I’ll say that again. The Bengals are playing in the AFC Championship game.
One more win, and they’re in the Super Bowl.
I think I speak for a lot of Bengals fans when I say that I am completely overwhelmed and unsure how to feel at the moment. Don’t get me wrong, I am absolutely elated. I knew great things were on the horizon for the Bengals, but wasn’t expecting the horizon to be here so soon.
I still very much have a Bengals fan’s mindset of trying not to get my hopes up, but it is absolutely getting in the way of enjoying what is happening right now. I’ll have to work on that, because I have a feeling this could be the new normal for a while.
The game on Saturday was a nail-biter, for sure. Even though the Bengals never trailed, the Titans did tie the game late in the fourth quarter. In the end, though, the better team won. Here are a few things that went right, a couple that went wrong and a look ahead at the team’s rematch against the Chiefs.
Three is greater than nine
A lot was made of the Bengals winning despite Joe Burrow being sacked nine times. In fact, no quarterback has ever won in the playoffs after being sacked nine times. Burrow is the first, which definitely speaks to his toughness. However, if forced to pick between having my quarterback sacked nine times, or having three turnovers, I’ll take the sacks.
Ryan Tannehill threw three interceptions, one on the first play of the game, and two in the second half. Both second half interceptions came at critical moments, when the Titans were poised to cut into the Bengals lead near the end zone or when they were moving into field goal range for a possible game winner.
Who’ll stop the (t)rain
In the week leading up to the game, one of the main storylines was the return of human battering ram Derrick Henry, one of the best running backs in the NFL. Henry did make his return after having foot surgery in November, but he never really got going. He carried the ball 20 times for only 62 yards and a touchdown, averaging just 3.1 yards per carry. He may not have been 100%, but I think one of the main reasons Henry didn’t have a big game was Bengals nose tackle D.J. Reader.
Reader had six tackles, but that only tells a small part of the story. Reader was in the backfield all day long, constantly clogging holes and making Henry look for another way to go. Reader was a one-man wrecking crew and forced the Titans offense to put the ball in Tannehill’s hands.
The Bengals were only able to score one touchdown, but that didn’t matter because rookie kicker Evan McPherson is a Bengal. Not only is McPherson 100% in the postseason, but the Bengals won the game on the strength of his leg again. McPherson hit a 52-yard field goal with four seconds left in the game, giving the Bengals a 19-16 lead and sending the Bengals to the next round.
During Burrow’s press conference, the quarterback said the kicker told backup quarterback Brandon Allen, “looks like we’re going to the AFC Championship” as he walked on to the field. Looks like Burrow isn’t the only young member of this team with ice water in his veins.
Protecting the franchise
Back to the nine sacks thing. That can’t continue to happen. The fans know that, and the Bengals front office knows it too. It’s not like the team didn’t do anything to try to fix the line; they did sign Riley Reiff, re-signed Quinton Spain, and they selected Jackson Carman to play the right guard position in the second round.
Unfortunately, Reiff is hurt, and Carman hasn’t really caught on, so the team has had to rely on backup right tackle Isaiah Prince and guard Hakeem Adeniji. It’s also unfortunate that the Titans have one of the best pass-rushing lines in all of football.
According to Pro Football Focus, the best Bengals lineman at pass blocking on Saturday was Prince, and center Trey Hopkins and Spain played okay, both giving up just one sack each. Left tackle Jonah Williams had a very uncharacteristically poor game, giving up two sacks, but it was Adeniji that was abused from the beginning of the game to the end. He gave up three sacks, was constantly being pushed into the backfield, and was struggling to give Burrow time to throw.
The Bengals still won, but imagine what this team could do if Burrow had more time in the pocket.
A look ahead
The Bengals now travel to Kansas City to face the Chiefs in a rematch of their thrilling Week 17 game, which they won by a score of 34-31 to take the division. Here are a few things you could see in the last game before the game.
- Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs offense is nothing if not explosive, which was plain to see when they scored 13 points in the final nine minutes of regulation and a touchdown on the first drive of overtime on Sunday against Buffalo. The Bills-Chiefs game will go down as an all-time playoff classic, and was by far one of the most entertaining NFL games I’ve ever seen. Don’t expect the Chiefs to take it easy and try to keep Burrow on the sidelines. The Chiefs will put up as many points as possible, as they always try to do.
- The Chiefs will have to score as many as they can, because their defense, while improved from last year, is middle of the road at best. They’re just okay against the run, but they allowed the sixth most pass yards of any team in the NFL during the regular season. While Buffalo was right up there with the Titans and the Bengals when it comes to team sacks, the Chiefs defense had the fourth-fewest sacks with 31. They did get to Burrow four times, though, in Week 17 so the Bengals offensive line had better get its act together after a poor showing against the Titans.
- Arrowhead Stadium is one of the loudest in the NFL. It appeared as if the Bengals had a hard time getting the call in and communication between Burrow and the rest of the offense was affected by the crowd noise in Nashville. Kansas City is sure to be louder. Hopefully the Bengals can deal with it.
- Travis Kelce is one of the best, if not the best, tight ends in the NFL, but the Bengals limited him to five catches for 25 yards in Week 17. That was the second-lowest yardage total for the season for Kelce this year. His lowest was against the Eagles (23 yards) early in the season. The Bengals have struggled against elite tight ends in recent years, and Mahomes will likely be looking to Kelce often in order to outscore the Bengals offense. Hopefully the Bengals defense will be able to have a repeat performance against Kelce.
To wrap things up, some random thoughts about the Bengals divisional round win against the Titans
- I liked hearing about the captain’s meeting before the game where Burrow told the rest of the team he was done with the “Why not us?” underdog mentality, and the team is good enough to win the Super Bowl. Not that they didn’t believe in themselves before, but it’s good to see the team leaders instill their confidence in the rest of the team.
- Whoever is running the Bengals social media accounts is doing a great job. I loved this.
- I would be willing to bet that the majority of quarterbacks in the NFL, had they been sacked nine times in a single game, would start to get panicky in the pocket, making off-target throws, and getting rid of the ball too quickly in order to stop getting hit. Not Burrow, though. The guy seems unflappable. Taking a sack is sometimes better than throwing an off-target pass that is intercepted.
- The top five graded players in the team’s win over the Titans, according to PFF, were all defensive players. Surprised?
- Chase had five catches for 109 yards. He did this despite being doubled the vast majority of the game. There’s no question that the Bengals aren’t playing in the AFC Championship game if Chase isn’t selected by them in the first round. In fact, they may not make the playoffs.
- I cannot comprehend how Chase continually gets open when it’s clear the Bengals have to move the ball deep down the field in a short amount of time. He did it on a third-and-27 against the Chiefs and with 20 seconds left in the game, Burrow found Chase for a gain of 19 yards, setting McPherson up with the game-winning field goal. How is it teams are letting this happen?
- Logan Wilson is constantly in the right place at the right time. He was the highest-graded Bengals player overall on Saturday, per PFF, and was right there to pick off Tannehill at the end of the game when Eli Apple deflected a pass thrown into traffic.
- Burrow, Chase, McPherson, Higgins, Wilson, Jonah Williams, Jessie Bates III and Sam Hubbard are all playing on their rookie contracts. The Bengals have an insanely talented young core of players. They had better get ready to start shelling out some big money to keep these guys around. Hubbard has been extended. Hopefully Bates and the rest are next.
- Mike Hilton’s deflection and then interception was a game-changing play. The Titans were on the Bengals nine-yard-line when that happened, and the Titans were either going to score a touchdown or a field goal at that point. Without the play, the Bengals likely don’t win.
- The Bengals have spent a ton of money in free agency to bring in defensive guys like Reader, Hilton and Chidobe Awuzie. It’s time the Bengals do the same thing, but on the offensive side of the ball, specifically on the line (after they re-sign Bates, of course).
- Enjoy the ride Bengals fans. I’m definitely trying to. I don’t think this is a fluke, though. I think this might be the new normal for a while.