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Darius Phillips nearly carried the Bengals to victory in Buffalo

As a cornerback and a returner, Phillips was arguably the Bengals’ MVP in a wild contest.

NFL: Cincinnati Bengals at Buffalo Bills Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

Before the start of the regular season, Darius Phillips switched jersey numbers with B.W. Webb, making Phillips officially the first No. 24 for the Bengals since Adam Jones. Coincidentally, Phillips is the most talented return man Cincinnati has had since Jones. He proved that talent was for real last week.

Because when the Bengals couldn’t muster any offense to begin Sunday’s game against the Bills, their 8-0 deficit late in the first quarter seemed like it was more than just one score. They needed a spark to come from somewhere else.

Phillips did all he could to answer the call.

The wind was strong towards the southeast, causing kickoffs towards the northwest to lose a lot of air. Because of this, Phillips fielded the kick at the eight-yard line and wasted little time finding his seam to explode through. 92 yards later, pay dirt.

This was why Alex Erickson was being phased out of special teams work. Phillips’ athleticism and vision gives him a monumental boost as a big-play threat. This was the spark that was going to get the Bengals going as a team.

And then it wasn’t.

During the return, Auden Tate was flagged for about as weak of a holding call as you’ll ever see. No, the referees weren’t out to get the Bengals. Yes, holding is being called at an egregious rate nowadays. Sometimes you get screwed, it’s the NFL.

That reality shouldn’t take away what Phillips did, and he was only getting started.

Webb, who now wears Phillips’ old number 23, was out for this game with a forearm injury. With Darqueze Dennard on the Physically Unable to Perform list, Phillips found himself in a next-man-up situation as a cornerback.

The struggles of the Bengals’ offense carried over into the second half. A shameful Andy Dalton interception only made matters worse halfway through the third quarter, and the Bills had a chance to add on to their 14-0 lead near midfield.

Three plays later, Phillips answered the call once more.

The defense only sacked Bills quarterback Josh Allen once, but applied a healthy dose of pressure all afternoon long. They were a silly mistake away from getting back into the game, and this play provided exactly that. The front four lobbed the alley oop by forcing Allen out of the pocket, and Phillips slammed it home by stepping in front of the horrible throw and taking the interception back for 27 more yards, a return that actually counted.

Dalton would score with his legs a few minutes later, making it a one-score game. Had the kickoff return not been nullified, Phillips would’ve been directly responsible for not only keeping the Bengals in the game, but for what could’ve easily been their first win of the season.

Of course, a win was not in the cards and the Bengals are now 0-3, practically erasing any playoff hopes they once had. But the season isn’t over, especially for players like Phillips. Now is the time for the coaching staff to evaluate the current roster to see who belongs here for the long-term rebuild.

With more performances like this one, it won’t be hard for them to decide where Phillips falls in that discussion.