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Bengals advance to AFC title game for first time since 1989 with dramatic win over Titans

Bengals kicker Evan McPherson (2) celebrates his game-winning field goal against the Titans on Saturday. (Mark Humphrey/AP)
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The Cincinnati Bengals are laughingstocks no longer. Their days as a downtrodden NFL team are done. They have a true franchise savior in second-year quarterback Joe Burrow, and they’re headed to the AFC championship game.

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Burrow and the Bengals ousted the conference’s top seed from the postseason Saturday in Nashville. They beat the Tennessee Titans, 19-16, in a rugged and dramatic AFC divisional-round playoff clash at Nissan Stadium.

“It feels great,” Bengals Coach Zac Taylor said. “This is the expectation for this team. This is not too big for these guys. I know we haven’t been here before. But it sure feels like we have.”

Rookie kicker Evan McPherson’s 52-yard field goal as time expired won it for the Bengals. It was his fourth field goal of the game.

“The defense played unbelievable, and we made plays when we needed to on offense,” Burrow said. “It wasn’t always pretty. But we got the job done. Like I’ve said all year, we can win a lot of different ways. The defense came up strong today. Unbelievable.”

Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill threw his third interception of the game with 20 seconds remaining. Burrow’s 19-yard completion to rookie wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase set up the winning kick.

“We had 20 seconds and two timeouts,” Burrow said. “That’s enough time for three plays to get into field goal range. Based on what they had been playing earlier, we kind of knew what coverage that they were going to be [playing] in that situation. Zac called a great play. And Ja’Marr made a great catch and ran a great route.”

Burrow threw for 348 yards for the Bengals despite being sacked nine times.

The fourth-seeded Bengals will be back on the road next Sunday, playing at either Kansas City or Buffalo. It will be the Bengals’ first appearance in an AFC championship game since January 1989 when Sam Wyche was their coach, Boomer Esiason was their quarterback and running back Ickey Woods was shuffling along.

With Burrow in the field, the Bengals perhaps had better get used to it. The top overall selection in the 2020 NFL draft is proving to be just as special at this level of the sport as he was in college, when he won a Heisman Trophy and a national championship as a late bloomer at LSU after transferring from Ohio State.

“Maybe we’ll think about that after the year,” Burrow said when asked during his postgame news conference about the big-picture implications for the Bengals. “Right now we’re going to celebrate this win. We’re really excited about it. And then go watch some more football and see who we’re playing.”

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Burrow made a highly successful return from the knee injury that cut short his rookie season, becoming the league’s second-rated passer during his second year. He led the Bengals to the AFC North title and directed them last weekend to their first playoff victory in 31 years. And now they play on, having ended the Titans’ postseason sooner than expected.

“It’s the same thing you always say,” Titans Coach Mike Vrabel said. “Thirty-one teams are going to be pissed off. . . . It’s disappointing because I know that [our players] fight and they compete.”

The Titans failed in their bid to reach the AFC championship game for the second time in three years. They had tailback Derrick Henry back in the lineup. He ran for 62 yards and a touchdown on 20 carries in his first game since Halloween. He was activated from the injured reserve list Friday after undergoing foot surgery in early November.

But, even with Henry, the Titans could not advance, in large part because of Tannehill’s mistakes. The final interception came on a deflected pass that ended up in the hands of Bengals linebacker Logan Wilson on a third-and-five play from the Tennessee 40-yard line. Even so, Vrabel refused to place the blame entirely on his quarterback.

“I don’t think Ryan or myself or anybody did enough to win the game,” Vrabel said. “That’s how it goes. It’s never going to be about one person, not as long as I’m the head coach …. We all have to play better. We have to coach better.”

It was a rough, Titans-style game from the outset but the Bengals led 9-6 at halftime. The unflappable McPherson, chosen in the fifth round of the NFL draft, connected on first-half field goals of 38, 45 and 54 yards. Burrow threw for 236 yards before halftime but absorbed five first-half sacks. He also took a low hit on an aborted play that appeared to leave him limping temporarily. He remained in the game. Chase set up a field goal with a 57-yard catch and run.

Tannehill threw an interception on the game’s opening offensive play, leading to a Bengals field goal. Henry had a three-yard touchdown run on a second-quarter play on which he lined up behind center and took a direct snap. He was tackled shy of the goal line on a two-point conversion attempt from the 1-yard line following a Bengals penalty.

