NASHVILLE –– By the time Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow made it to the Tennessee Titans’ 23-yard line on the first drive of the third quarter, he should have been exhausted.
Burrow had already been sacked six times, which was tied for the most sacks he had taken all year. At that point, he had taken 11 hits. He had already tried on the first five drives of the game to carry an offense that couldn’t protect him from getting slammed into the ground.
Then on third-and-5, Burrow didn’t see any receivers open. So he scrambled 7 yards and dove for the first-down line. On the very next play, the Bengals scored their first touchdown of the game.
On Saturday at Nissan Stadium, the Bengals beat the Titans, 19-16, to advance to the AFC championship game. The Bengals will play in their first AFC title game since the 1988 season.
“I’m tired of the underdog narrative,” Burrow said. “We’re a really good team, and we’re here to make noise. Teams will have to pay attention to us.”
It was a miracle finish fitting for a miracle season. With 20 seconds left in the fourth quarter, Bengals linebacker Logan Wilson picked off Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill. On the following play, Burrow delivered again under pressure.
In a game where he took a career-high nine sacks, Burrow delivered in the final seconds. With a 19-yard throw to wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase, Burrow put the Bengals in field-goal range.
Evan McPherson made a 52-yard field goal at the buzzer to win the game, and now the Bengals will get a shot at the AFC title.
“This Bengals team will be remembered forever,” McPherson said. “The city is on fire, and it’ll probably burn down tonight. Then we’ll burn it down next week and have a whole city fly out to California for a Super Bowl.”
On Saturday, the Bengals couldn’t block for Burrow. He didn’t get the chance for a memory-making deep pass to Chase. Burrow was running for his life at times, but the Bengals pulled ahead because of his willingness to take one more hit and put everything on the line.
“Our team never panics,” Taylor said. “You’ve seen us down by a whole lot… It never fazes our guys. Tie games down the stretch is something our guys live for.”
Following an interception on the opening play by Bengals safety Jessie Bates, Burrow stuck in the pocket for an extra second and found running back Joe Mixon for a 21-yard pickup. Even though Burrow took two hits before the end of that drive, the Bengals opened the game with a 3-0 lead.
In the last four minutes of the first half, Burrow’s headset to communicate with the coaching staff broke for a series of plays. With no direct line to the sideline, Taylor tried to shout plays to Burrow, and then Burrow had to run across the backfield to communicate it to the rest of the offense.
Just like he has all season in the biggest moments, Burrow responded to the massive moment.
“This is not normal,” Burrow said. “This one was really, really hard and an intense game. This is what playoff football this deep into January is like.”
Burrow made his best two throws of the half in that situation, and the Bengals took a 9-6 lead into halftime.
Then on the Bengals’ opening drive of the third quarter, Burrow bounced back from a first-down sack in Titans’ territory. On third down, he dove for the first-down line when he didn’t have any open receivers. On the following play, Mixon ran for a 16-yard touchdown as the Bengals took a 16-6 lead.
At the start of the season, the Bengals weren’t supposed to be a team that could win grind-it-out games. Many believed they had too many new pieces on the defense and no big names at any position on that side of the ball.
Just like Burrow, the Bengals defense had all the right qualities to send the team into the next round.
“Everyone is good when you get to this point, and you’ve got to find a way whether it’s ugly or whether it’s pretty,” Wilson said. “Today we found a way to win. Obviously, we have confidence we can find ways to win going forward.”
Bates opened the game with a pick, Bengals cornerback Mike Hilton deflected an interception to himself and Cincinnati’s run defense held one of the NFL’s best running backs in check for most of the game.
While Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill found star wide receiver A.J. Brown for three deep connections that kept the Titans in the game, the Bengals’ defense won at the line of scrimmage when it mattered. On one of the most important plays of the game, Bengals backup linebacker Clay Johnston stuffed Titans running back Derrick Henry at the goal line on a two-point conversion attempt.
Then with seven minutes left in the fourth quarter, the Bengals’ defense made an even bigger stop. On fourth-and-1 from the Bengals’ 35-yard line in a tie game, Wilson and fellow linebacker Markus Bailey made the tackle on Henry in the backfield for the turnover on downs.
Following Wilson’s interception, Burrow made the throw of his career, and the Bengals made the game-winning field goal at the buzzer.
“I want these guys to enjoy it because we’ve been through times where we didn’t get to enjoy anything,” Taylor said. “They say act like you’ve been there before, but our guys have earned the right to be excited.”
Burrow has said he doesn’t remember a single moment at any level in any sport where on the biggest stage he didn’t play at the level he expected.
When asked earlier this week, he laughed at the notion that he would have struggled when it mattered most. Whether it was a high school basketball tournament or his legendary Heisman run at LSU, Burrow was always the best player in the biggest games.
Burrow didn’t have enough time on Saturday to play at an MVP level. But he set the tone when the Bengals could have fallen apart, and now the Bengals are one more win away from playing in the Super Bowl.
“We’re a really young team, and we don’t know what we don’t know,” Burrow said. “We’re out there playing football with our friends. It’s a lot of fun.”