The Cincinnati Bengals defeated the No. 1 seed Tennessee Titans this weekend, earning the right to compete for the AFC Championship. The game, however, was not the type of high scoring event that one might have expected.
Joe Burrow and Derrick Henry were widely talked about leading up to the game, but Burrow never found the end zone and Henry averaged barely over three yards per carry. In fact, Burrow lost more yards as a result of sacks than Henry gained rushing all day.
So how did the Bengals pull it off? Here are the ten most important plays of the game.
Kicker Evan McPherson has been phenomenal for the Bengals this season.
The Bengals emphasize winning the middle eight. That’s the four minutes on either side of halftime. Basically, they want to be the last team to score before the half and then score right away in the third quarter.
After the Titans tied the game late in the second quarter, the Bengals drove down the field and into the red zone. Unfortunately, a false start penalty and a sack pushed them back from the 19-yard-line to the 36-yard-line. Not good for most teams, but not a problem when you have McPherson. The rookie jogged out onto the field and nailed the 54-yard field goal, right down the middle.
They were finally able to find the end zone on the opening drive of the second half, as Joe Mixon cut this run way back for a 16-yard score. Mixon’s four carries for 34 yards on that drive accounted for more than half of the team’s rushing yards for the day.
This scoring drive along with the aforementioned field goal gave the Bengals a 10-point lead.
The Titans responded with a nice drive of their own.
After a 45-yard run by D’onta Foreman, they had first-and-goal. They tried to throw a bubble screen to the wide receiver, but Mike Hilton had other plans. The nickel back blitzed off the edge and tipped the pass to himself for the interception.
This was a huge play at a big moment in the game! Hilton has been an excellent addition for the Bengals this season.
Unfortunately, the Titans did eventually get into the end zone and added a field goal as well.
Halfway through the fourth quarter, with the game tied at 16, the Titans were driving and looking to take their first lead of the day. The Bengals defense tightened at just the right moment.
It started with this second-and-four pass to Julio Jones. Linebacker Germaine Pratt read the quarterback and instantly made the tackle. This prevented the Titans from moving the chains and getting that much closer to field goal range. This was an incredible effort by Pratt. If he allowed Jones to turn up field, it would have been a first down. This was a huge play, but the defense was not done yet.
The Titans’ third-and-one play call seems a bit strange for a team with Henry in the backfield. They ran the zone read.
Bengals’ defensive end Cam Sample turned his shoulders so Ryan Tannehill’s “keep” read was correct, but Sample came back and made the tackle on the quarterback. This was a great play by the rookie and forced 4th down.
The Titans only converted one third down all day, and they were about to go zero for one on fourth down.
Unlike the Bengals, the Titans did not trust their kicker to make a 54-yarder. This may not surprise Bengals fans, since their kicker is Randy Bullock.
The Titans decided to run it up the middle with Henry, and it was stuffed!
Logan Wilson filled the gap and Sam Hubbard came screaming in from the back side, but they weren’t alone. A streak of Bengals’ defenders including Pratt, Markus Bailey, Tyler Shelvin, B.J. Hill, and Vonn Bell eventually got involved
The ball went back to Cincinnati on downs.
And just like we all predicted, this game came down to Clay Johnston making a tackle on a 2-point conversationpic.twitter.com/nMBp2WnjFt— Matt Minich (@CoachMinich) January 24, 2022
The Titans would get another shot, though, but to understand why what happened next occurred, we need to go back to the first half. Tennessee scored the game’s first touchdown. The game was tied, and all the Titans needed to do to take the lead was kick the extra point. But the Bengals had 12 men in the defensive huddle, so Tennessee decided to go for two instead after the penalty gave them the ball at the one-yard-line. Big mistake.
They handed the ball off to Henry, who attempted to run up the middle, but linebacker Clay Johnston bent down the line of scrimmage from the back side to make the tackle. This was Johnston’s only snap on defense during the game, but he made it count.
The Titans would never see a lead in this game.
The decision to go for two earlier in the game cost the Titans greatly. They could have had a one-point lead in the 4th quarter, but it was a tie game instead.
If they had the lead, they would have been trying to run out the clock on their final drive, not throwing the ball attempting to get into field goal range. This beautiful play may never have occurred. Eli Apple made a great play, knocking Tannehill’s pass out of the hands of his intended receiver, straight into the air, and Logan Wilson brought it in for the interception, and the Bengals had the ball back.
Tannehill threw three interceptions, including his first and last snaps of the game.
The Bengals had 20 seconds and needed about to 20 yards to get into field goal range, but it only took one play: Burrow to Chase.
Both Burrow and Ja’Marr Chase put up some serious yardage, but neither found the end zone in this game. Still, this connection as time ticked away set up the game winning field goal. McPherson got the final shot, but Burrow and Chase had an assist.
If there is one person on this team who is cooler than Burrow, it is McPherson. Burrow recalls the moments before McPherson’s 52-yard attempt, “He was talking to Brandon (Allen) as he was going out to kick, and he gave a little warm-up swing and he said, ‘Ah, it looks like we’re going to the AFC Championship,’ right before he went out there and kicked it.”
McPherson was good to his word and went four for four on the day as the game-winner sailed through the uprights.
The Bengals have found a lot of different ways to win games throughout the year, and they did it again last weekend. This game wasn’t pretty, but offense, defense, and special teams did what they needed to do to advance to the next round.