The “Fumble in the Jungle” Lifts the Bengals

Heading to Buffalo for the next playoff round, national sentiment favors the Bills. But Cincinnati knows how to win on the road.

The 98-yard fumble return by Sam Hubbard that essentially won the wild-card game against Baltimore, 24-17, is instantly iconic and totally deserving of a nickname. Despite the plethora of big, late turnovers in last season’s playoff run, there was nothing to match this. So it needs to live on forever, and a nickname will make that happen.

No “Hubbard-Yard Dash” for me, or anything that revolves around Sam. He scored the touchdown, of course, but you can’t isolate Logan Wilson and Germaine Pratt’s contributions from the iconic play—they swatted the ball away to make the run play possible. “Immaculate Rejection” isn’t bad, but then you take Hubbard’s run out of it, and anyway it makes you think of the Steelers, which none of us want to do. So “Fumble in the Jungle” it is (bang gavel).

The Hubbard runback was so critical because, as I premonitioned last week, this game came down to the wire even though it was Tyler Huntley, not Lamar Jackson, at the helm for the Ravens. Huntley played a very good game by his low-ceiling standard, proving slippery in the pocket and hitting his receivers when they broke wide open, as happened all too often. We knew the Ravens’ defense would come to play, and they mixed up and disguised coverages with aplomb, making Joe Burrow work for every yard. And, of course, Cincinnati lost yet another lineman, left tackle Jonah Williams, and played the second half with three substitute O-linemen.

But for a messy, kinda fluky last few minutes of the first half, there might not have been such anxiety in the second half. Starting with an errant hand to the face by Dax Hill on third down that wiped out a big sack, to J.K. Dobbins just barely breaking the goal line plane on a flat pass, to a Ja’Marr Chase drop and Burrow tripping over a lineman’s leg that led to the disastrous play that cost the Bengals the ball (on a fumble) and Williams (to a dislocated knee), to the crazy bad snap Huntley somehow turned into a 19-yard gain, to Eli Apple getting wiped out by his own man—for about 15 minutes there in real time it seemed the gods were conspiring against the Bengals.

But they pulled it out nonetheless, thanks in large part to a pair of goal line stands. The Hubbard play gets all the pub, but there was also a critical stand just after that Apple injury, when Cincinnati clamped down and forced Baltimore into a short field goal. The Bengals’ red zone defense has been very good all year, and it came up big just when the team needed it most. Thank goodness, because being eliminated by the Ravens would have been a disastrous finish to an otherwise great season.

It’s important for new bandwagon fans to realize that the Bengals had been victims of a play like that basically forever. Jeremy Hill fumbling. Gio Bernard fumbling. JJ Watt leaping to make a ridiculous pick-six. Pete Johnson getting stuffed on the goal line. And on and on. Cincinnati was the team that made the crazy mistake, the key turnover, the memorable blunder. The Ravens—or the Steelers—were forever the beneficiaries. Call it Burrow’s presence, Zac Taylor sacrificing a chicken, a New Dey, whatever you like. Now it’s expected that Cincinnati will make the key play late.

The Hubbard play was the third time in the last two seasons that the Bengals have forced a turnover in the fourth quarter of a tied playoff game (and that’s not counting the Pratt interception against the Raiders). That is unprecedented stuff. Maybe it can’t continue, but the players certainly believe that come winning time they’ll indeed continue that precedent. It’s why they’ve won nine straight games and are two games from a return trip to the Super Bowl.

Can they keep it going in Buffalo? The divisional round game that was on the horizon weeks and weeks ago (when I wrote that a Buffalo-Baltimore-Baltimore-Buffalo month was not just possible but likely) is here. The Damar Hamlin nightmare doesn’t quite have the same specter of doom that it might have had, thank goodness, because he’s recovered to the point that he is reportedly hanging out at the Bills team facility every day. What an amazing turn of events.

But because that game was canceled and the NFL treats the Bengals like something stuck to the bottom of its shoe, this playoff game will be held in Buffalo, not in Cincinnati or at a neutral site. While a home date is always better and the Jungle fans deserve another chance to roar on the riverfront, in some ways the road trip is an advantage. Cincinnati is 5-point underdogs, a slap in the face the team will add to its fury over the way the league treated them in the wake of the Hamlin cancellation.

The team clearly proved a year ago it has no fear of going on the road and winning big games. And despite all the marketing of “Bills Mafia” and how “crazy that stadium will be,” home field advantage has been deflated as a force in the NFL over the last decade. The backup linemen may have a bad moment or two due to crowd noise, but the team overall will hardly be compromised by playing in Buffalo, whether it snows or not.

The Bills struggle to cover wideouts outside the numbers and are 29th in the NFL against enemy No. 1 receivers (and top five against tight ends and backs in the passing game). Obviously this is a tough matchup against Chase, Tee Higgins, and Tyler Boyd. We talked about red zone efficiency up top—the Bills are just 20th in red zone DVOA on offense, while the Bengals as we know have been playing well in that area.

The Bills are formidable, no one doubts that. Josh Allen may turn the ball over more often than fans would prefer, but he is a monster player whether running or throwing the ball down the field. The Bills led the NFL in DVOA (2nd offense, 4th defense, 1st special teams) and have won 10 straight to Cincinnati’s nine. They have a feeling of unfinished business hanging over them after throwing away their season in Kansas City in this round a year ago. And of course they have the Hamlin factor, though how that manifests itself is impossible to determine.

Much of the football world is rooting for the Bills. They were favorites even before the Hamlin episode, based on last season and their perennial bridesmaid status. Now there is a definite feeling that the world owes the Bills a trip to the Super Bowl.

That’s another reason for the Bengals to bring a chip on their collective shoulder into Buffalo on Sunday. If they can convert that feeling into action, there is every reason to believe the Bengals will be back in the AFC title game.

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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