‘Our guys believed’: Bengals headed to second straight AFC Championship

Credit: Seth Wenig

Credit: Seth Wenig

ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. – Joe Burrow said this week the snow wouldn’t be a problem for the Cincinnati Bengals. He played arguably his best playoff game in less-than-ideal conditions, and the Bengals are headed to their second straight AFC Championship at Arrowhead Stadium.

Cincinnati jumped out to a 14-point lead in the first quarter of its divisional round playoff game against the second-seeded Buffalo Bills on Sunday and rolled to a 27-10 win under a consistent snowfall at Highmark Stadium.

Despite the white blanket covering the field, the Bengals scored touchdowns on their first two drives, while the defense forced three-and-outs on the Bills’ first two possessions, and Buffalo never drew within seven points. The fast start for Cincinnati, a continuing trend of late, deflated an otherwise electric crowd three weeks after fans of both teams were silenced by Damar Hamlin’s on-field collapse in the eventually-cancelled regular-season matchup at Paycor Stadium.

“Our guys believed,” Bengals coach Zac Taylor said. “They walked onto the field ready to attack.”

Cincinnati picked up where it left off that game and after taking a 17-7 lead into halftime, the Bengals were able to hold Buffalo to a field goal on the opening possession of the second half and followed with a Joe Mixon touchdown to make it a 14-point game again.

The dagger came when Eli Apple broke up a fourth-down pass in the endzone with 7:23 left, after the Bengals had added three points to their lead on Evan McPherson’s 20-yard field goal. They chewed up clock on the ensuing drive, and then Cam Taylor-Britt intercepted Allen with 1:02 remaining.

“Our defense has picked us up every step of the way, and it’s on our offense at those points to turn the tide and regain the momentum so our defense can catch their breath and go out there and get a stop like they did,” Taylor said. “Just really complimentary performance in all phases.”

Burrow set the tone with his perfect first quarter as he completed his first nine passes, including four on a six-play, 79-yard opening drive that ended with a 28-yard dart to a wide-open Ja’Marr Chase for a touchdown.

The Bengals didn’t face a third down until 5:25 left in the first quarter at the Buffalo 23-yard line, a play on which Burrow took a sack but the defense was flagged offside. Three plays later on a third-and-7, the Bengals dialed up an outside screen that freed up Hayden Hurst for another 15-yard touchdown pass from Burrow for the 14-0 lead with 3:47 left in the first quarter.

Cincinnati has outscored opponents 39-0 in the first quarter of its last three games, excluding the Week 17 game against Buffalo, which ended with the Bengals leading 7-3 just over nine minutes into the game.

After the Bengals punted for the first time, Buffalo upped the tempo on its third possession and finally found a rhythm for a 15-play touchdown drive, capped by Allen’s 1-yard run to cut the deficit to 14-7 with 7:25 left in the second quarter.

The Bengals responded with another scoring drive, but Chase’s 10-yard touchdown reception, on an incredible Burrow pass over two defenders on third down, was overturned as officials ruled he lost control of the ball before going out of bounds. Cincinnati settled for a 28-yard field goal from McPherson with 1:49 left in the quarter, but then came up with a stop on defense to maintain the 10-point cushion going into halftime.

Cincinnati’s offensive success was especially encouraging considering three backup linemen were starting because of injuries to different players each of the last three games. A fourth starter, center Ted Karras, got banged up in the second quarter and needed his right knee wrapped before the field goal drive. He was visibly struggling that drive but finished the game.

Burrow took just one sack in the first half and completed 23 of 36 passes for 242 yards and two touchdowns, and Mixon had himself a day taking advantage of some big holes to finish with 105 yards on 20 carries.

“To rush for over 170 yards in this environment, to handle the noise the way they did, to protect Joe the way they did, I thought our offensive line was outstanding,” Taylor said of the offensive line. “And that’s a credit to Duke (Tobin) and the way he’s attacked the draft and attacked all the roster management to get the right guys in here so we can endure situations like this, (offensive line coaches) Derek Frazier, Frank Pollack, (and) Justin Hill, our running backs coach, they did a great job getting those guys ready and they executed when they needed to.”

The Bengals advance to face Kansas City next Sunday at 6:30 p.m. for a second straight year in the AFC Championship. The Chiefs beat Jacksonville in their divisional round game Saturday.

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