Someone needs to get these Cincinnati Bengals more ink for all the checkboxes they’re filling.
In their first Divisional Round playoff game since the Curse of Bo Jackson began, the Bengals won on the road in the playoffs for the first time in franchise history against the Tennessee Titans. As the weeks go by, this team continues to prove that no stage is too big for them. The stage will only get larger this Sunday against the Kansas City Chiefs as they look to move past them and onto Super Bowl 56.
Let’s take stock at where the rookies are leading up to the AFC Championship game.
Usually this section starts with Uno, but how can you not lead with Evan McPherson?
The Bengals drafting McPherson with an early fifth-round pick was initially met with philosophical criticism. Why draft a kicker when so many of the NFL’s best have gone undrafted? What makes McPherson so special that he needs to be selected before over 100 other players in the draft?
Joe Burrow’s now famous McPherson anecdote is all the reasoning the Bengals will ever need.
Having one of the strongest right legs in the league is how you physically send your team to their first conference title game in 33 years off a 52-yard field goal. Combining that leg with elite levels of confidence and swagger is how you make it look so easy.
“Welp, looks like we’re going to the AFC Championship.”
It’s possible Burrow’s infectious poise has rubbed off on one of the team’s youngest players, but by all accounts, this seems to be who McPherson’s always been. Burrow mentioned how he and the rest of the team knew what they had in McPherson the moment he walked into the building solely from the way the rookie carried himself and interacted with everyone. Those moments and his marvelous rookie season all culminated into the last play on Saturday afternoon.
It was the eighth field goal McPherson has made in these playoffs—the same number that he’s attempted thus far. Even Adam Vinatieri missed one in his first Super Bowl run with the New England Patriots back in 2001, but McPherson’s game-winner felt so reminiscent of the future Hall of Fame kicker’s many clutch moments.
Vinatieri’s a legend, but McPherson isn’t shying away from meeting his status so soon.
You've seen this ball...— ️at McAfee (@PatMcAfeeShow) January 26, 2022
"I saw that record before the first game & thought that'd be a pretty cool record to break" ~@McPherson_Evan
Take it easy Vinatieri played a long time #PatMcAfeeShowLIVE pic.twitter.com/yLRBXn2Y8o
Interesting enough, Vinatieri is one of just three opposing kickers since 1994 to miss a field goal during a playoff game in Arrowhead Stadium. He pulled a 23-yarder in the 2019 playoffs during his last year with the Indianapolis Colts. It was also his last kick ever in the NFL... okay this took a bad turn.
Visiting kickers are 29 for 33 since ’94 in against Kansas City in the playoffs, and McPherson’s next stage is indeed the building that’s hosted the last three AFC title matchups. Unfortunately, the more they have to turn to McPherson to get points, the more likely it is they’ll be playing from behind to the Chiefs’ offensive powerhouse. In a perfect world, the only time head coach Zac Taylor’s sending McPherson out onto the field is for extra points and kickoffs on Sunday.
Like McPherson, Ja’Marr Chase’s production this week didn’t differ much from the Wild Card round, but delivering in the biggest moments keep him in the Rising portion of the article. Three of his five receptions came in the fourth quarter, and none more important than his last.
When the Bengals needed 20 yards to get Shooter McPherson in range, Burrow looked nowhere else but to Chase, who wasn’t even out of his break against Jackrabbit Jenkins when he threw it. The Titans committed Jenkins and All-Pro safety Kevin Byard on Chase, and the fear of Chase’s deep speed made both defenders look like fools in coverage. Chase shook both of them out of their cleats and made an uncontested sideline grab at the 34-yard line.
The play got Chase over the century mark for the second week in a row. He’s now tied with Cris Collinsworth for the most 100-yard games in Bengals’ postseason history (2) and can pass A.J. Green for third in team history for postseason yardage with just eight yards against the Chiefs. It’s completely possible he jumps Dan Ross for second on the list as he’s just 108 away from doing that. Hell, even Collinsworth’s record is 129 yards. Why count out Uno now?
Kansas City would love nothing more than an eight-yard game from Chase, but the end total will likely be something close to that 108 number. They can try to bracket him to avoid him dropping 266 on them again, but their defense just isn’t capable of stopping everything the Bengals have to offer at receiver. If Burrow has time, he’ll find a way to get Chase involved.
The Bengals have a decision to make when football starts next season. Brandon Wilson is still under contract and is an explosive kickoff returner, but Chris Evans is doing just fine in that role right now. He took his three chances and turned them into 82 return yards, including a long of 32. He’s earned trust as a returner to give the offense solid field position, so maybe he’ll get that target out of the backfield instead of Samaje Perine next time.
Of all the signature plays the defense made to help win Saturday’s game, Cam Sample’s stopping Ryan Tannehill’s third-and-two read option keeper has flown under the radar. It was the most impactful of Sample’s 19 snaps as it set up a fourth-and-one, in which Derrick Henry was stifled by the Bengals’ finesse defensive front somehow.
Sample is still battling a groin injury that came up again during the game, so he may continue to be limited during practice and in Sunday’s game.
Not only was Tyler Shelvin active for Saturday, he ended up playing more snaps than Josh Tupou and Zach Kerr combined. While Tupou’s knee kept him from playing beyond the first quarter, Shelvin became the primary backup behind D.J. Reader, who played a phenomenal game. Shelvin didn’t make much of an impact against the run (30.0 run defense grade per Pro Football Focus), but at least he played. That might not be the case this Sunday, regardless of Tupou’s status. Cincinnati will prioritize pass-rushers along the interior against Kansas City, which could mean Shelvin sees the bench in pads or without them.
Jackson Carman got some opportunities as an extra blocker on run plays, but the offensive line could’ve used him at right guard for the entire game. Hakeem Adeniji just isn’t cutting it in pass protection right now. Carman wouldn’t be perfect, but at least he wouldn’t get blown off the line by a simple bull rush from Jeffrey Simmons.
Carman did get his chance against Chiefs’ star DT Chris Jones back in Week 17, and Jones had his way against the rookie more times than not. It likely won’t matter who gets the nod against Jones; it’s a mismatch the Bengals have to deal with. Keeping the same starting five would ensure there are as little communication errors as possible. Carman will likely stick to field goal blocking along with Trey Hill.
Did Not Play
- D’Ante Smith