On a team that’s clearly removed from previous playoff failures, no group of Cincinnati Bengals is further separated from the past than their rookie class.
A lot of yards and points came at the hands and feet of their two most impactful rookies during Saturday’s historic victory vs. the Las Vegas Raiders. What does the Wild Card win mean for these young players in the next round? Let’s break it all down.
When Ja’Marr Chase was just 12 years old, the Bengals lost a playoff game to the Houston Texans in January of 2013. Cincinnati scored a mere 13 points that night in part by a confusing game-plan that almost ignored A.J. Green. Many fans will recall Green not receiving a single target in the entire first half, and quarterback Andy Dalton barely missing Green in the end zone for what would’ve been the go-ahead score in the fourth quarter.
Green had more than established himself as the offense’s best weapon by that time, and yet, the Bengals didn’t get him going in their most important game until it was too late. The current Bengals did not make the same mistake with their new No. 1 receiver.
The opening script of Saturday’s win featured Chase as the protagonist, or at least the main supporting actor to Joe Burrow. While it began with a drop from Uno, Burrow came right back to him on a comeback route to convert the first of many first downs in the opening half. Chase hauled in three first-down receptions in the first drive, each with a different route.
By the end of the first half, Chase touched the ball six times and moved the chains after every single one of them. I say touches because Chase had a couple of carries sprinkled in there as well, and one of them converted a critical fourth-and-one. That toss to Chase, who came into the backfield via an orbital motion, was only in the playbook for a couple weeks, per head coach Zac Taylor. It paid great dividends as Tyler Boyd caught a totally legitimate touchdown three plays later that has no controversy surrounding it at all.
Chase would grab six more catches in the second half, three of which came during a four-play span in the fourth quarter, and ended up with one of the most prolific receiving stat-lines in Bengals postseason history. His 116 yards on nine catches is third in franchise history behind Marvin Jones (130) in the 2014 playoffs and Cris Collinsworth (120) in the 1983 playoffs. Both of those performances came during losses.
On a night when Chase and the Bengals ended a generational playoff drought and Mac Jones completely crumbled against the Buffalo Bills, the Offensive Rookie of the Year race has officially ended, if it didn’t already after Week 18. But that award can wait until the offseason.
Up next, Chase and co. have a solid Tennessee Titans secondary to face. Jackrabbit Jenkins and Kristian Fulton figure to be the cornerbacks to square off against Chase, and behind them are Kevin Byard and Amani Hooker, arguably the best safety duo in the game. It’s hard to find exploitable secondaries remaining when there are only seven other teams left, but this is why you accumulate elite receiving talent to go with a great quarterback.
The passing game can’t slow down if Cincinnati expects to advance. Chase needs another great game in Nashville.
Having to kick three field goals of 31 yards or less isn’t great for the offense as a whole, but it’s nice to have Evan McPherson attempt them. The rookie was flawless in his first playoff game when the offense needed bailing out. He made a field goal in all four quarters of the game, with his longest coming from 43 yards out in the third quarter.
Wind wasn’t much of a factor, but there were a few times you could see McPherson account for a slight cross wind. He wasn’t phased by the elements or pressure, which is all you can ask for in playoff weather. He also made history with Raiders’ kicker Daniel Carlson, as the two combined for eight field goals made. It was the first time two teams went four-for-four in an NFL postseason game.
Since McPherson currently boasts a perfect playoff field goal percentage, he joins 27 other kickers in league history to have a 100% attached to his postseason resume. Interestingly enough, two other kickers still playing in the playoffs—Robbie Gould and Matt Gay—are on that list. Jake Elliott is on the list too, as I’m sure you assumed.
McPherson now carries that perfection into Tennessee and a battle with the guy he replaced: Randy Bullock. Nothing would be more poetic than the young McPherson and Mr. Two Calves himself going back and forth in a tightly contested affair.
Turning our attention to the defensive line, Cam Sample figures to remain a significant role player going forward. This hasn’t really changed throughout the course of the year, but Sample was not only active over Wyatt Ray last week, he ended up playing a lot more than expected with Trey Hendrickson, Larry Ogunjobi, and Mike Daniels all leaving the game at different points of the night.
Hendrickson looks to be on track to play Saturday. Sample will need to play some snaps to give Hendrickson rest here and there, but the return of Cincinnati’s sack leader should give Sample more opportunities to rush from inside, where he can make more of an impact. Replacing Ogunjobi’s impact as a pass-rusher will be the biggest hurdle the Bengals will have to clear, and Sample looks like the next man up for the job unless they want to slide Sam Hubbard inside more.
The only thing that can be recognized as relevant from the Bengals’ Week 18 loss to the Cleveland Browns was Chris Evans being the kickoff returner, since Evans assumed that role again against the Raiders. He netted 103 return yards on five opportunities, including a long of 27 and a muffing that he quickly recovered and turned into 14 yards. He also got one carry on offense that went for a slick nine yards.
Sticking with special teams, it was business as usual for Jackson Carman and Trey Hill on the field goal blocking unit. What’s interesting for Carman is Xavier Su’a-Filo getting released out of the blue on Tuesday. Su’a-Filo was recently cleared to practice and the team just cut him without immediately adding anyone to replace him on the 53-man roster (defensive tackle Doug Costin was added to the practice squad instead).
Su’a-Filo would’ve given them 10 offensive lineman for Saturday, and while it’s hard to believe given the recent history of that unit, they simply didn’t need another body in the mix. This solidifies Carman’s spot as the first guard off the bench, but he’s still a guard on the bench for now.
Tyler Shelvin did not play, and the news of Josh Tupou returning to practice doesn’t bode well for him making an impact this week either. In all likelihood, Costin will get elevated to the active roster since the team needs a backup 3-technique more than they need a third nose tackle, even when facing a run-heavy team such as the Titans.
Perhaps if Tupou doesn’t get the all clear, Shelvin will have to dress, but for now, there’s not enough boost his stock.
Did Not Play
- Tyler Shelvin (inactive)
- D’Ante Smith