Updated: Feb 12
Credit: Cincinnati Bengals, Inc./Globe Ticket & Label Co. (https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/1/10/1989_AFC_Championship_Game_-_Buffalo_Bills_at_Cincinnati_Bengals_1989-01-08_%28ticket%29.jpg)
What a game. What a team. The Cincinnati Bengals are going to the Super Bowl after erasing a 18-point deficit in the first half against the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC Championship Game.
“(We’re) a special team that’s capable of doing special things,” said Zac Taylor after the game when asked what this comeback showed about the Bengals and their precocious quarterback. Could any other team in the NFL overcome two double-digit leads to the Chiefs in one season?
“When it's grim, be the Grim Reaper and go get it,” said Chiefs head coach Andy Reid last week before Mahomes and the Chiefs’ offense marched down the field and struck down the Buffalo Bills in overtime. This week, Mahomes was just plain grim, at least in the second half.
Things weren’t looking too good for the Bengals as the AFC Championship began. After receiving the opening kickoff, the Bengals’ offense went three and out. Not ideal when facing off against a potent Kansas City offense.
KC’s offense was on fire to start the game. The Chiefs scored touchdowns on their first three possessions. The Bengals only managed a single field goal in that span.
Mahomes was making everything look incredibly easy. With the Bengals’ defense determined not to blitz and to keep everything in front of them, Mahomes had all day to throw almost every time he dropped back. The Chiefs’ other two superstars, tight end Travis Kelce and wide receiver Tyreek Hill, made play after play. Jerrick McKinnon was gashing the defense. Even reserve wide receiver Mecole Hardman got in on the action, scoring a touchdown and hauling in a 44-yard pass.
Still, the Bengals continued to fight, even with the odds looking longer and longer. The offense managed to score a much-needed touchdown off a screen pass to running back Samaje Perine, cutting the Chiefs’ lead to 11, but with about one minute remaining on the clock before halftime, it looked like the Chiefs had an opportunity to extend their lead..
It seemed like a foregone conclusion that the Chiefs would score when cornerback Eli Apple was called for a pass interference in the goal line, setting up the Chiefs at the one-yard line with nine seconds remaining in the half. Instead, the Bengals’ defense stiffened, setting up possibly the biggest play of the game.
After throwing the ball in the dirt on first down, the Chiefs lined up for another play in an attempt to score a touchdown, eschewing the opportunity to kick a field goal and guarantee themselves a 14-point lead going into halftime. Instead, Mahomes found Tyreek Hill short of the goal line and Eli Apple made a huge tackle, stopping Hill short as time expired.
It’s impossible to overstate how huge this stop was for the Bengals. Instead of an 18-point, or even a 14-point deficit, the Bengals were only down 11. They just needed some breaks to go their way. And boy did the Bengals get some breaks.
Much of the narrative after the game concerned the Chiefs’ collapse and that’s fair. No one expected the Chiefs to blow another lead to the Bengals, especially in the AFC Championship game. But to focus on the Chiefs’ failings doesn’t give enough credit to the Bengals defense. Twice in the 2021-22 NFL season, the Bengals held the mighty Chiefs’ offense to three points in the second half. Unreal.
Defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo deserves so much credit for sticking with his plan to slow Mahomes and the Chiefs. The Bengals sent just three or four pass rushers after Mahomes pretty much the entire game. They dared the Chiefs to be patient and pick them apart. It didn’t work so well in the first half, but it sure did in the second.
The Bengals managed to force the Chiefs to punt the football coming out of halftime, continuing to build on the momentum of their goal line stand. After moving the ball at will in the first half, the Chiefs’ offense ground to a halt. Mahomes was still scrambling around, buying time for his playmaker, but this half, those playmakers stopped getting open. And the Bengals defense started making plays.
Burrow would lead the offense down the field for a field goal, and all of a sudden, it was back to a one-possession game. The Bengals needed a stop from their D. And just like they have time and again this season, they got one.
Facing a 2nd and 3 on their own 32-yard line, Mahomes rolled to his left and threw a pass directly to Bengals’ defensive tackle B.J. Hill. Five plays later, Joe Burrow found Ja’Marr Chase for a touchdown. He would find Trent Taylor on the next play to convert the two-point try. Tie ballgame.
The Bengals would add a field goal two drives later, taking the lead for the first time all game with just under six minutes remaining. But six minutes is more than enough time for Mahomes. He needed just 13 seconds last week to drive the Chiefs into field goal range.
It looked like the Chiefs might win the game outright. They drove all the way down the field and seemed poised to punch the ball into the endzone. However, two sacks by the Bengals drove the Chiefs backwards, and they had to settle for a field goal as time expired. The AFC Championship game would be decided in overtime.
Now, as most NFL fans know, the winner of the coin-toss typically wins these overtime matchups. People can debate whether or not the rules are fair, but this time, it did not matter. The Bengals were the road team so they made the call: heads. It was tails. Arrowhead Stadium erupted like the game was over. They were wrong.
The mojo that the Bengals’ defense had been playing with carried over from the second half into overtime. After forcing two incompletions, Mahomes and the Chiefs faced a 3rd and 10. Mahomes launched a pass downfield to Hill, but his pass was broken up by Bengals’ Jessie Bates III and fell into the waiting arms of teammate Von Bell.
After a few strong Joe Mixon runs, the Bengals were in field goal range. It was all up to their kicker, rookie sensation Evan “Money Mac” McPherson. And Money was money.
Despite all the obstacles, despite all the negative history, despite Joe Burrow recovering from a gruesome knee injury, the Cincinnati Bengals will play in Super Bowl LVI. Even Burrow admitted he was surprised.
“I think if you would have told me before the season that we would be going to the Super Bowl I probably would have called you crazy,” said Burrow after the game, “but then… we played a whole season and… nothing surprises me now. I know the kind of guys that we have and the team that we have.”
The Bengals are going to the Super Bowl. No one should be surprised anymore.