Photo by Cincinnati Bengals
Kickoff: 3 p.m. Eastern. Television: The game will air nationally on CBS-TV. In the Bengals’ home region, it will be carried by WKRC-TV (Ch. 12) in Cincinnati, WHIO-TV (Ch. 7) in Dayton and on WKYT-TV (Ch. 27) in Lexington. Broadcasters are play-by-play announcer Jim Nantz and analyst Tony Romo, with sideline reporters Tracy Wolfson, Evan Washburn and Jay Feely.
Radio: The game will air on the Bengals Radio Network, led by Cincinnati flagship stations WLW-AM (700), WCKY-AM (ESPN 1530; all sports) and WEBN-FM (102.7). Broadcasters are Dan Hoard (play-by-play) and Dave Lapham (analyst).
The game also will air nationally on Westwood One Radio. Broadcasters are Ian Eagle (play-by-play), Tony Boselli (analyst) and Ross Tucker (sideline reporter).
Setting the scene: The Bengals on Sunday travel to Arrowhead Stadium to take on the two-time defending AFC-champion Kansas City Chiefs, in what will be Cincinnati’s third-ever appearance in an AFC Championship Game. Cincinnati won both of its previous AFC Championship appearances — vs. San Diego in the 1981 season, and vs. Buffalo in the 1988 season.
The Bengals earned their spot in the NFL’s final four in thrilling fashion on Saturday, when rookie K Evan McPherson nailed a 52-yard FG as time expired in the Divisional Playoff to give Cincinnati a 19-16 win over top-seeded Tennessee.
“It feels great,” said Bengals head coach Zac Taylor. “This is the expectation for these guys — it’s not too big for them.
“I know we haven’t been here before, but it sure feels like we have. You see the attitude of the team and the confidence that they have, that we’re going to find a way to win. You just can’t replace the confidence that these guys have earned in themselves.”
The contest began in what turned out to be fitting fashion — with a key defensive play that swung the game’s momentum. On the very first play from scrimmage, Titans QB Ryan Tannehill faked a handoff to star RB Derrick Henry, who was playing for the first time since Halloween (foot injury), and then fired a pass over the middle that was intercepted by Bengals S Jessie Bates.
“They were in a ‘pass-alert’ formation that we talked about all week,” Bates said. “Honestly, Tannehill just stared it down, and I knew exactly what was going on. We talked about coming out fast with a sense of urgency, and it couldn’t have worked out any better.
The Bengals took over possession at the Titans’ 42-yard line, however the offense managed just a FG. Cincinnati went on to add two more FGs in a first half dominated by defense, and took a 9-6 lead into the locker room.
The Bengals received the opening kickoff of the second half and quickly jumped ahead 16-6, thanks to a nine-play, 65-yard drive that HB Joe Mixon capped with a 16-yard TD run. The Bengals have now come away with points on their first offensive drive of the second half in 14 of 19 games this season (six TDs, eight FGs). During the regular season, Cincinnati’s 56 combined points on the first possession of the second half were second-most in the NFL.
“We called ‘stretch right,’ and all of a sudden the linebackers and safety were flowing hard over the top,” Mixon said. “I put my toe in the ground, then I put my toe in the ground again, and I just (saw) the backside was like open like the Red Sea. I was fortunate enough to find daylight, and everything worked out.”
On the ensuing possession, Tennessee turned to its fifth-ranked rushing attack and marched 66 yards on just four runs to reach Cincinnati’s nine-yard line. But on the fifth play of the drive, Bengals nickel CB Mike Hilton batted a screen pass from Tannehill into the air and came down with an INT.
“We had a lot of jokes about Mike getting caught after that pick,” Bates said with a laugh. Hilton returned the INT 19 yards before being caught by Tannehill.
“We were trying to line up the order of who had the worst returns this year, and I think Mike’s pretty much at the top of that list right now (laughs). But he made a hell of a play. You jump in the air and you track the ball — I think he was almost maxed out at that point, so we can’t complain too much about that.”
