Don’t sleep on these Cincinnati Bengals.
“We’re a really, really good team,” quarterback Joe Burrow said after the game. “We’re here to make noise.”
For the second week in a row, that’s exactly what the Bengals did. After holding on for a 26-19 victory over the Las Vegas Raiders in last week’s opening round of the playoffs, Cincinnati rode an Evan McPherson 52-yard field goal as time expired to a 19-16 win over the Tennessee Titans Sunday and a spot in the AFC Championship game next week.
And, for the second week in a row, it was the Bengals’ defense who had the last laugh.
Last week, it was Germaine Pratt with an interception at the Bengals’ 2-yard-line that sealed the win.
This week, it was a Logan Wilson interception at his own 47-yard-line with 20 seconds left that put the Bengals in position to pull off the victory.
“I feel like we’ve been getting slept on the whole year,” defensive tackle D.J. Reader said. “Disrespected. It’s something we take pride for in this locker room. We got a lot of guys that go out there and fight every day. You all see it. We take it as disrespect every time. All year, it’s been something.”
Most of the experts gave this one to the Titans, mainly because of the return of Tennessee’s phenomenal running back Derrick Henry, who had been out since Week 8 with a foot injury.
But most of the experts underestimated the drive and determination of this Bengals’ defense, which finished the season ranked No. 5 in the NFL against the run.
“Everybody committed,” Reader said. “Everybody done put blood, sweat and tears in with each other, and we hold that true in times of adversity. We get the ball back, cause we’re confident in us as a team. We know the offense is gonna go out there and do their thing. And if they don’t, we’re not worried about it, because we play defense. Our job is to get the ball back to them.”
The defense got the ball back for the offense three times Sunday. Safety Jessie Bates III stepped in front of Ryan Tannehill’s first pass of the game and Cincinnati turned it into a 3-0 lead.
Trailing 16-6 early in the third quarter, Tennessee drove to a 1st-and-goal at the Bengals’ 9-yard-line before Mike Hilton snatched a tipped ball out of the air for Cincinnati’s second interception of the day.
Then it was Wilson’s turn.
With the score tied at 16 and the Titans facing a 3rd-and-5 at their own 40-yard-line, Tannehill fired a pass intended for wide receiver Nick Westbrook-Ikhine. Eli Apple, who earlier had a taunting penalty that negated much of Hilton’s interception return, was in perfect position and got his right hand in to tip the ball in the air. Wilson was there.
“That was a great play by Eli, obviously, to break up the pass,” Wilson said. And then, good things happen when you run to the ball.”
And it was a great play by Wilson to come up with his fifth interception of the season.
“You really just felt like something like that was gonna happen, to be quite honest with you,” said Bengals’ head coach Zac Taylor. “I just felt like that game wasn’t over, it wasn’t going to overtime. Something big was gonna happen there and Logan’s just got a knack for finding those balls.”
He also has a knack for knowing what to do with them once he finds them. As soon as he had secured the ball, Wilson did the smart thing and got down on the turf immediately.
“My initial reaction was, when I got the ball, I knew there wasn’t much time left, and I knew we had the ball near the 50-yard line,” he said. “I just wanted to make sure I came down with the ball and gave our offense an opportunity.”
A 19-yard pass to Ja’Marr Chase and two short runs later, it was time for McPherson to put the nail in the coffin.
Now it’s on to either Buffalo or Kansas City for the AFC Championship game, with the winner on their way to Super Bowl LVI on February 13 at SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, California.
“That was like one of the first things I said in the locker room,” Wilson said. “I was like, ‘Dude, we are one game away. One game.’ Obviously, we’ve got a big game in front of us, but it’s a huge opportunity for us.”
And it’s one the Bengals fully intend to take advantage of. Just ask Cincinnati tight end C.J. Uzomah.
“Franchise [Joe Burrow] said earlier, he’s tired of that ‘Why not us’ s**t. It is us. We’re winning the whole thing.”