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The Cincinnati Bengals are headed to the AFC Championship Game for the first time since 1988. 

It wasn't a pretty game, but the Bengals were able to escape Nashville with a win. The Titans' pass rush was lethal, but despite that, the Bengals' offense was still able to put together enough points to come away with a win. Defensively, the Bengals had a dominating performance. 

Here are our top takeaways from this game.

D.J. Reader Is A Monster In The Middle

I’m not sure that I have ever seen a nose tackle take over a game like this before, at least not at the NFL level. D.J. Reader took the Titans' lunch money in the run game. It doesn't matter who was blocking him. The interior of the Titans offensive line could not move him with solo blocks, combos, or double teams. He had four run stops and probably a dozen more plays that he blew up. His matchup with the Titans center Ben Jones was one of our key matchups to watch, but I didn't expect Reader to dominate him so thoroughly. He truly saved his best game for the biggest moment. He won’t be as crucial against the pass happy Chiefs or Bills, but today was his shining moment.

The Bengals Defensive Backs Come In Clutch

Reader may have been the largest factor in stopping the Titans run game, but the rest of the defense came in clutch with the turnovers. On the first play of the game, Jessie Bates perfectly read Ryan Tannehill’s intentions on a play action pass over the middle and comes away with the interception. This was huge as both a tone-setting play and it also gave the Bengals a free three points. 

Mike Hilton had one of the most amazing plays I have seen in the playoffs. He flew off the line on a blitz, but Tannehill knows he is blitzing, so he throws it quickly trying to put it over his head. Hilton then jumps and bats the ball into the air. Hilton proceeded to catch the ball and return it for another 30 yards. Just an amazing play from the slot corner. 

Lastly, we have Eli Apple breaking up a pass over the middle with 20 seconds left in the game. He did not come away with the interception himself, that credit goes to Logan Wilson, but he was the main cause of the interception. Apple had a great game in coverage and it all culminated in that interception that set up the game winning field goal.

Evan McPherson Shows Why He Was Drafted

Evan McPherson has been a phenomenal kicker this season. Outside of his game against Green Bay where the winds seemed to mess with both kickers, he has been clutch, accurate, and has a cannon of a leg. Yesterday, McPherson was the team MVP. He made all four of his attempts from an average distance of 47.25 yards. This includes two 50 yard attempts and the game winning field goal. So far in the postseason, he is 8-for-8 on field goal attempts. The rookie kicker is a consistent weapon for the Bengals.  

Burrow Triumphs

The offensive line is a whole issue that will need to be addressed going forward, but despite that, Joe Burrow put together a quality performance. He was sacked nine times in this game. There were two more plays where he took a hit, but it didn’t count because of a timeout. 

Those sacks did not phase him as he completed 76% of his passes on the day. His adjusted completion percentage accounting for drops was 85.3%. He almost never missed on his own. His only interception was a fairly accurate ball that his backup running back tipped into the air. Despite that, Burrow still came back cool and collected to win the game. His 7-yard carry where he fove to pick up a first down was a clutch play on the Bengals' only touchdown drive. 

He moved the chains on third down even when he didn’t have an option to throw the ball. All around this was another great performance from the Bengals second year signal caller. It reminded me of his game against the Eagles in his rookie year where he was beaten repeatedly, but got up after every hit and was never phased. It’s a special trait to be able to stay so calm despite the massive amount of hits he takes.

The Offensive Line is an Issue

The headline for this section is honestly not going far enough. This offensive line gave up nine sacks on the day and never looked like they could hold together for more than 2 seconds. Jeffery Simmons and Denico Autry are fantastic players, but there is no way that a pair of defensive tackles should leave a game with 4.5 sacks. Everyone along the offensive line had a terrible day. According to Pro Football Focus, only Isaiah Prince did not allow a sack and yet he was part of a key miscommunication on one of the sacks. Hakeem Adeniji had the worst day as he gave up three sacks and four pressures. Jonah Williams was terrible. He gave up two sacks with five pressures. Quinton Spain and Trey Hopkins were not awful, but they each gave up a sack of their own. That’s way too many hits on the franchise quarterback. Outside of Jonah Williams, none of these players are guaranteed to be starting on the offensive line next year. Williams himself needs to step up because this was not the toughest opponent that he will face this season. It was an all around embarrassing performance from this unit.

Ja’Marr Chase Is Everything They Drafted And More

The last takeaway from this game is that Ja’Marr Chase is special. The man has back to back 100 yard performances in the playoffs and looks like he may become the greatest Bengals receiver of all time. He showed his run after catch ability both on the smoke screen that he took for 57 yards where he beats Kristian Fulton one-on-one before flying downfield. He also showed that ability to run after the catch on the slide route from the naked boot where he ruins the defender’s angles on him right after the catch to turn a short gain into a 21-yard explosive play. 

Lastly, we have his corner route against Jackrabbit Jenkins. Jenkins is in press man with inside leverage as part of the Titans 2-man defense. Chase immediately burns him at the line of scrimmage and then runs through Jenkins’ attempt to grab and hold on for dear life. Burrow then places the ball perfectly and Chase toe-drags out of bounds. This play was my favorite of the day for the rookie wide receiver. His ability to run after the catch is amazing, but these plays show that he is a complete receiver that can do everything the Bengals need him to do.

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