After winning their first playoff game in 31 years last week, the Cincinnati Bengals are on to the AFC Championship Game after a thrilling 19-16 victory over the Tennessee Titans at Nissan Stadium on Saturday.
Evan McPherson kicked the Bengals to victory with a 52-yard field goal as time expired. He was given a chance to win it after Logan Wilson picked off Ryan Tannehill with 20 seconds remaining.
Joe Burrow hit Ja'Marr Chase for a 19-yard gain to get the Bengals into field-goal territory at Tennessee's 34-yard line.
Not counting Week 18 when several starters rested for the playoffs, the Bengals have won five consecutive games with all of their key players available. This streak encompasses victories over the top two seeds in the AFC: the Titans and the Kansas City Chiefs in Week 17.
The Titans entered this matchup as healthy as they had been since early in the season. Derrick Henry, A.J. Brown and Julio Jones were all in the lineup together for the first time since Week 7 against the Chiefs.
Brown was the only one who came up big against the Bengals. He finished with 142 yards and one touchdown on five receptions.
Cincinnati's offense was moving the ball at will against the Titans defense in the first half. Burrow had 236 yards through two quarters, but the Bengals leaky offensive line gave up five sacks to prevent them from getting in the end zone.
Tannehill looked shaky out of the gate with an interception on his first pass of the game. He had just 92 yards in the first half, with 41 coming on a deep throw to Brown.
The Titans quarterback had three interceptions total in the game. He only had two interceptions over the final six weeks of the regular season.
Notable Game Stats
- Joe Burrow (CIN): 28-37, 348 yards, INT
- Joe Mixon (CIN): 14 carries, 54 yards, TD; 6 receptions, 51 yards
- Ja'Marr Chase (CIN): 5 receptions, 109 yards
- Ryan Tannehill (TEN): 15-24, 220 yards, TD, 3 INT
- D'Onta Foreman (TEN): 4 carries, 66 yards
- Derrick Henry (TEN): 20 carries, 62 yards, TD
- A.J. Brown (TEN): 5 receptions, 142 yards, TD
Burrow, Big Plays Keep Bengals Alive
Coming out of last week's win over the Raiders, the Bengals' game plan was praised for slowing down Maxx Crosby. Three of their five starters in that game didn't allow a single pressure, per Diante Lee of Pro Football Focus.
The Titans were expected to present a more difficult challenge because they have a more diverse set of pass-rushers and use a variety of stunts and twists to get into the backfield.
For most of the first half, it looked like Cincinnati's offense was going to be stymied because of the offensive line.
The Bengals only got into Tennessee's red zone once in the first half, despite Burrow throwing for 236 yards. Rookie kicker Evan McPherson did nail three field goals to take a 9-6 lead into the break.
One reason the Bengals were able to find success is because of big plays on both sides of the ball. Jessie Bates III got things started with a fantastic read on Tannehill's first pass attempt of the game to Julio Jones.
Ja'Marr Chase set up Cincinnati's second field goal with a 57-yard gain on a screen pass.
The Bengals came out of the second half looking like they were ready to take control of the game. They drove 65 yards on nine plays, though Burrow was sacked for a sixth time. Joe Mixon capped it off with a 16-yard touchdown run to put Cincinnati up 16-6.
Mike Hilton then made a fantastic play on the Titans' first possession of the second half to intercept Tannehill after they drove down to Cincinnati's 9-yard line in under three minutes.
Things started to fall apart for Cincinnati in crunch time, particularly on offense. Burrow took a 16-yard sack on 3rd-and-3 that knocked the Bengals out of field-goal range early in the fourth quarter.
After the Bengals got the ball back when the defense stopped the Titans with one yard to gain on third and fourth down, they took nearly five minutes off the clock to gain just five yards. Burrow was sacked two more times on that possession, including on 3rd-and-8.
Things turned back in Cincinnati's favor at the end of the fourth quarter. The Titans were attempting to drive into field-goal range, but Tannehill's pass intended for Nick Westbrook-Ikhine was tipped into the air and picked off by Wilson.
On the first play after the turnover, Burrow hit Chase for 19 yards to put the Bengals at Tennessee's 34-yard line with 12 seconds remaining.
That reception put Chase over the 100-yard mark for the second consecutive week.
This Bengals team is playing with house money right now. They have exceeded even their most optimistic projections coming into the season yet are just one win away from playing in the Super Bowl for the first time since 1988.
There are a lot of things for head coach Zac Taylor and his staff to clean up before playing either the Chiefs or Buffalo Bills next week. For now, though, they can celebrate a hard-fought win over the No. 1 seed in the AFC.
Titans' Playmakers Stumble in Playoff Loss
The biggest storyline for the Titans coming into this game was finally having all of their key players back for the first time in three months.
Henry certainly didn't look like he was limited based on the volume of touches, but the two-time Pro Bowler wasn't the player who was barreling over opponents prior to his injury. His 62 rushing yards against the Bengals was his second-lowest total of the season (58 in Week 1).
Head coach Mike Vrabel called Henry's number on a two-point conversion attempt from the 1-yard line. He was stopped short of the goal line to keep the score tied at six.
It wasn't until Vrabel started relying on Brown and D'Onta Foreman in the second half that the Titans were able to find big plays.
Trailing 16-9 in the third quarter, Amani Hooker reeled in an interception from Burrow and return it 15 yards to the Bengals' 27-yard line.
Two plays later, Tannehill threw his best pass of the day to Brown in the corner of the end zone that the big receiver was able to haul in for the game-tying score.
Next Gen Stats @NextGenStats
Ryan Tannehill & A.J. Brown (33-yd TD)<br>Completion Probability: 20.8%<br><br>🔹 Pass Rush Separation: 1.0 yd<br>🔹 Air Distance: 44.6 yds<br>🔹 Target Separation: 0.9 yds<br><br>» <a href="https://twitter.com/1kalwaysopen_?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@1kalwaysopen_</a> has caught 6 of Tannehill's 8 most improbable completions since 2019<a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/CINvsTEN?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#CINvsTEN</a> | Powered by <a href="https://twitter.com/awscloud?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@awscloud</a> <a href="https://t.co/fTCVKnKvCu">pic.twitter.com/fTCVKnKvCu</a>
On the previous Titans drive that resulted in a field goal, Brown had a 40-yard reception. He finished with 142 of Tannehill's 220 passing yards.
Foreman—who did well in Henry's absence during the regular season—was a big-play machine on Saturday. He gained 66 yards on just four carries.
Vrabel and the coaching staff made a series of questionable decisions throughout the game. The two-play sequence in the fourth quarter that resulted in a turnover on downs started with Tannehill running a draw on 3rd-and-1.
Paul Kuharsky @PaulKuharskyNFL
Little woe-is-me to Mike Vrabel’s post-game comments. Got and deserved huge benefit of the doubt through incredible regular season. Should be coach of the year. Has things to answer for now, sorry. <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/Titans?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#Titans</a>.
This result is certainly a disappointment for the Titans, especially after they earned the No. 1 seed in the AFC. All of the pieces seemed to line up in their favor, with everyone coming back.
Things didn't work out, but given everything that the Titans dealt with all season, it was impressive that they managed to earn the spot in the AFC. They set a new NFL record for most players used (85), and they hit that mark in Week 12.
If the Titans have better injury luck in 2022, with most of their core players set to come back, they should be favored to win the AFC South yet again.
The Bengals will play the winner of Sunday's Buffalo Bills-Kansas City Chiefs matchup in the AFC Championship Game on Jan. 30.