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Sam Hubbard saves the day

Mr. Cincinnati helped carry the Bengals to another playoff victory.

Syndication: The Enquirer
Sam Hubbard
Sam Greene/The Enquirer / USA TODAY NETWORK

“Bright heart.”

“To pursue by tracking stealthily.”

These are just some of the meanings for the name “Hubbard.” And Sam Hubbard of the Cincinnati Bengals embodies them all.

“He’s one of the leaders of the team,” said Bengals’ quarterback Joe Burrow after the hard-fought 24-17 playoff victory over the rival Baltimore Ravens Sunday night. “He’s recognized as captain, he’s what this whole thing is built on — toughness, hard work, and leadership. Those are the type of guys we try to bring in here. He’s one of my best friends and comes up with big plays, over and over. He gets his work done, has a positive attitude in the locker room. He’s the type of guy you want on your team.”

Hubbard’s pursuit of the ball carrier early in the fourth quarter set in motion an improbable turn of events that proved to be the difference-maker in a contest that looked to be getting away from Cincinnati.

The Ravens were facing a 3rd-and-goal from the Bengals’ 1-yard-line when quarterback Tyler Huntley tried to leap over a pile of bodies to thrust the ball into the end zone for the go-ahead score.

Instead, Huntley was held up by Cincinnati linebacker Germaine Pratt as fellow linebacker Logan Wilson deftly punched the ball out of Huntley’s hands. The resulting fumble was scooped up by Hubbard, who turned and scampered for a 98-yard touchdown run that proved to be the longest fumble return in NFL postseason history.

“Credit to Logan Wilson punching it out, and just being at the right place, right time,” Hubbard said humbly. “Got a few blocks along the way. I was just worried about getting tracked down. I’m glad I made it to the end zone.”

So are his teammates, along with the 66,399 fans in attendance, marking the second-largest crowd ever to see a Bengals game.

“You can’t even dream that one up,” Hubbard said. “It’s pretty special, but I was just glad to see the looks on my teammates’ faces because that was a battle, it was a tough-fought game. A lot of adversity, very physical. And to make the play and to be the guy that came through is an amazing feeling, not only for my teammates but for the fans as well.”

Hubbard’s big play was all the more remarkable considering that it came on the heels of a 9-play, 80-yard drive that saw Baltimore move from its own 18-yard line and consume more than four minutes off the clock.

“It was a long drive leading up to that play, and I was pretty gassed,” Hubbard said, “but I definitely pride myself on being very well-conditioned.”

Well-conditioned, yes. But fast? Hubbard ran a 4.95 40 at the NFL Combine and, although he had been working on his speed, is never going to be called fast. Ravens’ tight end Mark Andrews was closing quickly on Hubbard and looked to have a good chance of bringing him down short of the goal line.

“I was watching on the big screen,” Hubbard explained. “I was like, ‘he’s coming, somebody block him.’ Please, please don’t get caught. That’s all I was thinking about.”

Fortunately for Hubbard, he had a couple of teammates running along with him, one of whom was reserve linebacker Markus Bailey. Bailey got just enough of a push on Andrews that his diving attempt at a tackle fell short at around the 20-yard-line.

“Marcus got a good block for me, and I’m thankful for him,” Hubbard said. “I know everyone was tired and there was a caravan to the end zone.”

Hubbard, who attended Archbishop Moeller High School in Cincinnati and went on to become a standout defender at the Ohio State University, received a game ball afterward, and flashed the Heisman pose among the euphoria of the locker room.

“(I was) yelling at all those people to just block somebody,” head coach Zac Taylor said. “It looked like Mark Andrews was going to run him down, and we had a whole caravan of people. That’s what was going through my mind — ‘Run faster.’”

He ran fast enough to finish what is probably the biggest play in the history of the franchise.

“I was just playing football,” Hubbard said. “It kind of just fell in my hands, and you just go. I’ve never really been in that position, but it’s a good feeling. I see why offensive guys like it.”

And we all see why teammates and fans alike have come to appreciate the play of the hometown hero.

“That’s Mr. Cincinnati,” Bengals wide receiver Tyler Boyd said. “A guy like Sam making that play, it could be no other person. He was made and prepared for that. This one was very special.”

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