Tailback Joe Mixon’s 16-yard touchdown dash increased the Bengals’ lead to 16-6 in the third quarter. The Titans tried to respond quickly. But Tannehill had his first-and-goal pass batted into the air by blitzing Bengals cornerback Mike Hilton, who then grabbed the football on the carom for an interception.

The Titans pulled even by the end of the third quarter with a field goal and Tannehill’s 33-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver A.J. Brown. The touchdown came after Burrow threw a tipped-ball interception that withstood a lengthy instant replay review.

“This one was really, really hard,” Burrow said. “Intense game. Apparently this is what playoff football this deep into January is like. It was really, really hard …. It’s just you against a really good team with everything on the line …. You feel the moment.”

He ended up completing 28 of 37 passes.

“I thought I played well, really well in the first half,” Burrow said. “But obviously there’s always room to improve. A couple throws that I would have probably liked to have back. I thought I made plays when I needed to.”

And after all the hits that he took, Burrow perhaps needed to gather some icepacks for his postgame recovery. But he seemed to regard any soreness as well worth it.

“I feel good,” Burrow said. “Tomorrow morning may be a different story. But right now I feel great.”

— Mark Maske

Continue reading for highlights and real-time analysis from Saturday’s game.

7:25 p.m.
Headshot of Sam Fortier
Sam Fortier: The Titans tied an NFL postseason record with nine sacks in this game, according to ESPN Stats & Info. The last time it happened was in January 1994, when the Kansas City Chiefs sacked Houston Oilers quarterback Warren Moon nine times.
7:16 p.m.
Headshot of Sam Fortier
Sam Fortier: Since 2019, Titans running back Derrick Henry has rushed 39 times on third or fourth and one. He has never failed to convert twice in one game — as he did on the two-point attempt and the most recent fourth-down attempt by Tennessee.
7:03 p.m.
Headshot of Sam Fortier
Sam Fortier: Until this drive, the Titans feeding top receiver A.J. Brown — including on the touchdown — contrasted with the Bengals’ approach. Cincinnati quarterback Joe Burrow had targeted No. 1 receiver Ja’Marr Chase three times while Tannehill has targeted Brown eight times for four catches, 122 yards and the score.Burrow had seemed to rely more on tight end C.J. Uzomah and secondary receiver Tee Higgins for quick passes. Then he hit Chase twice — for 21 and eight yards — to kick-start the drive.
6:40 p.m.
Headshot of Sam Fortier
Sam Fortier: Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill threw 14 interceptions this season, his highest total since 2013 (17), but he didn’t have any the last three games of the regular season. His interception troubles returned at a bad time, his latest in the red zone shifting the momentum back to the Bengals, who already had a 10-point lead.Now, if the Bengals score a touchdown, the Titans could trail by three scores with less than 20 minutes remaining. The only glimmer of good news: Tannehill had the ninth-highest passer rating this season when trailing by 10 or more points (95).
6:03 p.m.
Headshot of Sam Fortier
Sam Fortier: The Bengals lead 9-6 at halftime despite struggling to avoid negative plays. They allowed five sacks and four tackles for a loss in the first half, which means one quarter of their 36 snaps went for big losses. The Bengals have benefited from explosive plays and good field position so far, but if they’re to pull off the upset, the offense will need to be much better — and much more consistent — in the second half.
5:39 p.m.
Headshot of Sam Fortier
Sam Fortier: The Bengals’ defense, which struggled against the run this season even when loading the box, has held up well against running back Derrick Henry — even though it just allowed the touchdown. On the drive, Henry had rushes of three, four, six, three and three yards. He’s totaled 10 carries for 30 yards, well below the 4.3 yards per attempt he had before he was hurt earlier this year.This is significant for the Bengals. Cincinnati, with eight-plus defenders in the box this season, ranked 21st in success rate (59.6) and 20th in expected points allowed per rush (0.10) — signs they neither made consistent stops nor produced many splash plays.
5:14 p.m.
Headshot of Sam Fortier
Sam Fortier: Neither offense impressed in the first quarter. The Bengals and Titans combined for 122 net yards, four sacks allowed and no third-down conversions (on six attempts). The Bengals, at least, were able to turn good field position into a field goal and one explosive play to receiver Ja’Marr Chase into another for a 6-0 lead.The second quarter had an inauspicious start as Tennessee punted on fourth and two near midfield. If Tennessee is to have a chance to climb back in the game, it needs better play from quarterback Ryan Tannehill — especially considering running back Derrick Henry hasn’t looked 100 percent in his return.