Rain, sun, snow, don’t matter. Bengals by 17.
Joe Burrow and the offense controlled the beginning of the game, and Joe Mixon and the defense finished it as the blizzard-like environment encapsulated a perfect playoff atmosphere. Burrow finished with a cool 242 yards and two touchdowns on 23-36 passing, while Mixon hammered out 105 yards on the ground, a postseason career-high.
The biggest story became the Bengals’ offensive line, with three reserves starting, taking over the game and displacing the Bills all game long. Burrow was only sacked once all game, and the offense finished with 172 rushing yards and 412 overall.
The start couldn’t have been better. A couple of hard runs from Mixon and some crafty throws from Burrow got the Bengals on the board first in just six plays, no third-down conversions needed. Burrow stepped up in an almost broken pocket and completed an off-balanced pass to a wide-open Ja’Marr Chase, who proceeded to griddy in the Buffalo snow.
While the defense forced two quick three-and-outs, Zac Taylor reached back into his bag and completed a perfect 15-play opening script. Tee Higgins and Samaje Perine got in on the action and Burrow drew an offsides penalty with a silent count on Cincinnati’s first third down.
The ensuing third down featured a pump fake from Burrow to Chase, and another wide-open score, this time to Hayden Hurst to make it 14-0 before you could blink.
Fifteen plays is exactly how long the Bills’ third drive lasted as Josh Allen started heating up in the blizzard, pushing the ball down the field to Stefon Diggs and Khalil Shakir. But it was the times Allen kept the ball that mattered for the home team. A sneak on fourth and inches extended the drive, and at the goal line to give the Bills their first touchdown of the day.
Cincinnati responded to that seven-minute drive with a 14-play (near) touchdown drive of their own. Chase was a slight bobble of the football away from hauling in his second touchdown of the day, but the catch was overturned in a haste, prompting Evan McPherson to knock in a short field goal to make it a 17-7 game, and it would stay that way going into the half.
It was an impressive first half for the Bengals no matter how you look at it. The offense averaged 6.7 yards per play and converted three of five third downs, and Burrow was sacked just once and hit not many more times than that. And when Buffalo’s offense was finding its rhythm, Cincinnati forced them off the field with less than a minute remaining in the second quarter.
The defense bent a little further to start the second half as they always do in the red zone. Allen continued to make defenders miss in the slippery conditions, but Dax Hill manned up on Dawson Knox for a crucial third down and forced an Allen overthrow in the end zone. Tyler Bass knocked in a 25-yard field goal to cut the Bengals’ lead to 17-10.
Cincinnati’s physicality really started to show itself as the third quarter wore on. Mixon carried the load on a 12-play drive that resulted in a one-yard touchdown for the veteran running back to increase the lead to 24-10.
The imposing of will persisted into the fourth quarter. Following a critical pass breakup from Cam Taylor-Britt that forced a Bills punt, Mixon caught and ran for two first downs to get the Bengals across midfield. A deep shot to Higgins resulted in defensive pass interference which got the ball inside the five, but Burrow overshooting Hurst at the goal line forced the offense to settle for three. McPherson’s second short field goal of the day made it a three-score game at 27-10.
All of Cincinnati was waiting on the Allen turnover, and it nearly came as Mike Hilton hit the star quarterback right as he was releasing the ball. The call of fumble on the field was overturned, giving the Bills added life in the fourth quarter. Eli Apple snuffed out that hope with a PBU on a fourth-down pass to Diggs.
The Bengals fell two minutes shy of running the clock out with Mixon and Perine, but Taylor-Britt’s interception in the final minute was the ultimate coffin nails moment.
Cincinnati will face the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC title game next week for the second-straight year.