The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

To beat the Bills, the Bengals played with the ‘opposite’ of fear

Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase (1) and running back Joe Mixon (28) motion for a touchdown in Sunday's win over the Buffalo Bills. (Joshua Bessex/AP)

ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — Joe Burrow, flashing a cunning grin as Highmark Stadium cleared, delighted in the NFL’s logistical nightmare after it had announced extraordinary demand for a potential AFC championship game between the Kansas City Chiefs and Buffalo Bills at a neutral site in Atlanta.

“You better send those refunds,” Burrow said in an on-field interview with CBS’s Tracy Wolfson.

The league, the Cincinnati Bengals told themselves, already had overlooked them.

Music, including the usual upset anthem “Take Over Your Trap,” blared from a boombox in the visitors’ locker room Sunday night following a 27-10 victory over the Bills. Chants of “Who Dey! Who Dey!” by the players followed, shaking the adjacent press room.

Cornerback Eli Apple spoke to reporters while puffing on a cigar, the smoke billowing above his head. Across the way, Burrow slipped on blue “Seinfeld” sweatpants, a birthday gift he received last year.

“I knew we were going to win when you put those on,” a teammate told him, just as Coach Zac Taylor walked in to hug his quarterback.

Running back Joe Mixon, on a FaceTime call, raised the phone for a panorama of the party, then dressed for his moment in front of the cameras. Tight end Hayden Hurst drew a crowd in the middle of the room, and along the far wall, next to Burrow, wide receiver Tee Higgins awaited reporters.

The Bengals spoiled the NFL’s planned party in Atlanta and created their own in Buffalo. Behind savvy quarterback play, an efficient running game and stifling defense, they overpowered the onetime Super Bowl favorites to secure a trip to Kansas City for a shot at the AFC championship.

“It is tough because [the NFL has] to formulate the plan for coin tosses, and they have to formulate the plans for neutral-site games — and we just keep screwing it up for everybody,” Taylor said facetiously. “And I hate that for people who have to endure all those logistical issues, and then we just keep screwing it up.

“I’m sorry,” Taylor added, grinning.

Updates and analysis from Sunday's games

The Bengals arrived in Buffalo without three of their starters on the offensive line and facing history that suggested they could become the Bills’ latest victim in a home playoff game.

“We talked about it last night: [The Bills] were 13-1 at home in the playoffs — the best home winning percentage in NFL history,” Taylor said. “And I wanted to show that to the team because I knew what that would do to them. That wouldn’t put fear in them. … It was going to be the opposite for our guys. And it was.”

Cincinnati thrives as an underdog, and on Sunday its less-heralded positions flourished the most. That 29th-ranked rushing offense? It ran for 172 yards, thanks in part to the depleted line.

That middling defense (16th in yards allowed)? It stymied the Bills, allowing them only 63 rushing yards while holding quarterback Josh Allen to 265 passing yards, no touchdowns, an interception and a 68.1 passer rating. The Bengals pressured Allen on 40.4 percent of his dropbacks despite blitzing only 17 percent of the time.

“I thought our defensive line led the way by harassing him and everybody else fed off of that,” Taylor said.

Burrow, by comparison, was in full command, completing 63.9 percent of his passes (23 of 36) for 242 yards, two touchdowns and a 101.9 rating.

“It’s good to have a quarterback that can come out and sling it,” Higgins said.

The signs of a possible Buffalo exit were evident early, when Cincinnati jumped to a 14-0 lead with a dominant first quarter. Burrow led the Bengals on consecutive 70-plus-yard scoring drives, mixing deep passes with handoffs to move the chains efficiently.

The Bills had no answer. They had a pair of three-and-outs and finished the quarter with as many yards (eight) as Cincinnati had first downs. The packed stadium fell silent.

Bills Coach Sean McDermott lit into his defense on the bench between possessions, inspiring a momentum-shifting sack by linebacker Matt Milano in the waning seconds of the first quarter. It was enough to get Cincinnati off the field so Buffalo could reset in the second, but the motivation was fleeting.

Then, at the two-minute warning, Damar Hamlin appeared on the video board. Few could see his face — the haze of persistent snowfall clouded the camera’s view — but his red hooded jacket and dangling dreadlocks were confirmation enough.

From a suite at Highmark Stadium and with his family by his side, the Bills safety waved his arms and formed a heart with his hands, eliciting a roar from a crowd that came to its feet. Hamlin’s injury and remarkable recovery after he went into cardiac arrest during a game in Cincinnati this month galvanized the Buffalo community and the NFL-watching world.

His presence Sunday, in a rematch of his last game, offered an emotional release and a moment of unity.

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For a fleeting moment, Hamlin’s appearance seemed to invigorate the Bills. The Bengals were on the cusp of turning the game into a blowout — until officials called back a touchdown. Burrow threw a dart to Ja’Marr Chase in the back of the end zone, but the wide receiver bobbled the ball, and the play was ruled an incomplete pass after a review.

It was a welcome break for Buffalo after a dreadful start; Cincinnati settled for a field goal and a 17-7 lead. But the Bengals, who played like a team on a mission, never opened the door enough to let the Bills get even one foot in.

Cincinnati capped a 12-play, 75-yard drive in the third quarter with a one-yard touchdown run by Mixon, expanding their lead to 24-10. Then in the fourth, they all but sealed it with a 20-yard field goal.

“To rush for over 170 yards in this environment, to handle the noise the way they did, to protect Joe the way they did, I thought our offensive line was outstanding,” Taylor said.

And his quarterback?

“He’s the greatest,” Taylor said. “He does a great job leading his team, managing the situations. The bigger the moment gets, the calmer he gets. The team feeds off of that.”

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With less than eight minutes remaining and the Bengals leading by 17, the stands began to clear after a deep fourth-down pass from Allen to Gabe Davis fell incomplete. Perhaps it was for the better; only a fraction of Buffalo’s fans witnessed Cam Taylor-Britt’s game-ending interception of Allen and the ensuing celebration by Bengals players in the end zone.

“We’re built for this,” Taylor said. “It doesn’t matter what anybody thinks about us. We don’t care who’s favored and who’s not. We’re built for this, and we’re excited to go on the road to Kansas City.”