NASHVILLE –– For 10 minutes after the end of Sunday’s win over the Tennessee Titans, most of the players on the Cincinnati Bengals stood at the center of the locker room. They were all watching the television screen, rooting for the Jacksonville Jaguars to upset the Baltimore Ravens.
When Jaguars quarterback Trevor Lawrence connected on a two-point conversion throw to wide receiver Zay Jones with 18 seconds left, the Bengals’ players erupted. When the Ravens missed a 67-yard field goal at the buzzer, the Bengals’ players started dancing.
All of a sudden, the Bengals were tied for first place in the AFC North. Following a 20-16 win on Sunday at Nissan Stadium over the Titans, a game that featured the most physical performance of the season by the Bengals’ defense and more fourth quarter magic from quarterback Joe Burrow, the Bengals are right back where they want to be heading into December and the stretch run.
“This is the kind of game that great teams win,” Burrow said. “It’s not always going to be pretty. It’s the NFL. It’s not going to be pretty all the time. But you’ve got to find ways to win. We’re starting to do that.”
Joe Burrow, Bengals down Titans:‘This is the kind of game great teams win’
Derrick Henry, Titans running game can’t get going vs. Bengals
The Bengals’ win over the Titans, combined with the Ravens’ loss, was a high point of the Bengals’ season that’s picking up speed. Cincinnati held Titans All-Pro running back Derrick Henry to just 38 rushing yards on 17 carries. The Bengals defense entered the game trying to force Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill to throw the ball, and Cincinnati held the most efficient red zone offense in the NFL to two second half field goals.
Bengals cornerback Mike Hilton was slicing into the backfield. Linebacker Logan Wilson was identifying Henry’s running gap before the running back did to tackle him at the line of scrimmage. Rookie Cam Taylor-Britt was lowering his shoulder to finish one-on-one tackles near the sideline.
The Bengals had four tackles for loss against one of the best running backs in the NFL, showing the grit that it takes to win in the playoffs.
“It’s a mindset,” Bengals head coach Zac Taylor said. “We’ve got the right guys who know that this is a big man’s league. They know you’ve got to be ready to step up late in the year.”
The Bengals offense had a slow start in the first half because of drive-ruining penalties. When the self-inflicted mistakes stopped in the second half, Burrow took over. Again.
On Sunday, Burrow had less to work with than ever before in the NFL. Pro Bowlers Ja’Marr Chase (hip) and Joe Mixon (concussion) were out. Wide receiver Tyler Boyd missed about half of a scoring drive in the third quarter. Samaje Perine was the featured running back. The Bengals gave running back Trayveon Williams, wide receiver Trenton Irwin and wide receiver Kwamie Lassiter the biggest opportunities of their NFL careers.
Because Burrow was the one mixing the ingredients together, it was still a winning recipe for the Bengals. Even against one of the best defenses in the NFL.
“We wouldn’t trade our quarterback for anybody on the planet,” Taylor said.
Tee Higgins comes up big in Bengals win vs. Titans
Higgins had 114 yards, including three superstar plays that put the game away. On the first play of the fourth quarter, the Bengals had 1st and 10 from their own 35-yard line. Taylor called a bench route to Higgins, the same play that the Bengals ran for Chase to clinch a win over the Titans in the postseason last year.
Higgins beat the double team and reeled in a 24-yard catch. He wasn’t done yet.
“It’s about the trust that Joe has in me,” Higgins said. “It’s my job to get better each and every season. I think I’ve improved tremendously.”
One minute later, against one-on-one coverage on the outside, Higgins made a leaping touchdown catch in the end zone. He boxed out the cornerback, put the ball at its high point and caught a perfect throw from Burrow. The Bengals took a 20-13 lead, and another deep ball from Burrow to Higgins helped the Bengals run out the clock on the final drive.
We started 0-2. But we turned this around.’
The Bengals’ offense lacked fireworks until the fourth quarter, so the Bengals’ defense picked the team up with its most physical game of the season.
The Titans are built around the run game and All-Pro running back Henry. He scored on a 75-yard screen in the second quarter, making multiple defenders miss and sprinting down the field. But as a runner, Henry was a non-factor.
“We are who everybody thinks we are,” Bengals cornerback Hilton said. “We started 0-2. But we turned this around. We got the guys in the locker room and the coaches up top to really lead us. This one was a big one for us.”
All week, the Bengals coaching staff stressed that it takes an entire unit to match up against a back like Henry. Everyone, from Wilson to Taylor-Britt to Hubbard, showed the toughness it takes to beat Tennessee. There were diving tackles, one-on-one plays in space and moments where it looked like the Bengals’ defense knew what was coming.
“In practice and in games, we pride ourselves on being physical,” Bengals defensive tackle DJ Reader said. “I know what we have in this locker room and how we feel about ourselves.”
Bengals put Titans away in the fourth quarter
Following Higgins’ touchdown early in the fourth quarter, the Bengals’ defense got a stop in the red zone. Hilton caught Henry in the backfield, and Hilton made a tackle in pass coverage on third down to force the Titans to settle for a field goal.
The Bengals got the ball back with 6:07 left, up four points. They ran out the clock with physical runs from Perine, a first down throw to tight end Hayden Hurst, and an incredible escape on a run by Williams. He broke three tackles on his fourth carry of the season and got past midfield.
Then Burrow had one more special moment. While the Bengals could have been running out of the clock, Burrow delivered a perfect 29-yard throw to Higgins down the right sideline. The Bengals almost settled for a field goal, but a “hit on a defenseless player” against Bengals long snapper Cal Adomitis gave the Bengals the chance to run out the clock.
There aren’t many NFL quarterbacks who could have made a throw like Burrow’s game clinchers to Higgins, kept an offense going with so many pieces missing and outplayed one of the best defenses in the NFL. Burrow had another special performance, giving the Bengals their toughest win of the year.
With the win, the Bengals control their own destiny again. With the Ravens’ loss, they’re tied for first place again. They have as much momentum as any team in the AFC, and they’re right on track for another run late in the season.
“This is when football counts,” Burrow said. “We’re 7-4. We’re in a great spot. I’m happy with our continued improvement throughout the season. Now, it’s time to show what kind of championship mettle we have.”