For all intents and purposes, the Cincinnati Bengals’ playoff push began this past weekend, and they got off on the right foot.
By outscoring the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 11, they avoided a death sentence of dropping four divisional games in addition to falling to 5-5 overall. By defeating the Tennessee Titans a week later, they passed their first true test in making it back to the postseason.
And it makes sense as to how they did it; they created the study guide 11 months ago.
Forget Derrick Henry’s injured foot. The Bengals punched the Titans in the mouth as they punched their tickets to an AFC Championship game they would go on to win. They matched the two-toned blue’s physicality, and therefore, their lone identity.
Win or lose, what was the use in thinking the Bengals couldn’t do it again with the same defense and a better offensive line?
On Sunday, the Titans didn’t hide their intentions. They were ready to unleash the NFL’s leading rusher in Henry for some revenge against the team that went blow-for-blow with them in January. Henry’s greatness is defined by his uniqueness, because someone at his size with the speed to run away from humans much smaller than him is a total rarity even in a sport full of the world’s top athletes.
Parity in the NFL can be neutralized by truly elite players, but Henry’s impact will always be tied—dare I say restricted—to those around him. At the end of the day, he’s just a running back. No one at his position can thrive behind bad blocking against a great defensive front. That’s what he ran into on Sunday, quite literally.
The Bengals have proven time and time again over the last two years they can identify the strengths of the opposition, and tailor their game-plans to snuff it out (aside from the Cleveland Browns for whatever reason). Their identity isn’t any single thing, like the Titans’ smashmouth DNA. Whatever it needs to be on a given week, the coaching staff and their personnel have figured out how to bend and adapt.
It’s this malleability that perhaps keeps them under the radar. Most clubs have an established reputation about them that makes it easy to project on a week-to-week basis. The Bengals’ versatility, disguised as unpredictability, makes them as dangerous as they are hard to gauge. It’s why they’re tough to credit until after the fact for many talking heads, and it’s why they were clearly feeling themselves after the win.
The “They gotta play US” mantra gained steam because while everyone on their remaining schedule has some kind of perceived strength that makes them a tough out, what’s more difficult than an all-purpose machine that can take on every form imaginable? They’re like a T-1000.
So when they inevitably heard the old nobody wants to tackle that Henry when the weather gets cold narrative, the Bengals didn’t just answer the bell, they rung it profusely.
Here are some of the best examples: