NASHVILLE — On a white board deep inside the concrete belly of Nissan Stadium, someone had scribbled the words “cage the tiger and go for the kill” in black marker, next to a picture of a cartoon Bengal tiger with its tongue sticking out in orange.
While it was a few hundred feet from the Titans’ locker room, likely written by one of the game day workers at the concession storage facility as they walked past, it was indicative of the home team’s game plan. Tennessee, despite its injuries, despite being under the boot heel of the hottest quarterback in football, came out in search of a slaughter. Even though the Titans were one of the least-frequent blitzing teams in football during the regular season, they were head hunting, sending extra rushers in the first quarter. They stunted and twisted their front four and then, when the Bengals’ offensive line was tired, they simply bull rushed with basic pressure. On one play in the fourth quarter, Jeffery Simmons jabbed guard Hakeem Adeniji near the collarbone, backed him on his heels then flopped him out like he was ridding a beach towel of sand. Tennessee sacked Joe Burrow a playoff-record-tying nine times, regularly sending him back to the sideline at the kind of soft, hobbling pace of a recreational jogger with muscle cramps.
Somehow, Cincinnati survived the onslaught in a 19–16 win on Saturday, earning the Bengals their first AFC championship game appearance since the 1988 season. They survived an immaculate interception in the third quarter by Amani Hooker, who barrel rolled over a football that may or may not have been grazing a blade of grass before he laid a hand on it. They survived a throw from Ryan Tannehill to A.J. Brown a few plays later that was improbably perfect, dropping into Brown’s gut as he turned back toward the ball in the front right corner of the end zone for a late, game-tying touchdown. They survived intermittent bursts of vintage Derrick Henry, who, in his return from a broken foot, ran 20 times for 62 yards.
On their way to the locker room, amid shouts of WHO DEY, safety Michael Thomas kept uttering the same word over and over, indicative of a person who had just seen something transcendent, a performance that led this ragtag group of perpetual NFL bottom-feeders through another rocky ascent and into the third round of the playoffs.
“Believe,” he said. “Believe.”
The Tigers were not caged. They were not dead. So what else is there to do, but believe?
Outside of the visitors’ locker room, they ate together in the evening chill, with the temperature hovering right at freezing. They picked at fruit cups and chicken tenders in boxes with red plastic forks, sitting at temporary white folding tables as they waited for the bus, or for other teammates to finish their interviews. The stadium security workers walked past on their way to their cars, seemingly unaware that the most surprising team in football was huddled on their periphery.
Coach Zac Taylor emerged from the locker room in a suit and tie, quickly returning to grab an armful of water bottles for his family, waiting patiently nearby. There was not a more perfect, more complete picture of a team that has captured the collective heart of the NFL community with no one else to root for this late in the season. Unassuming and authentic. Happy to be here, but not satisfied.
While there was certainly elation, the ceremonial whooping and hollering of a team that continues to defy odds, the vibe was one more of relief. Of the kind of grounding buzz that comes from getting smashed by an avalanche and still keeping your wits about you. Of survival.
In the weeks leading up to this game, the Bengals had gone from curiosity, to contender to invincible behind the arm of Burrow. Over the last 21 days, he became the first player in NFL history to throw for more than 1,200 yards, 10 or more touchdowns and no interceptions in that short a time span. He picked apart a Raiders three-deep zone that required precision throws on every play. He outdueled the Chiefs. He throttled the Ravens. Outside of the Packers’ Aaron Rodgers, there was no more impactful player in football.
While none of that came easy, it felt seamless compared to Sunday, when Burrow experienced a pummeling unlike anything he’d seen at the professional level. One sack, by Harold Landry, came just 2.6 seconds after the snap. According to Next Gen Stats, it was the quickest sack he’d ever taken in his career. This, already, after having come into the game as the most-sacked quarterback in football.
“I feel good,” Burrow said after the game. “Tomorrow morning might be a different story, but right now I feel great.”
In the windows of rare pocket clarity, he was still brilliant, even if those moments seemed to dwindle with each possession. After a late interception by Logan Wilson with the score tied at 16, Burrow got the ball at the Bengals’ 47-yard line with 20 seconds remaining. There was still enough wherewithal to determine, somehow, that he could move the ball into field goal range with a handful of plays.
It ended up just taking one, a floater to Ja’Marr Chase on an out-breaking route that landed right at the receiver’s chest before he stepped out of bounds. After the winning kick sailed through the uprights, Burrow was one of the first people to grab hold of kicker Evan McPherson, shaking his head frantically like a parent who’d just found a lost child.
This is what it must feel like to take a city on your back and lug a team through the toughest division in football, through a chaotic opening-round playoff victory against a Raiders team that wouldn’t quit and now, through the No. 1 seed in the conference, coached by a ruthless former NFL defender who was swinging for the jugular.
Burrow called the whole thing “unbelievable,” in his postgame press conference. But after surviving something like this, who can doubt them now?