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Bengals Keep Finding Different Ways To Win In AFC Title Heist

Sam Hubbard takes out Patrick Mahomes.
Sam Hubbard takes out Patrick Mahomes.

KANSAS CITY - Frank Pollack, the Bengals offensive line coach who played in a Super Bowl and is now going to coach in one, surveyed the scene on the plane ride home with a shake of his head as he thought back to his guys in the last five minutes of Sunday's epic AFC title game won in overtime over the Chiefs.

"The game was on the line. Everything," Pollack said of his line. "And they played their butts off."

It was that kind of game. It wasn't a Joe Burrow-Patrick Mahomes 80-point shootout for the ages. But it wasn't an AFC North slobber-knocker, either, as the Bengals did what only the 2006 Colts did and came back from an 18-point hole in a conference championship.

Early during their improbable run this season that took them from 4-11-1 to their first Super Bowl appearance in 33 years, they began to pride themselves on being able to win any species of game. Last month, when they paired a grueling 15-10 win in Denver with Burrow's historic 525-yard passing day against the Ravens, the confidence grew.

"I don't know if you ever want to get down 21-3," said Burrow, slated to become the seventh first- or second-year player to quarterback a team to the 56 years of the Super Bowl. "I said it earlier in the year when we started making some of these comebacks, I never really feel like we're out of it, but obviously 21-3 isn't exactly the most exciting position to be in."

That was the kind of plane ride home. A little bit of everything.

Running back Joe Mixon, their emotional engine, led the dancing in the back as they went live on Instagram. Massive rookie defensive tackle Tyler Shelvin, who earlier had left the Arrowhead Stadium field reprising his role from LSU's 2019 national title party by putting Burrow on his shoulders, was getting talked into some moves.

In the more subdued front of the plane, they went back a couple of hours on their iPads to review what had just taken place. Burrow and two of his wide receivers watched how the Chiefs gave Ja'Marrr Chase just 54 yards and how Tee Higgins made them pay with 103.

And there was tight end C.J. Uzomah, way up front, somehow looking glum and gleeful at the same time on crutches.

Yes, he said. He thinks there's a shot he can play in 13 days in Los Angeles against the Rams after getting hurt on Sunday's second series.

"They said I could go back out on the sidelines in the second half," Uzomah said. "I had to be out there for those guys. I wouldn't have missed that. And I'm not going to miss this."

Just like the plane ride home, which landed in the flashing red lights of the fire department's salute, the newest chunk of Cincinnati sports lore called the 2021 AFC title game had a little bit of everything.

It was a gritty, resourceful kind of game where on the final eight plays they turned to Mixon and behind his beleaguered offensive line with five carries for 28 gutty yards led them down a Super path where they set up Evan McPherson's 31-yard field goal. Fresh off Burrow getting sacked nine times in Nashville last week, Mixon's 13-yard run to the left edge in Pollack's wide zone he lobbied to bring back to Cincinnati last offseason pierced the Arrowhead din. On that last drive he nearly matched his 46 yards in the AFC Divisional the week before. The Bengals were able to switch gears and re-discover this way to win like they hadn't in December and January. Mixon's 21 carries on 88 yards were his most since Nov. 28.

"Just being there," Mixon said, "when my number is called."

It was the kind of game marked by the best Bengals defensive stand in memory, shutting down one of the postseason's greatest stars when they kept Mahomes out of the end zone by holding him to a stunning 55 yards in the second half and picking him off twice.

"Our defense was making plays at the right time," Chase said. "We've been doing it all year. We've been counting on those guys. They've been our backbone. Whenever we get the ball and have an opportunity to score, the offense is going to do it. We wouldn't be where we are now without our defense."

Mahomes got as far as the Bengals 4, down 24-21, with 1:23 left in regulation and the Bengals Cardiac Cat season looked to be in the doghouse. Eleven times in the postseason and three times in the first half Mahomes had generated a red-zone touchdown.

But the relentless pass rush of the defensive ends kept Mahomes at bay. After Trey Hendrickson got Mahomes twice earlier in the half, Sam Hubbard got him here back-to-back to force a field goal, the last one a classic football combination of instinct and intellect.

After watching Mahomes strafe his defense in the first half for 220 yards with nary any pressure, Bengals defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo reverted to dropping eight and rushing three. Usually the spy on Mahomes was a linebacker, but on the last third down of regulation it was Hubbard, the former Moeller High School safety, who dropped into coverage. And with Mahomes dropping and weaving and winding and finding his Pro Bowl weapons absolutely blanketed, Hubbard came steaming in for a 15-yard sack.

"He has the best pocket presence of anyone in the league," Hubbard said. "We just kept telling ourselves, 'keep chopping wood, keep rushing, keep rushing.' We were being disciplined in our rush lanes and it paid off. We were rushing three at times and able to sack him. It was a collective effort of everyone just relentlessly pursuing him. That's all we did is keep grinding the whole way and it finally paid off."

So fitting it was Hubbard in the middle of it, right? Cincinnati. Ohio State. Third-round pick of the Bengals in 2018. The people watching the iPads were raving about the play before the sacks, the third-and-two from the seven when Mahomes shoveled it to tight end Travis Kelce running to the middle and he got the first down, but that's all.

And, naturally, it was Hubbard and Burrow who head coach Zac Taylor who had appointed game captains. Taylor didn't tell Hubbard why. But he knew. Two Ohio kids. One offense. One defense. Both respected in their respective rooms.

"The thing about Joe and myself, is that we're winners," Hubbard said. "We've won our whole lives. I've been pretty miserable along with my teammates for the last few years losing so many games. I told Joe, 'We need you. You're the guy to turn this around, I know it.' He embraced that.

"What are the odds that a kid from Athens Ohio is a national champion, Heisman Trophy winner, prime to be the number one overall pick and we happen to have it. You can't even write stories like this. It's amazing."

Odds? Here was Burrow telling Taylor the night before the game that he was going to get 100 yards rushing and maybe he wasn't joking. On the drive they took the lead for the first time with 6:04 left in the game, Burrow converted two third downs from disaster to delight with two how-did-he-do-that escapes for 18 yards.

So he finished a little south of 100 with 25.

"I kind of knew going into the game that I was going to have to make some plays with my legs," Burrow said. "I had a feeling that they would double Ja'Marr and double one of our other guys. That leaves nobody covering me, so I knew I was going to have to make some plays."

Burrow didn't set any records Sunday with his 86.5 passer rating with 250 yards on 23 of 38 passing with two touchdowns and a pick. It wasn't the laser show of late December. The 63 completion percentage was his second lowest of the season, just ahead of the 60 percent against the Chargers on Dec. 5. But it was rock solid, exactly what was needed. In the kiln of his first AFC title game amid the loudest outdoor stadium in the world, he was stone cold blue becoming the first Bengals quarterback to win three postseason games in a year.

"When the game is on the line, he is going to figure it out," said head coach Zac Taylor..

He now has more postseason wins than Ken Anderson and the same as Boomer Esiason. Like Elway and Brady, he's got a game-winning drive in an AFC title game. And a twitter feed worthy of next week's trip to Hollywood. LeBron James, for one.

"The situation that I'm in socially, doesn't really feel real to me." Burrow said. "In my head, I'm just the same old guy. Kid Cudi reached out to me yesterday, you've got LeBron tweeting at me. That part is surreal. The football part, not so much, but that stuff is crazy."

A little bit of everything. From LeBron to Trent Taylor catching a two-point conversion on his only scrimmage snap of the postseason.

"Whatever it takes," said Frank Pollack as he headed to another Super Bowl. "Whatever it takes."