NASHVILLE — On a white board deep inside the concrete stomach of Nissan Stadium, somebody had scribbled the phrases “cage the tiger and go for the kill” in black marker, subsequent to an image of a cartoon Bengal tiger with its tongue protruding in orange.
Whereas it was just a few hundred ft from the Titans’ locker room, doubtless written by certainly one of the game day staff at the concession storage facility as they walked previous, it was indicative of the dwelling crew’s game plan. Tennessee, regardless of its accidents, regardless of being below the boot heel of the hottest quarterback in soccer, got here out looking for a slaughter. Though the Titans have been certainly one of the least-frequent blitzing groups in soccer throughout the common season, they have been head looking, sending further rushers in the first quarter. They stunted and twisted their entrance 4 after which, when the Bengals’ offensive line was drained, they merely bull rushed with fundamental strain. On one play in the fourth quarter, Jeffery Simmons jabbed guard Hakeem Adeniji close to the collarbone, backed him on his heels then flopped him out like he was ridding a seaside towel of sand. Tennessee sacked Joe Burrow a playoff-record-tying 9 occasions, commonly sending him again to the sideline at the sort of delicate, hobbling tempo of a leisure jogger with muscle cramps.
Someway, Cincinnati survived the onslaught in a 19–16 win on Saturday, incomes the Bengals their first AFC championship game look since the 1988 season. They survived an immaculate interception in the third quarter by Amani Hooker, who barrel rolled over a soccer which will or might not have been grazing a blade of grass earlier than he laid a hand on it. They survived a throw from Ryan Tannehill to A.J. Brown just a few performs later that was improbably excellent, dropping into Brown’s intestine as he turned again towards the ball in the entrance proper nook of the finish zone for a late, game-tying landing. They survived intermittent bursts of classic Derrick Henry, who, in his return from a damaged foot, ran 20 occasions for 62 yards.
On their means to the locker room, amid shouts of WHO DEY, security Michael Thomas saved uttering the identical phrase time and again, indicative of an individual who had simply seen one thing transcendent, a efficiency that led this ragtag group of perpetual NFL bottom-feeders by way of one other rocky ascent and into the third spherical of the playoffs.
“Imagine,” he stated. “Imagine.”
The Tigers weren’t caged. They weren’t lifeless. So what else is there to do, however imagine?
Exterior of the guests’ locker room, they ate collectively in the night chill, with the temperature hovering proper at freezing. They picked at fruit cups and rooster tenders in bins with pink plastic forks, sitting at short-term white folding tables as they waited for the bus, or for different teammates to end their interviews. The stadium safety staff walked previous on their means to their automobiles, seemingly unaware that the most stunning crew in soccer was huddled on their periphery.
Coach Zac Taylor emerged from the locker room in a go well with and tie, shortly returning to seize an armful of water bottles for his household, ready patiently close by. There was not a extra excellent, extra full image of a crew that has captured the collective coronary heart of the NFL group with nobody else to root for this late in the season. Unassuming and genuine. Glad to be right here, however not glad.
Whereas there was actually elation, the ceremonial whooping and hollering of a crew that continues to defy odds, the vibe was yet another of aid. Of the sort of grounding buzz that comes from getting smashed by an avalanche and nonetheless holding your wits about you. Of survival.
In the weeks main up to this game, the Bengals had gone from curiosity, to contender to invincible behind the arm of Burrow. Over the final 21 days, he turned the first participant in NFL historical past to throw for greater than 1,200 yards, 10 or extra touchdowns and no interceptions in that quick a time span. He picked aside a Raiders three-deep zone that required precision throws on each play. He outdueled the Chiefs. He throttled the Ravens. Exterior of the Packers’ Aaron Rodgers, there was no extra impactful participant in soccer.
Whereas none of that got here straightforward, it felt seamless in contrast to Sunday, when Burrow skilled a pummeling in contrast to something he’d seen at the skilled stage. One sack, by Harold Landry, got here simply 2.6 seconds after the snap. In accordance to Subsequent Gen Stats, it was the quickest sack he’d ever taken in his profession. This, already, after having come into the game as the most-sacked quarterback in soccer.
“I really feel good,” Burrow stated after the game. “Tomorrow morning may be a special story, however proper now I really feel nice.”
In the home windows of uncommon pocket readability, he was nonetheless sensible, even when these moments appeared to dwindle with every possession. After a late interception by Logan Wilson with the rating tied at 16, Burrow acquired the ball at the Bengals’ 47-yard line with 20 seconds remaining. There was nonetheless sufficient wherewithal to decide, in some way, that he might transfer the ball into area aim vary with a handful of performs.
It ended up simply taking one, a floater to Ja’Marr Chase on an out-breaking route that landed proper at the receiver’s chest earlier than he stepped out of bounds. After the profitable kick sailed by way of the uprights, Burrow was certainly one of the first folks to seize maintain of kicker Evan McPherson, shaking his head frantically like a dad or mum who’d simply discovered a misplaced little one.
That is what it should really feel like to take a metropolis in your again and lug a crew by way of the hardest division in soccer, by way of a chaotic opening-round playoff victory towards a Raiders crew that wouldn’t stop and now, by way of the No. 1 seed in the convention, coached by a ruthless former NFL defender who was swinging for the jugular.
Burrow known as the complete factor “unplausible,” in his postgame press convention. However after surviving one thing like this, who can doubt them now?
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