The Bengals Played All the Hits in Nashville

A hard-fought road victory over a quality Titans squad gets rewarded with Sunday’s home showdown against the AFC’s top seed, Kansas City.

I know I’m supposed to love it when Joe Burrow flings an array of deep passes to Ja’Marr Chase, Tee Higgins, and Tyler Boyd and the quick-strike Bengals put up 45 points on some poor fools. Believe me, I do. But I grew up in the hard-hitting era of NFL football, when men were men, dang it, and there is nothing I like more than a good old-fashioned physical battle with points at a premium, every inch of the field contested, and the team that hits the hardest coming out on top.

That was what we got Sunday in Nashville. And in extremely similar fashion to the divisional playoff game from last January, the Bengals were the team that hit the hardest. Instead of winning 19-16 over the Titans, this time they won 20-16. Instead of overcoming nine sacks with three key interceptions and kicking a last-second field goal, the Bengals dominated the league’s most physical team in the trenches and kneeled out the last two minutes, thanks to another crucial Titans mistake. In so doing, Cincinnati served notice that this incredibly tough final stretch of games we all worried about is gonna be incredibly tough for the other guys, too.

Just as in January, the Bengals removed Derrick Henry from the chessboard, holding him to 38 yards rushing and bottling him up at the line on virtually every carry. Led by D.J. Reader’s immense interior presence, Cincinnati’s front dominated Tennessee’s O-line all day, allowing linebackers Logan Wilson and Germaine Pratt to attack Henry downhill. The Titans switched schemes repeatedly in order to loosen up the run game, but they couldn’t move the Bengals off the line—and that was the difference in the game.

The lone time Henry broke loose came on a screen pass, and even that showed the Bengals’ grit. Cam Taylor-Britt, swiftly emerging as a personal favorite due to the intense violence he brings to the field, chased down Henry and guillotined the ball free. It bounced into the end zone, where a fellow Titan unfortunately pounced on it for the score. It was Tennessee’s only touchdown, an apt metaphor for the game writ large—proof that everything Tennessee got would come with difficulty.

Lou Anarumo taught a master class in switching up looks and disguising coverages, seldom allowing the Titans to gain any tempo. Cincinnati showed a number of “Bear,” or five-man, fronts that evolved into myriad coverages and techniques, seldom letting Titans QB Ryan Tannehill trust what he saw. The Titans essentially had two offensive plays of note the entire game: the aforementioned pass to Henry and a jump-ball deep shot to wide-bodied rookie receiver Traylon Burks, who outfought CTB in the air to make a tremendous grab. Otherwise, the Bengals combined skullduggery with skull-cracking to slow down the league’s hottest club. (Tennessee had been 7-1 over its last eight games prior to this loss.)

Once again, the Bengals were able to operate perfectly fine on offense even with Chase and Joe Mixon sidelined. Chase was 50/50 to play vs. Tennessee but wisely didn’t, given the game’s brutality and the craptastic field at Nissan Stadium. The offensive line’s improvement from the playoff disaster was plainly obvious, especially in the run game. The Bengals put up 108 yards on the league’s best run defense (by DVOA), and that number was a bit deflated by the three kneeldowns at game’s end. Samaje Perine did it again. His no-nonsense, alley-fight style of running was perfectly suited to this encounter, and third-stringer Trayveon Williams contributed with a couple of really nice plays as well.

The Bengals are quietly up to fifth in the NFL in rush offense by DVOA, rarefied territory for a team that, even when it puts up numbers, has seldom been efficient in the ground game. They’re reaping the benefits of scheming to the strengths of the linemen, and the front five (plus swing tackle Hakeem Adeniji, who was superb on Sunday) are cohering as a unit, just as we figured they would. Patience is a virtue, after all, which will come as a shock to everyone who gave up on the Bengals and the O-line after the first month.

Just as it was in January, Cincinnati’s next opponent will be Kansas City, though this time the game is at home. The Chiefs yet again are top of the class of the AFC and currently hold the top conference seed at 9-2. And quarterback Patrick Mahomes is the league MVP at the moment, proving (as Burrow has done) that if the QB is excellent he can make everyone else look good. Still, it will be nice from a defensive perspective not to have to deal with Tyreek Hill.

One imagines that this game will be the diametric opposite from the brutal Titans battle, stylistically speaking. The assumption is that the Bengals will need to score a ton of points and outgun the Chiefs in the manner of the regular-season game last year at PBS, when the Bengals won a 34-31 shootout. Usually, when everyone thinks one way about, well, anything, it’s actually a good time to bet on the opposite—so watch this one be played in the low-20s.

By winning in Nashville, the Bengals’ playoff odds leapt to right around 75 percent, though they remain 3-1 underdogs to repeat as AFC North champs. That’s again down to the schedule, with the Ravens hosting the sorry Broncos this Sunday while the Bengals duel with K.C. as just one example. Still, any result is possible with Baltimore, and their loss in Jacksonville was hardly surprising, even (or especially) the blown lead and last-second manner of the defeat. The Ravens’ worst enemy continues to be the Ravens. If the Bengals can just stay in position to have that final game of the regular season be a division title showdown, you have to like their chances.

Plenty of football is to be played before that, of course. Here’s hoping the ultra-physical battles don’t accumulate and Cincinnati can remain healthy—this Sunday 21 of the 22 opening day starters should play, with only Chido Awuzie out. That’s hard to sustain, but it’s always better to be the team that hits hard rather than the one that gets hit hard.

Robert Weintraub heads up Bengals coverage for Cincinnati Magazine and has written for The New York Times, Grantland, Slate, Deadspin, and Football Outsiders. Follow him on Twitter at @robwein.

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