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Tuesday Trenches: The Comeback Kids

AFC Champs!

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

It’s happening, guys. It’s finally happening.

The Cincinnati Bengals defeated the Kansas City Chiefs in Arrowhead Stadium on Sunday in the AFC Championship to earn the right to represent the AFC in Super Bowl 56. The Bengals again defeated the Chiefs by just three points and again had to come from behind in the second half to do it.

The game mirrored their Week 17 matchup at Paul Brown Stadium in so many ways, and now the Bengals have swept the Steelers, Ravens, Raiders and Chiefs.

This post season has been a wild ride. Each game had their ups and downs and each of them had their ugly moments. Tyrann Mathieu said in his post-game press conference that the Chiefs are still the best team in the NFL.

Unfortunately for him, the best team in the regular season doesn’t necessarily go to the Super Bowl, but the best teams in the postseason do, and the Bengals have proven themselves to be the best team in the AFC right now.

Here are a few things that went right, a couple that didn’t and a look ahead at the team’s Super Bowl matchup against the Los Angeles Rams.

Whoa.... Déjà vu

In Week 17 the Bengals went down by a score of 28-17 at the end of the first half after Patrick Mahomes shredded their defense and scored four touchdowns on their six drives. The Bengals needed to win the game in order to win the AFC North, and it looked as if they’d have to wait a week to win the division in a showdown against the Browns.

Luckily for Bengals fans, Lou Anarumo and the rest of the Bengals coaches made some major halftime adjustments. In the second half Mahomes threw for less than 100 yards and the Chiefs only scored three points. The Bengals ended up winning 34-31, punching their postseason ticket.

On Sunday, the Chiefs offense once again had their way with the Bengals defense in the first half, scoring three touchdowns in their first three drives, but the Bengals defense, once again, made adjustments that completely shut down Mahomes and the offense in the second half.

For the second time in four weeks, the Chiefs just scored three points in the second half against Anarumo’s unit, and again Mahomes passed for less than 100 yards in the second half and overtime.

It’s safe to say the second half Bengals have the Chiefs’ number.

Gotta protect the brand

After the Bengals offensive line allowed quarterback Joe Burrow to be sacked nine times in the divisional round, the second-year quarterback was only sacked once on Sunday against the Chiefs. That, of course, doesn’t mean the Bengals offensive line played mistake-free, because they didn’t.

Right guard is the obvious weakness on the Bengals line. Both Hakeem Adeniji and Jackson Carman played and both struggled. Adeniji earned a pass-blocking grade of 1.8 and Carman was given a 0.1 grade, according to Pro Football Focus.

What saved Burrow from getting sacked was actually Burrow’s legs. On one amazing play in particular, All-Pro defensive lineman Chris Jones had Burrow in the backfield, but the quarterback was able to get away and somehow gain enough yards to get the first down and extend the drive.

While it’s great that Burrow can make plays with his legs when he needs to, I’d rather him not need to.

The Cincinnati Kid

Sam Hubbard, the defensive end from Cincinnati, had himself a game. He was unsurprisingly the highest-graded player for the Bengals as he was instrumental in the second-half shutdown of the Chiefs. Hubbard finished the game with two sacks and was often a spy on Mahomes to keep him in the pocket, which was clearly the game plan in the second half.

Every team in the AFC, especially those in the Chiefs division, should have been taking notes of what Hubbard and the Bengals did to Mahomes in the second half of the AFC Championship.

Eli Apple and the change in momentum

At the very end of the first half, the Chiefs had the ball on the Bengals’ one-yard line, already leading by a score of 21-10. With five seconds left in the half, Mahomes threw a pass in the flat to Tyreek Hill where he was stonewalled by cornerback Eli Apple. The last second of the clock ticked away as Hill hit the ground and the Chiefs went to the locker room without being able to score despite having a first-and-goal on the one-yard line. This play absolutely took all the wind out of the Chiefs’ sails and gave all the momentum to the Bengals.

