They did it. They finally did it.
Whether you’re a long-time Cincinnati Bengals fan who suffered through the lost decade of the ‘90s or you’re a newer Bengals fan who came along during the Carson Palmer or even Andy Dalton era, you knew the Bengals playoff history. They hadn’t won a postseason game in 31 years, since Boomer Esiason was the team’s signal caller. They had gone to the playoffs seven times, twice with Palmer and five times with Dalton, and they’d lost every time in the first game.
Enter quarterback Joe Burrow and head coach Zac Taylor. In Burrow’s second year in the NFL and Taylor’s third as head coach, the Bengals finally gave the city, which hadn’t seen any post-season success from any of their professional sports franchises since the Reds won a playoff series in 1995, a much-needed victory in front of the largest home crowd in the history of Paul Brown Stadium. What a time to be a Bengals fan!
Here are some things that went right, a couple that didn’t and a look ahead at the Bengals’ divisional round matchup in Nashville against the Titans.
The whistle heard round the world
In a playoff where one loss ends a season, issues with bad calls from referees are magnified. In the second quarter, Burrow scrambled to the right and just before he stepped out of bounds, he threw a pass across his body into the end zone to wide receiver Tyler Boyd. Boyd caught the pass and the end result was a touchdown. The issue was while the ball was in the air, before Boyd caught it, a whistle was blown by one of the referees who apparently thought Burrow was out of bounds, but replay showed he wasn’t.
The Raiders clearly thought the play was dead, but since the play was non-reviewable, the touchdown stood. Raiders fans are upset because, according to the rules, the play should not have been able to stand and should have been replayed.
Sometimes the ball doesn’t bounce your way. The Bengals have had the ball bounce the other way countless times in the last 31 years, especially in the playoffs. It’s about time things work out in their favor.
Hold the line
One of the biggest issues on Saturday were the injuries on the defensive line. Trey Hendrickson left the game with a concussion, Larry Ogunjobi was carted off the field with a foot injury and Mike Daniels left the game early with a groin injury. This left the Bengals incredible short-staffed on the defensive line and D.J. Reader, B.J. Hill, Cam Sample, Sam Hubbard played the vast majority of the second half without a break, and it was obvious they were exhausted. However, they still got the job done.
Facing the Titans and the return of monster running back Derrick Henry, the defensive line will need to be healthy. As of Monday, it’s unclear whether or not Ogunjobi, Hendrickson or Daniels will be ready, but Josh Tupou, who suffered an injury against the Browns in Week 18, could be called upon, as could rookie defensive tackle and human boulder Tyler Shelvin.
The big name, of course, is Hendrickson, who had one of the biggest plays of the game on Saturday when he sacked Derek Carr, stripping him of the ball. Hopefully Hendrickson is able to get through the NFL’s concussion protocol before Saturday’s game.
And the award goes to....
Rookie wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase has broken franchise records and NFL records this year. On Saturday, he broke the Bengals franchise record for receiving yards by a rookie in a playoff game, which was previously held by Cris Collinsworth.
Chase finished the game with nine receptions for 116 yards, and it’s safe to say that if the Bengals don’t select Chase with their first-round pick, they don’t win this playoff game. In fact, they may not have made it to the playoffs in the first place.
Hold the line, Part 2
One of the biggest story lines heading into the Bengals game against the Raiders was whether or not Cincinnati’s offensive line would hold up against Vegas’ front four, headlined by Maxx Crosby. The Raiders typically didn’t have to send a lot of extra pressure at opposing quarterbacks as the defensive line was able to generate enough pressure by themselves. Crosby would be going up against backup right tackle Isaiah Prince, and while Price didn’t grade well in pass protection, according to Pro Football Focus, the offensive line only gave up one sack and two hits.
They’ll need another similar performance this coming Saturday in Nashville.
A look ahead
The Tennessee Titans earned the No. 1 seed by finishing the regular season with a 12-5 record, but they also played in a conference with two teams who finished the season with less than five wins (Jaguars and Texans). For the first half of the season, the offense literally ran through Henry, but when he was lost due to a foot injury at the beginning of November, many thought the season would be lost. The Titans managed to go 6-3 without Henry, though, earning a first-round bye.
Here’s a look at what the Bengals could see on Saturday afternoon.
- Henry is expected to play, and the Bengals should expect a healthy dose, but backup running back D’Onta Foreman averaged 4.3 yards per carry, the same as Henry, when he took over the backfield. Either way, the Bengals should absolutely expect a run-first offense from the Titans. The front seven had better be ready.
- Quarterback Ryan Tannehill and the passing game are set up nicely by a strong running game, and Tannehill is one of the best play-action quarterbacks in the NFL. The Titans’ top wide receiver is A.J. Brown, who missed some time with injury but is back and healthy now. If the Titans aren’t able to get the run game going, though, they struggle to pass the ball.
- The Bengals’ best defense may be a good offense. If Burrow, Chase, Mixon and company can get ahead, forcing the Titans to abandon their strong run game, it will help the injured defensive line. Either way the Bengals absolutely should have their foot on the gas from the first whistle to the last.
- The Titans play a 3-4 defense, and their best pass rusher is outside linebacker Harold Landry III, who racked up 12 sacks this season. The Titans got to the opposing quarterback 43 times this season, which was good for ninth best in the NFL and one spot ahead of the Bengals. The Titans have given up the eighth most pass yards this season, though, and I refuse to believe there’s a defense anywhere in the NFL that can cover the Bengals trio of wide receivers. If the Bengals offensive line protects Burrow, I fully expect him to pick apart the Titans defense.
To wrap things up, some random thoughts about the Bengals playoff win against the Raiders
- I’m so happy for Bengals fans, new and old. Watching the stadium rock was an awesome sight.
- The game ball going to fans is a cool new tradition that shows the Bengals are much more conscious of their relationship with the city now than they have been in the past. It’s good to see.
- I absolutely hated the play calling in the Bengals’ final offensive drive of the game. Burrow had his way against the Raiders secondary all game long, but Mixon had averaged just 2.7 yards per carry. I understand wanting to run out the clock, but one first down kills the game and doesn’t put the defense with a banged up line in the position of having to stop the Raiders to end the game. It worked out, but, to steal a line from the Seahawks, let Joe cook.
- Burrow’s touchdown throw across his body as he was running out of bounds was very Mahomes. He’s going to have a great career here in Cincinnati.
- Rookie kicker Evan McPherson was absolute money on Saturday, nailing all four of his field goals, the longest being from 43 yards out, and both of his extra point attempts. When was the last time you had this much confidence in a Bengals kicker?
- Free agent additions Chidobe Awuzie and Mike Hilton had incredible games. Combined, they only gave up four receptions for 39 yards and no touchdowns on 10 targets between the two of them.
- Pending free agent free safety Jessie Bates III also had an incredible game. He was all over the field and was instrumental in stopping the Raiders’ passing attack.
- The Bengals have struggled against talented tight ends, and there aren’t many tight ends more talented than Darren Waller. The Bengals held Waller to 76 yards on seven receptions, and largely removed him from the game when it mattered most.
- It was fitting that linebacker Germaine Pratt picked off Carr to seal the game. He has improved so much in coverage from last season to this season. It was nice to see him make such a big play.
- Over the last five weeks, Burrow has thrown for 1,720 yards, 13 touchdowns and no interceptions. He’s playing his best football right now.
- I loved Burrow’s press conference after the game when he said there was nothing to celebrate, that they expected to win this game, and it’s on to the next game.