Unheralded defense lifts Bengals into AFC Championship

The Bengals’ resurgence this season has been led by offensive stars Joe Burrow and Ja’Marr Chase. On Saturday, however, they were merely the supporting actors for a Cincinnati defense coached by a Staten Island native and featuring a lot of players most fans have never heard of.

That Bengals intercepted Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill three times, the final one with 20 seconds left in the game, and did not allow Derrick Henry a run longer than nine yards on the way to a 19-16 victory in the AFC Divisional playoffs. The victory sent the Bengals to the AFC Championship game for the first time since 1988.

The marquee names on offense took a backseat to names such as Lou Anarumo, Logan Wilson and yes, Eli Apple.

“Defense played unbelievable and we made plays when we needed to on offense,” said Burrow, who was sacked nine times. “It wasn’t always pretty but we got the job done. Like I’ve said all year, we can win a lot of different ways. The defense came up strong today.”

That they did.

Let’s start at the end.

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With 20 seconds left in the fourth quarter, Tannehill rifled a pass toward Nick Westbrook-Ikhine, but Apple, the former Giants first-round pick, got his arm in front of the receiver, sending the ball high into the air. Wilson, a 2020 third-round pick from Wyoming, was there to intercept the ball at the Bengals’ 47-yard line.

Logan Wilson intercepts Ryan Tannehill's pass in the closing seconds of the Bengals' 19-16 win over the Titans.
Logan Wilson intercepts Ryan Tannehill’s pass in the closing seconds of the Bengals’ 19-16 win over the Titans.

Burrow then hit Chase for a 19-yard gain to set up the game-winning 52-yard field goal from rookie kicker Evan McPherson. It was McPherson’s fourth field goal of the game.

It was fitting that the Bengals’ defense came up with the big play at the end of the game. They had done so all day.

Bengals safety Jessie Bates III got things started on the first play from scrimmage, when he jumped in front of Julio Jones to pick off a Tannehill pass. That led to McPherson’s first field goal of the game.

The Titans got on the board in the middle of the second quarter when Henry scored from 3 yards out. It was Henry’s first game since Halloween, when he broke his foot. Henry’s return was the story of the week entering this game. But no one told the Bengals defensive line they were supposed to be props for Henry to run through. He ended up with 62 yards on 20 rushes.

The Bengals did not play a perfect game. They lined up with 12 men on the field for the Titans’ point-after try following Henry’s touchdown run. That allowed the Titans to move the ball to the 1 and attempt a two-point conversion. But Cincinnati stuffed Henry and the game stayed tied at 6-6. That one point loomed large when the game was tied in the fourth quarter.

The Titans had some big plays in the game, but struggled to sustain drives. They only had one drive longer than seven plays and only ran 52 total plays in the game. Titans coach Mike Vrabel decided not to go for it on a fourth-and-3 and a fourth-and-2 in the first half, showing respect for the Cincinnati defense.

Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill is sacked by Mike Hilton (top right) and Vonn Bell during the Bengals' win.
Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill is sacked by Mike Hilton (top right) and Vonn Bell during the Bengals’ win.

Tennessee looked as if it was getting going early in the third quarter, driving to the Cincinnati 9. But Bengals cornerback Mike Hilton blitzed Tannehill, tipped his pass attempt and intercepted it, preserving a 16-6 Bengals lead.

With 7:16 left in the fourth quarter and the score tied at 16-16, the Bengals stopped the Titans at the Cincinnati 35 on back-to-back attempts at gaining one yard. Tannehill got dropped on a third-and-1 run and Henry could not pick up the yard on fourth down.

All of that set up Wilson’s dramatic pick and McPherson’s kick.

“This is the expectation for this team,” Bengals coach Zac Taylor said. “This is not too big for these guys. I know we haven’t been here before but it sure feels like we have.”

Anarumo deserves a game ball after this one. The 55-year-old Bengals defensive coordinator is a former Giants assistant who grew up on Staten Island. When he was a student at Wagner, he also coached the JV team at Susan E. Wagner High School. On Saturday, he made the Titans look like the JV.

The Bengals will surely be heavy underdogs in the AFC Championship game whether it is against the Chiefs or the Bills. Just don’t tell them that.

“I’m tired of the underdog narrative,” Burrow said. “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 coming for it all.”

You’ve been warned.

Artmotion U.S.A

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