No one can say the Cincinnati Bengals didn’t earn their spot in the AFC Playoffs. They’re far from a perfect team, but they showed on numerous occasions what it takes to beat quality opponents and grind out a division title in the process.
There’s something to be said about elevating in the critical moments to secure victories, whether it comes from the bonafide superstars, or the role players that fill out the roster. In the games the Bengals had to win, and fought tooth and nail to do so, there were no shortages of players who stepped up and provided game-changing moments.
If all goes to plan, Saturday’s Wild Card matchup with the Las Vegas Raiders won’t be the final time we watch these Bengals play. But now that we’re here, talking about the postseason after very few expected them to get this far, it’s a good time to look back at the most impactful plays that helped the Bengals make the playoffs for the first time in six years.
In chronological order, here are the 10 plays that has made this weekend possible.
Week 1: Germaine Pratt’s overtime forced fumble
The season was extremely close to starting off on the wrong foot. Cincinnati allowed the Minnesota Vikings to engineer a fourth-quarter comeback that sent the game into overtime, and just when it looked like a tie was inevitable, the Vikings found themselves on the brink of field goal range. The Bengals needed a miracle, and they got one.
Jessie Bates was the first to meet star running back Dalvin Cook in the hole, but it was Pratt who knocked the football loose and fell on it. Joe Burrow got the offense in field goal range for Evan McPherson a few plays later, and a 1-0 start was the result.
Week 4: Larry Ogunjobi and Logan Wilson’s fourth-and-goal stop
The next game at Paul Brown Stadium came with ample amounts of hype. Coming off an impressive win in Pittsburgh, the 2-1 Bengals were supposed to roll the visiting Jacksonville Jaguars, and enshrine the inaugural Ring of Honor class in front of a packed crowd. Needless to say, the Jags came to play, and were about to take a three-score lead into the half.
Quarterback Trevor Lawrence had success keeping the ball on quarterback runs up to this point, and Jacksonville stuck with that on fourth-and-goal at the end of the second quarter. If it wasn’t for Ogunjobi and Wilson leading the blockade at the goal-line, this game probably doesn’t end well for the home team.
Week 4: Joe Burrow can’t be zeroed
Fast forward 30 game-minutes. The Bengals’ offense comes alive in the second half, but there’s more work to be done. Burrow has seen this look defensively before, and calls a screen to tight end C.J. Uzomah to beat it. Despite the Jags sending damn near everyone at him, Burrow gets the ball out and lets his tight end do the rest.
McPherson would make a more manageable field goal at the buzzer, and a soundbite from Burrow was organically created.
Week 7: Ja’Marr Chase becomes the new Ravens killer
Cincinnati’s rookie sensation had already put himself in the spotlight before this game. Chase wasn’t just putting the drops to bed, he looked like the furthest thing from someone who took a year off from football. But this game really solidified the Bengals as a potential contender, before anyone had reasonably expected them to be one.
The final score of 41-17 speaks of a blowout, but it didn’t become that kind of game until this play, when Chase sonned Marlon Humphrey and the entire Ravens’ secondary. Baltimore spent the last decade dealing with A.J. Green and Tyler Boyd tormenting them, and in his first game in M&T Bank Stadium, Chase outdid anything those two ever did. Some things never change.
Week 11: Joe Mixon breaks the Raiders’ dam
It was a rough month following that Ravens game. Two-straight losses and then a bye week left the Bengals winless for a minute, and just like that, this game against the Raiders gave off must-win vibes. Knowing their offensive line would be outmatched in Vegas, the Bengals wanted to rely almost entirely on Joe Mixon. Their faith and persistence would eventually be rewarded.
Following a clutch Eli Apple interception, the flood gates truly broke open with this touchdown run, giving Mixon yet another impressive showing against the team that used to play near his hometown.
Week 12: Mike Hilton’s revengeful pick-6
Even in a down year, the Pittsburgh Steelers managed to squeak into the playoffs. They’re like cockroaches in that sense, and practically every team they faced had a tough time beating them down. That the Bengals were one of the exceptions was a nice change of pace.
This game was never really close, and Hilton, a former Steeler himself, making it a four-score game before half-time with his first-ever pick-six was such a pivotal moment in what’s now become a rivalry reborn. Pittsburgh never had a shot after this play, if they even had a shot at any point that day.
Week 15: Tyler Boyd leaks past the Broncos
The momentum Cincinnati had after the Pittsburgh win evaporated in the following two weeks. Disappointing losses to the Los Angeles Chargers and San Francisco 49ers made yet another AFC West road matchup a must-win. Like the Raiders, the Denver Broncos brought challenges to the Bengals’ offense, and what ensued was one of the more unpleasant performances from this year.
But for one play, all was right in the world as Burrow found a wide-open Boyd for the Bengals’ only touchdown and the game’s biggest play, up until just a few minutes later...
Week 15: What did Khalid Kareem just do
If you ever want a good laugh, look up the description of this play and read it with the yakety sax music in the background.
Describing this play with words is basically impossible, but the importance of it can’t go unsaid. Kareem stripping Drew Lock of the pigskin this close to the end zone in a one-possession game is the exact play previous Bengals teams couldn’t make. This helped the Bengals kickstart the all-important winning streak they needed.
Week 17: Vonn Bell prevents the Chiefs’ biggest play
For 29 minutes, the Kansas City Chiefs’ offense did whatever they wanted against the Bengals’ defense. It seemed like 40 points was inevitable for Patrick Mahomes and company. That they only had an 11-point lead going into the half was phenomenal news for the Bengals considering their defense was getting its butt kicked. But the Chiefs weren’t satisfied, as they never are. Mahomes launched a ridiculous 60-yard bomb to Tyreek Hill and put it right in Hill’s hands.
Bell, who found the ball at the very last second, knocked it free from Hill’s grasp, and eliminated all hope of the Chiefs getting one last blow before the half. The play likely took away three points, which would end up being the difference in the game.
Week 17: 3rd and 27
That three-points the Bengals won by wouldn’t have been possible with this moment. The entire season basically came down to this. Do the Bengals play it safe with a bad offensive line and try for a long field goal, or do they trust their franchise cornerstones to keep the ball out of Mahomes’ hands?
They chose the latter, and therefore, chose to win. It’s as crazy to watch again as it was to witness the first time. The city of Kansas City will say the refs gifted Cincinnati the game a few plays later, but make no mistake, the day, and the division, was won thanks to this play.