe not. KC defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo loves to blitz; it’s his DNA. You know the parable about the scorpion and the frog? Spags may not be able to deny his nature. Whether Cincinnati can take such advantage again is debatable, but the Chiefs will be bringing extra dudes to rush Burrow.
One thing is for sure: The same disrespect card the Bengals used all week before the Titans game will now be a full deck, or one of those seven-deck contraptions they use at the blackjack tables in Vegas. Virtually no one outside the Greater Cincinnati area will give the team a shot. That of course has been the case for most of the season, going back to all preseason predictions, few of which gave the Bengals a chance to even have a winning record, much less compete for the conference championship.
The Bengals, in other words, are in their comfort zone. Winning at Arrowhead Stadium won’t be easy but, compared to what they’ve already achieved this year, beating Mahomes and Company for the second time in a month is a walk in the park.