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The 4-play sequence that changed how I view the Bengals

The transformation is complete.

Syndication: The Enquirer Kareem Elgazzar/The Enquirer / USA TODAY NETWORK

There’s so much to say and write about Sunday’s game. Taking down the Kansas City Chiefs when they’re playing to their potential is an egregiously hard task. You need to match everything that they do. No, you need to do it better than them. You can start slow, but you absolutely can’t finish that way. And even if you match them punch for punch, you can’t afford to let them have the final counter, no matter how much confidence you have in your defense.

Zac Taylor and his Cincinnati Bengals didn’t let that happen.

Kansas City had an 11-point lead as the game reached halftime. Cincinnati managed to stop the day from getting well out of hand and spectators got the sense that the following two quarters would at least be interesting. Joe Burrow’s offense was not pulling any punches against a born-again Steve Spagnuolo defense. Burrow was clicking and could keep the game somewhat close, so long as Lou Anarumo’s defense got its act together.

Fast forward about 24 game minutes. Anarumo’s defense just zero blitzed Patrick Mahomes into a throwaway on third down and surrendered the only three points they allowed from the second half; an inspiring feat from the unit that allowed 28 points and an EPA/play of 0.570 (that is a ton) in the first half. Now it was Taylor’s turn to finish the game.

6:01 remained. 31-31. Scoring is priority No. 1, but chewing clock is a close second. Taylor’s play-calling reflected that. His first two calls ended up being passes for a combined nine air yards, and an offsides flag gave them a first down. Then, on second-and-eight, Taylor calls for a go ball to Ja’Marr Chase for what felt like the eighth time of the day and to no one’s surprise, Chase came down with it. The rookie receiver continued a historic afternoon by taking a jump ball off of Charvarius Ward’s fingers for 35 yards.

All of the sudden, the Bengals had the ball just outside the red zone with four minutes to play. Then my whole perspective of this team transformed.

I think about Taylor and his taking over the Bengals as I knew them. While he secured a couple signature wins in his first two years, his progress as a play-caller and leader has really showed this year. And that makes sense—the roster is way more talented and has been molded to his liking. As a result, he’s won numerous games that have become feathers in his cap: Coming out the gate firing against the Vikings, sweeping the Ravens and Steelers, and doing what had to be done against the Raiders and Broncos. All impressive with their own context.

Maybe one of those teams will be playing beyond Week 18.

The Chiefs are a different animal, obviously, and an opponent of their caliber required aggression regardless of the circumstances, regardless of the matchup, and regardless of the status quo.

Taylor has not always operated this year with that aggression. Many fans will point to certain losses this year, and even wins, when Taylor didn’t make the one progressive decision. Opting for field goals, playing for field position, taking the ball out of Burrow’s hands—all were based on game-specific situations, but all were judged by the masses none the less.

Enter the four-play sequence that made all of that noise dissipate.

Play 1: First-and-10 at the Chiefs’ 24-yard line

Not much to say here. Burrow hands it off to Mixon for a one-yard gain. At the very least, more clock will be eaten and the passing game is not showing any signs of slowing down. But look! There’s a flag being thrown after Mixon was tripped to the ground. Drew Sample is called for holding on Melvin Ingram. The flag moves them back 11 yards from where Mixon fell.

The situation hasn’t changed that much. Now at the 34-yard line, Cincinnati is well within Evan McPherson’s range if they have to kick it from around here, but they still have a full set of downs to work with. A minor set back considering the confidence they have against this defense.

Play 2: First-and-20 at the Chiefs’ 34-yard line

The base of the Bengals’ offense is out there on first-and-20. Burrow drops back with his 11 personnel group of pass-catchers on the field, but they need more than 1.5 seconds to get open. Ingram and Chris Jones don’t allow them more time than that as the former beats right tackle Isaiah Prince around the edge, and the latter swims past Trey Hopkins. They meet at Burrow seven yards behind the line for a sack, the fourth of the game for the Chiefs.

In terms of getting points, having second down at the 41-yard line is not a death sentence. McPherson’s leg can still get it there, but no coach will want to settle for that fate. Getting a first down is now significantly less likely with 27 yards separating the sticks and the new line of scrimmage. Getting a more comfortable look for McPherson seems to be the new plan. The clock is ticking, but not fast enough for Taylor.

