CINCINNATI (AP) — When the Cincinnati Bengals went down 21-3 early in the second quarter of Sunday’s AFC championship game, a third straight Super Bowl for the Kansas City Chiefs seemed inevitable.
The Bengals weren’t feeling it, though. They’d been coming from behind and winning close games all season. What transpired was another incredible Bengals finish, this one propelling them to the Super Bowl for the first time since the 1988 season.
In the first half, Patrick Mahomes tossed three touchdown passes, and the Bengals went to the locker room at halftime down 21-10.
“Nobody blinked an eye,” Cincinnati kicker Evan McPherson said. “We all thought that we were definitely going to come back and find a way to win. That’s what we’ve done the whole year.”
The Bengals clawed back in the second half, scoring 14 unanswered points and holding the Chiefs to just Harrison Butker’s field goal as time ran out to tie the score at 24 and force overtime.
After Cincinnati safety Vonn Bell intercepted Mahomes in overtime, quarterback Joe Burrow put McPherson in position for the 31-yard field goal, the rookie kicker’s second game-winner in as many playoff games.
Who expected this?
Burrow was coming off major offseason knee surgery. Cincinnati was just 7-6 after Week 14. The Bengals finally managed to win three in a row in December, a streak that coincided with the late-season struggles of the Browns and Ravens. They won the AFC North with a 10-7 record.
Burrow and wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase, the first-round pick in the 2021 draft, emerged as a reliable and resilient tandem. A defense that had been up and down got the job done with sacks and critical interceptions in the past two playoff games.
Coach Zac Taylor said the season started with many uncertainties, but it all came together at the right time.
“I certainly think that when we got to December that the feeling in the locker was we have the ability to play with anybody in this league,” Taylor said Monday. “And we all know, those of us who have been in the league a long time, you just have to get hot at the right time.”
After the game, some of the players were still trying to get their heads around it.
“It’s crazy, it still hasn’t hit me yet,” said receiver Tee Higgins, who had six catches for 103 yards. “It didn’t feel real at all. It’s crazy.”
The Bengals seem to be able to get what they need to get when they need to get it. In the second half, they needed the defense to disguise some looks and get after Mahomes, one of the league’s most-elusive quarterbacks. They needed running back Joe Mixon to break some of his carries for more yards. They needed Burrow to make some more magic, and the second-year quarterback delivered.
WHAT NEEDS HELP
The Bengals have been a slow-starting team all season. That usually causes the team to play from behind. It’s exciting and hard to argue with the results when they get them, but the Bengals surely would like to be far enough ahead at the end to keep from dropping all the pressure on the shoulders of their 22-year-old kicker.
The pass protection was better after Burrow was sacked nine times in the divisional-round win over Tennessee. He was better at evading it this time, too. He was sacked just once and hit three other times. He had two third-down scrambles in the fourth quarter that moved the chains at critical times.
Nobody was happier about the Bengals’ success than tight end C.J. Uzomah, who has been with the team through five poor seasons. He had the best season of his career and became a sure-handed, go-to receiver for Burrow. He was carted off with a knee injury in the first quarter.
Taylor said Monday that Uzomah has an MCL sprain and the outlook is “encouraging.”
12 — field goals made without a miss through three postseason games for McPherson, a rookie out of Florida.
Stay focused amid the hysteria in Cincinnati and the avalanche of extra national attention the Bengals are about to get in the two-week run-up to the Feb. 13 Super Bowl against the Los Angeles Rams. Taylor said travel plans haven’t been finalized.