NASHVILLE — The Cincinnati Bengals last week broke their 31-year playoff drought, and with a young, explosive offense, they seemed like this year’s dark horse contender.
And now they officially are. The No. 4-seeded Bengals overcame nine sacks and six penalties to shock the top-seeded Tennessee Titans, 19-16, when rookie kicker Evan McPherson kicked his fourth and final field goal Saturday, a 52-yarder that split the uprights as time expired.
The Bengals will face the winner of the Chiefs-Bills game on Sunday, and will travel to either Kansas City or Buffalo.
Statistically, the game made no sense. Burrow was fabulous when he had time to spot his fleet-footed receivers, completing 28 of 37 passes for 348 yards. The Titans blanketed Burrow’s favorite receiver, Ja’Marr Chase, who still managed to haul in five passes for 109 yards. Receiver Tee Higgins and tight end C.J. Uzomah each had seven receptions.
Burrow, though, was sacked repeatedly as the Titans defense ran in, around and through the Bengals’ porous offensive line. Tennessee defensive end Jeffery Simmons led the charge with three sacks of Burrow.
The Titans became the fifth team to notch nine sacks in playoff game, joining the Chiefs (1994), the Browns (1987), the 49ers (1985) and Bills (1967).
It was the Bengals defense, though, that saved the day, intercepting Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill three times, including on the Titans’ first and last plays of the game. The latter pick was most important as it came with just 20 seconds remaining.
On a drive that began with 2:43 left in the game, Tannehill slowly marched the Titans down the field trying to get the team in field goal position. Then on the fifth play of the series, on third-and-5 from the Titan’ 40-yard line, Tannehill’s pass was tipped by cornerback Eli Apple and hauled in by linebacker Logan Wilson.
Burrow, who had a breakout year this season throwing for more than 4,600 yards, got another chance to add to his résumé by stealing another playoff win. From the Bengals’ 47-yard line, Burrow quickly hit Chase to move the ball to the Titans’ 35 and into decent field goal position.
The Bengals drained a few more seconds off the clock, and the McPherson connected on the game-winner.
The Bengals won the possession battle over the course of the game, holding the ball for about seven minutes longer than the Titans, despite the return of Tennessee’s stellar running back Derrick Henry.
The game got off to an auspicious start for the Bengals. On the first play from scrimmage, Cincinnati safety Jessie Bates intercepted Tennessee quarterback Ryan Tannehill. With great field position, the Bengals looked poised to strike. But in a pattern defined the game, Burrow was sacked and a once-promising drive ended in a field goal, not a touchdown.
Cincinnati kicked three of them in the first half, and went into the locker room ahead, 9-6.
The Titans, meanwhile, looked rusty after a bye week. Tannehill missed receivers, was sacked, rushed throws, and Henry — back in the lineup for the first time in more than two months — didn’t seem to help much.
The Titans did engineer one solid drive, midway through the second quarter. Tannehill connected with his two best receivers, A.J. Brown and Julio Jones. On first-and-goal, Henry lined up in the wildcat, took the snap and scored, to the delight of the home crowd that had been calling his name.
Henry and the Titans failed to score on a 2-point attempt, however.
Given all the pressure on Burrow, who was sacked five times in the first half — the first quarterback since 1999 to suffer that fate in the first half of a playoff game — Cincinnati was lucky to hold a lead.