Bengals running back Joe Mixon, looking cooler than Evan McPherson’s last-snap 52-yard field goal that put the Bengals in next Sunday’s AFC title game, beamed through his designer shades in the wake of the improbable 19-16 win over the Titans.
This is what it means. A contingent of Bengals administrators leaves Monday to check out the Super Bowl site in Los Angeles, as all Final Four teams must.
“Man, I must really be dreaming right now to be honest,” Mixon said. “I’m on the highest cloud you could ever imagine. I’m at an all-time high right now.”
He could have been speaking for all Bengaldom as the club savored its first road playoff win ever and its first trip to the AFC’s big game in either Buffalo or Kansas City since they hosted the conference championship on Jan. 8, 1989 at Riverfront Stadium.
The architect of the run, Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow, who always plays it cool, threw cold water on the “Why Not Us?” stuff at Friday night’s team meeting and kept the theme going in the giddy postgame news conference.
“I’m sick of that narrative,” said Burrow after his 348-yard night did at least keep the Legend of Seamless Joe alive. “We’re not underdogs. We’re in this to make noise.”
Burrow has now done what Ken Anderson and Boomer Esiason never did and won that road playoff game. Now next week he’ll try to do what they did and keep the Bengals unbeaten in AFC title games.
“Joe Burrow is a bad man,” said Mixon, marveling at the record nine sacks he absorbed on the bone-crushing night Tennessee hit him 13 times and he still competed 76 percent of his passes despite being ear-holed all night.
Or, as Bengals nose tackle D.J. Reader said, “He’s the toughest guy in the league. He’s tough. Just gritty. Super tough guy. Doesn’t complain. I really appreciate Joe.”
Reader, the leader of the defensive re-build when he signed on the first day of the 2020 pandemic free agency, fittingly played a huge role in the middle of the Bengals’ best effort in the overhaul that began that day. He had six tackles, two for a loss and hit the quarterback once as the Bengals overthrew Derrick “King,” Henry on two huge short yardage plays.
One denied him a two-point conversion on a run from the 1.5-yard line early in the third quarter. The other stopped the Titans driving for the kill on a fourth-and-one at the Bengals 35 with 7:16 left in a 16-16 game.
And it was Reader who really took umbrage at the Why Not Us? stuff.
“All year we’ve been disrespected,” Reader said. “That’s something we take pride in our locker room. You all see it. We take it as disrespect every time. All year. It’s been something. We won’t do this. We won’t do that. We don’t worry about outside noise. We feel like we the people. We’re the one’s going out there being confident and getting it done.”
BENCH AGAIN: If Burrow’s 19-yard dart to rookie wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase with nine seconds left to set up the winning kick looked familiar, it’s because it was. Chase even called the name of the play just like A.J. Green did nine years ago.
On Dec. 23, 2012 in Pittsburgh, safety Reggie Nelson picked off Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger with 14 seconds left at the Steelers 46. Andy Dalton through a laser to A.J. Green for 21 yards, right into the Bengals bench to stop the clock, right where Chase caught his. Josh Brown hit a 43-yarder with eight seconds left.
McPherson hit his at the gun from 52. Linebacker Logan Wilson caught the tip from cornerback Eli Apple sticking his arm in on wide receiver Nick Westbrook-Ikhine with 20 seconds left at the Bengals 47.
You know the rest.
“The corner jumped right inside me,” Chase said. “That was a good job by him. I wanted him to go inside me. I gave him a good stick. I stacked him (where he was head up). I gave him a step at the top of the route I could create some separation. I kept the angle high and Joe threw me open.”
Chase thinks Burrow saw something from the safeties, who were playing Cover Two, that made him think one of them wouldn’t be able to get to the sidelines in time to help the cornerback Chase had abused, Jackrabbit Jenkins.
“We had 20 seconds and two timeouts left. That’s enough time for three plays to get in field-goal range,” Burrow said. “Based on what they were playing I knew what coverage they were going to be in. Zac made a great call. Ja’Marr ran a great route.”
“It was Cover Two Man. They were playing man low, so I knew I had an outbreak on the boundary and that’s usually good against that kind of coverage. They had a great pocket for me. That was the key to that play.”
It certainly looked like Burrow’s best pocket on all night against a front that had eight of the nine sacks on a night he tied Pro Football Hall-of-Famer Warren Moon with the most sacks taken in a playoff win.
“I feel good,” Burrow said. “Tomorrow it might be a different story. But I feel great now.”
LOGAN ‘s RUN: How huge has this Bengals defense been in the playoffs? Last Saturday it was Germaine Pratt’s interception with 12 seconds left on the two holding the Raiders to 19 points. On Saturday it was three picks (Wilson, free safety Jessie Bates III, Mike Hilton) that held the Titans to 16. Hilton’s play was particularly large, coming as it did from the Bengals 9 and the Bengals up 16-6. Hilton blitzed and somehow deflected it to himself and ran it back to the Bengals 39.
“Good things happen when you run to the ball … Great play by Eli,” Wilson said. “Good things happen when you run to the ball.
“Yards do not equal points. You get a turnover in the red zone like we did with Mike. Everbody is thinking they’re going to score. That play was huge. That’s our mentality on defense.”