After a Bengals punt, the Titans again marched downfield but mustered only a 34-yard FG that cut the margin to seven points. On the ensuing possession, a pass from QB Joe Burrow bounced off the hands of HB Samaje Perine and into the grasp of Titans S Amani Hooker. The INT was Burrow’s first since Week 13 against the L.A. Chargers, and broke a string of 209 consecutive passes (regular season plus playoffs) without a pick — the second-longest such streak in team history.
Tennessee took over possession on Cincinnati’s 27-yard line, and two plays later Tannehill found WR A.J. Brown for a 33-yard TD that knotted the game at 16. Entering the game, Cincinnati had allowed just one third-quarter TD in its previous nine contests. It was also just the fourth TD allowed by Cincinnati’s defense in the 19 combined possessions (regular season plus playoffs) immediately following a Bengals turnover.
After scoring a combined 17 points in the third quarter, neither team’s offense found much traction in the final period. Cincinnati’s first two possessions in the fourth quarter both were thwarted by third-down sacks of Burrow. The Titans ended the day with nine total sacks of Burrow, the most takedowns of a winning QB in NFL postseason history.
“He’s the toughest guy in the league,” DT D.J. Reader said of Burrow. “He’s a super tough guy, and he’s gritty. I love that about him. He doesn’t complain, he just goes out there and does his job. I really appreciate Joe.”
But the Bengals’ defense put together an impressive showing of its own. Henry was held to just 3.1 yards per carry on 20 attempts, and most notably was stopped for a two-yard loss by LB Logan Wilson on a fourth-and-one play mid-way through the fourth quarter. But while Bates, Hilton and Wilson made the highlight plays of the day, there was little question among players and coaches about the defense’s key component.
“D.J. Reader was unbelievable,” Taylor said on Sunday. “He was Superman, quite frankly.
“You see him make some plays during the game, but then you really dial in and watch the tape, and you can further understand the impact he had on the game. Overall, you can point out every single player on defense making some key plays in that game. But if you’re going to single out one guy for their performance, D.J. Reader is certainly deserving of that.”
With the score knotted at 16, Tennessee took over possession just before the two-minute warning and looked to move into range for a potential game-winning FG. But Reader yet again stopped Henry for no gain, and then Tannehill threw a five-yard completion as the Titans seemed content to drain nearly all of the remaining clock. On the next play — a third-and-five with 28 seconds remaining — Bengals CB Eli Apple tipped a pass into the air, and a leaping Wilson came down with one of the most significant INTs in team history.
This week’s AFC Championship features a battle between two of the NFL’s top young players in Burrow and Chiefs QB Patrick Mahomes. This will be Mahomes’ fourth consecutive AFC Championship game (all at home), while Burrow last week became the first QB picked No. 1 overall to reach a conference title game within his first two seasons.
The game is also a rematch of a dramatic Jan. 2 meeting between the two teams, which ended in a 34-31 Bengals win at Paul Brown Stadium. That contest was also decided by a McPherson walk-off FG, and it clinched the AFC North division title for Cincinnati. But among Bengals fans, it is perhaps best remembered for Chase’s 266 receiving yards, which set both a Bengals single-game record and the NFL’s single-game rookie record.
“I’m tired of the underdog narrative,” Burrow said after the Titans game. “We’re a really, really good team. We’re here to make noise, and teams are going to have to pay attention to us. We’re a really good team with really good players and coaches, and we’re coming for it all.”
The AFC West champion Chiefs finished the regular season 12-5, and earned the No. 2 seed in the AFC playoffs. They opened postseason play with a 42-21 home win over Pittsburgh in the Wild Card Playoff. Then, in Sunday night’s Divisional Playoff against Buffalo, they scored a walk-off TD in overtime to win 42-36 at Arrowhead.