The Bengals held the Chiefs scoreless in their next five drives and by the end of the third quarter, the Bengals had tied the game. Why the Chiefs ran the play they did is a whole different question, but Apple’s stop was a huge moment for the Bengals.

A look ahead

The stage is set for the Super Bowl as the Bengals will, interestingly enough, be the home team in the Rams’ home stadium to play against the Rams. Here are a few things the Bengals could see when they face off against the NFC’s best.

  • Aaron Donald is a monster of a man, and he will likely go down as one of the greatest defensive tackles of all time. He has 98 career regular season sacks and 12.5 this season and another 1.5 in the playoffs. He will be facing off against a struggling interior line. The Bengals need to know they won’t be able to to stop or maybe even slow Donald down, so they need to game plan around that with quick throws and Burrow will likely need to move outside of the pocket often.
  • The Rams traded second and third round picks to the Broncos this season to bring in edge rusher Von Miller, who also excels at getting to the passer. He finished the regular season with 9.5 sacks and has two more in the playoffs. One issue with the duo of pass rushers in Donald and Miller is the inability to step up into the pocket when Miller is coming around the edge because Donald is there waiting. The two definitely feed off each other, and again the Bengals will need to know they can’t stop them going into the game. Hopefully they’re able to plan around them.
  • After the Chiefs and Bills, the Rams have had the third most offensive yards in the playoffs. They have averaged just under 400 yards through the air and an additional 94 yards on the ground. Wide receiver Cooper Kupp has over 2,000 receiving yards and 20 touchdowns this regular season and throughout the playoffs and quarterback Matt Stafford has proven to the NFL he is much better than he was able to show while playing for the Lions. However, Stafford isn’t Mahomes and if the Bengals defense can shut Mahomes down, they can do it to Stafford and the Rams. It will all depend on getting the right scheme to limit the Rams’ offense.

To wrap things up, some random thoughts about the Bengals AFC Championship game against the Chiefs

  • Burrow absolutely has nerves of steel. It seems no moment is too big for him.
  • The same goes for kicker Evan McPherson, who has now made all 12 of his playoff field goals, including three from at least 50 yards out.
  • Having Burrow and Hubbard be team captains before the game because they’re both from Ohio was awesome.
  • Losing C.J. Uzomah to a knee injury was a big hit as the drop off between him and Drew Sample is pretty steep. Luckily, it seems that it’s possible Uzomah could play in the Super Bowl despite being on crutches after the game.
  • The trade of center Billy Price to the Giants for defensive tackle B.J. Hill was the steal of the century. Hill hauled in one of Mahomes’ two interceptions in the second half, setting up the Bengals’ tying score. He also had half a sack.
  • Free safety Jessie Bates III has played great during the playoffs when it has mattered most. The Chiefs’ last pass of the game was tipped by Bates before it was picked off by fellow safety Vonn Bell.
  • When the Bengals got the ball back after Bell’s interception, you could tell they were going to win the game. They couldn’t be stopped in the air, but especially on the ground in their only overtime drive, setting McPherson up with a chip shot to win the game.
  • This got me a little choked up.
  • After Ja’Marr Chase torched the Chiefs earlier this month, the Kansas City defense did everything they could to limit the rookie wide receiver. He was kept to six catches for 54 yards and a touchdown. Tee Higgins finished the game with six receptions for 103 yards. There isn’t a team in the NFL that can shut down both star wide receivers.
  • Mixon ran the ball 21 times for 88 yards, averaging 4.2 yards per carry. One of the best ways to keep defenses from living in the backfield in the passing game, is keeping them honest with a good rushing attack.
  • Hendrickson finished the game with 1.5 sacks, bringing his sack total this season to 16.5. What a great signing.
  • Regardless of what happens during the Super Bowl, I hope you enjoy watching the last game of this historic season.

Who Dey!