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As the Cincinnati Bengals get set to play the Kansas City Chiefs in Sunday’s AFC Championship Game in Kansas City, people will look at the Bengals’ turnaround and say it began with the drafting of Joe Burrow, Ja’Marr Chase and even former Clemson wide receiver Tee Higgins.

And though they might have a point, the turnaround for the former doormat of the AFC North began before Burrow, Higgins and Chase. It began with the signing of former Clemson defensive tackle D.J. Reader, who signed the largest free-agent deal in Bengals’ history prior to the 2020 NFL Draft.

Reader was head coach Zac Taylor’s first real sign he was going to do whatever it took to turn the franchise into a winner. From there, he drafted Burrow and Higgins with the team’s first two picks in the 2020 NFL Draft. He then used their first-round pick in 2021 to get Chase.

Once Reader came on after signing his $53 million deal, other high-quality free agents followed, as Cincinnati used free agency to build one of the AFC’s top defenses.

“I think the guys who were on this team when I came in, we brought in an attitude of, ‘We’re going to play defense and worry about our job and worry about what we’re going to do,” Reader said to the Cincinnati Enquirer earlier this week. “We’re going to go out there every day and grind.”

And they did.

Though the offense gets the headlines, and deservedly so, the Bengals’ defense has been able to hold their own for much of the year.

Prior to last week’s upset at Tennessee, there were plenty of people who thought the Titans would, literally, run all over the Bengals, especially with the return of running back Derrick Henry. But that was not the case.

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Henry was limited to 62 yards on 20 carries, just 3.1 yards per carry. In the fourth quarter, with Tennessee driving, Reader and his Bengal teammates stuffed Henry in the backfield for a yard loss on a fourth-and-one play.

It was a pivotal stop in Cincinnati’s 19-16 victory, the franchise’s first ever road win in playoff history.

As safety Jessie Bates explained, Reader deserves the credit.

“I could say stuff about all of the guys up front, but I think D.J. really, really stepped up. And people maybe know his name now, which they should’ve (already).”

Reader finished the afternoon with six total tackles, which ranked third on the team. Five of those six tackles were solo tackles and two were behind the line of scrimmage. The former Clemson standout also added a quarterback pressure.

“We’ve been getting slept on the whole year,” Reader said to the Cincy Jungle. “It’s something we take pride for in this locker room. We take it as disrespect every time. All year it’s been something. ‘We won’t do this, we won’t do that.’ We don’t worry about outside noise. We read it, [but] we’re not worried about it. We’re confident in us. We’re going out there every game feeling like we’re the ones who need to get beat.”

Playing with that chip on their shoulder has the Bengals in the AFC Championship Game for the first time since 1989, and one win away from their first Super Bowl appearance since that same year.

And to think, it all started with the acquisition of D.J. Reader in the spring of 2020.

The Bengals are currently 7-point underdogs to the Chiefs in the AFC Championship, according to Fanduel.