CINCINNATI — Pressure builds diamonds, and that's what emerged from the Cincinnati Bengals 19-16 AFC Divisional Round victory over the Tennessee Titans.
Joe Burrow turned in his typical warrior performance, the defense forced three interceptions for the first time since 2019, and Evan McPherson kicked the Bengals into another playoff round.
Let's dive into the Three Down Look of an old-school NFL clash.
McPherson Makes Sweet Music
In the playoffs, it's just about winning, not how you win, and Cincinnati relied on every facet of the team to pull out a victory in Nashville. McPherson (4-for-4 on FG attempts, two from 50-plus) received the lone game ball on Saturday, proving just as important as any other player.
The game-winner was McPherson's eighth made field goal in as many tries this postseason. He may be a rookie, but the cold-blooded kicker has a strong case as the greatest fifth-round pick in team history.
McPherson is the first kicker in NFL history to make four FGs in multiple games during one postseason. All while being a rookie. Speaking of which, he now owns the NFL single-season record for 50-yard FGs by a rookie (11).
For years, Bengals fans suffered through uneasy feelings whenever the game came down to a sweep of the leg. That time—like so many other parts of this team—is over.
Cincinnati has found its kicker, a quarterback, and a ticket to the AFC Championship game.
Defense Cashes In
Lou Anarumo deserves a lot of credit for how this defense came together throughout the season. The group played lights out on Saturday, forcing three interceptions for the first time since Dec. 29, 2019, and it made sure Derrick Henry was a non-factor.
The biggest reason to take the underdog in this game was the quarterback matchup, which was an obvious mismatch from the first throw. Tannehill got picked off on the first play from scrimmage, becoming the fourth quarterback in NFL playoff history to pull off the dubious feat.
Jessie Bates III (four tackles, interception) said thank you as he continued a solid postseason.
Tannehill was rough in a spot where he has rarely thrived. The QB famously hasn't been asked to do much in the playoffs, and his three interceptions showed why. The Titans passer finished 15-of-24 for 220 yards passing, one touchdown, and the three picks.
All of that was good for a 10.3 QBR and -7.2 total EPA. The latter was a theme for a Tennessee offense that was inefficient all afternoon. The matchup everyone was worried about never hurt the Bengals as Derrick Henry finished with 3.1 yards per carry on 20 attempts. Henry posted -4.5 total EPA and Cincinnati held him to 3.2 YPC or less for just the fifth time since 2018.
King Henry had his crown stolen in large part by a player you would've never known existed listening to national pundits all week. D.J. Reader is one of the best run-stuffers in the NFL, and he showed why against Tennessee.
Reader earned the third-highest PFF grade on defense (83.2), and when the chips were down in short-yardage, he went all in. Tennessee had three scenarios where it needed one yard to convert points or a new set of downs. Zilch were successful on Reader's watch as he finished with six tackles (two for loss), and one QB hit.
Reader and company stuffed the run, while the back-end playmakers complemented the job up front. Playoff wins come down to playing as a team and weathering adversity. Anarumo's defense has done that throughout this season.
Many people—myself included— would've been fine seeing the Bengals DC dismissed after last season, but this team rightfully stayed the course. One year and a healthy season later, Anarumo is reaching into his bag and pulling out gold.
Burrow Weathers The Storm
Saturday wasn't an elite performance in Burrow's career—but it was a defining one. That game was a time travel back into the 90s: great defense, low scoring, grind it out football. There were multiple short-yardage stands and a punishing defensive plan from the Titans.
Burrow ended the game 28-of-37 for 348 passing yards and one interception. All while tying the NFL postseason record with nine sacks. It was an onslaught from the first drive; the Titans' defensive staff kept their blitzing light and got home with four rushers using Harold Landry and Jeffery Simmons.
The Bengals franchise player never flinched or let his internal clock speed up too fast. He finished with an inefficient -4 EPA overall but hit the right buttons with his best playmakers.
Ja'Marr Chase was fantastic once again, finishing with 6.4 total EPA, second in the game to A.J. Brown's 7.4. The LSU product had five catches on six targets for 109 yards, becoming the first rookie in league history with multiple 100-plus yard postseason games.
The yards after catch ability is one of Chase's special traits, and the Bengals needed every bit of it against a disciplined Titans defense.
That play is the career highlight reel candidate from Saturday, but his most recent catch of the season was his most important. Titans cornerback Janoris Jenkins got put in a spin cycle as the rookie caught a patented right sideline ball for 19 yards to set up McPherson's game-winner.
Chase finished the game as the NFL's season leader in receiving yards over expectation. Burrow finished the regular season as the NFL leader in completion percentage over expectation. It might be time for the league to start raising their expectations of what's possible from this duo.
Onto Week 21
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