Play 3: Second-and-27 at the Chiefs’ 41 yard line

If you’re wanting to take a shot, now’s the time to do so. The Chiefs are showing a two-high look, and the safeties end up bracketing Chase out right, and Tyler Boyd in the slot. Tee Higgins is left with one-on-one coverage down the boundary, so Burrow launches a back-shoulder throw to him 25 yards down the field just short of the sticks. Cornerback Rashad Fenton makes a really nice play in tight coverage, and Higgins never gets a hand on it.

Second-and-forever has just become third-and-forever. Think back to this moment. Think about what you knew about Taylor. Think about what you knew about the Bengals. This is Patrick freakin Mahomes getting warmed up on the sidelines with three timeouts and over three minutes left to lead a game-winning drive.

Worst case scenario, you have to make Mahomes drive for a field goal to force overtime. They can’t possibly hand the ball back without a lead. The game is over if Mahomes gets it in a tie game, especially with over three minutes remaining.

Taylor’s aggressiveness—or lack thereof—as a play-caller has been heavily discussed this year. Oftentimes, he’s tried to not compound mistakes into bigger blunders. He hasn’t tried to make it all up in a single snap. In this series, he’s witnessed a holding penalty and a sack on back-to-back plays; there aren’t two more commonly destructive drive-killing occurrences in the NFL.

Knowing that, and knowing the situation, is there any universe where Taylor doesn’t ensure his offense becomes fixated on getting McPherson maybe eight or nine more yards and taking the three points? We were about to find out.

Play 4: Third-and-27 at the Chiefs’ 41-yard line

When the Bengals sense a blitz, they usually come prepared to help their offensive line. C.J. Uzomah and Samaje Perine are in the backfield, each adjacent to Burrow in shotgun. The Chiefs send seven rushers to meet the Bengals’ seven blockers, which means two things. One, the ball has to be out quick. Two, the Bengals only have three options to catch the ball.

Did Taylor implement a hot read for Burrow to throw short? No. None of his three receivers ran short routes. They all went deep towards the first-down marker. Taylor isn’t playing for a field goal. He’s playing for a first down.

And where else was the ball going to go if not towards Chase?

“Everyone knows that meme,” Burrow told media members after the game. “F-it, Ja’Marr’s down there somewhere, I’m gonna just throw it up to him, he’s gonna make a play.”

Just like he did four plays ago, Chase climbed the ladder against a helpless Ward and turned a third-and-27 into a 30-yard first down conversion.

Before this play, I saw the Bengals keep pace with the mighty Chiefs, largely because of Chase’s stupendous outing and Taylor’s relentless urge to attack Spagnuolo’s defense. I had already felt like they proved they belonged in the Super Bowl conversation just for being in this situation, no matter how the game ended.

And yet, when second-and-forever became third-and-forever, there was no doubt in my mind the Chiefs were going to win the game; be it in regulation or overtime.

There was no way I could’ve been convinced that Taylor would opt to convert a third down of that distance after his offense suffered two setbacks and a deep incompletion on three consecutive plays. I was fully expecting a dump off. A screen. Something quick with yards after catch potential. Despite all the success the Bengals had up to this point, the feeling of conventionality was stronger than ever within me.

And I’ve never been more drastically surprised.

Chase and Burrow were the undisputed stars of the game, and their legends have grown immensely just within the last 24 hours. Their reunion has completely altered the identity of this team, this franchise that has operated in ways that reflected what many fans have described their play-calling as: conservative. It’s only fitting that their final connection of the game would leave such an impact from a monumental day.

“We knew we were gonna have to score a touchdown,” Burrow said. “You guys know the guy on the other sideline [Mahomes]. We were gonna have to punch that ball in. We got a little lucky with the calls at the end, but we’ve been unlucky for two years, we’ll take a little luck on our side.”

The 30-yard play would eventually lead to the offense kicking a game-winning chip shot at the buzzer. They managed to use all of Andy Reid’s timeouts and keep Mahomes off the field for six whole minutes. And they wouldn’t have done so without turning that series of mistakes into the longest third down conversion in the last 12 years of Bengals football.

It was precisely what our own Anthony Cosenza and myself talked about leading up to the game. If the Bengals want to win, they’ll have to go all-in on Burrow when it matters, no matter the comfort level of the situation.

Not since before Paul Brown passed away have the Bengals felt more legitimate than they do right now. It’s amazing that we’ve gotten to this point so early, but you cannot deny how much this game means for the organization.

The game could’ve went a number of different ways all from that sequence of events. Despite the opponent, despite the plays that just happened, despite everything, Zac Taylor chose to win. And while he coaches this caliber of roster, winning has now become a fair expectation no matter the opposition or situation.