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Bengals Leaders Speak It Into Existence Before Historic Win

Mike Hilton (21) made the most spectacular play of the night.
Mike Hilton (21) made the most spectacular play of the night.

NASHVILLE, Tenn. - If the nine sacks didn't tell Joe Burrow this thing called playoff football is different, then the meeting head coach Zac Taylor convened the night before Saturday's AFC Divisional against the top-seeded Titans did for even the unflappable Burrow.

Taylor asked each of his captains to speak. Usually he has the coaches do the talking the night before a game, but Taylor understands a game in late January, especially one to determine, a trip to the AFC title game, belongs to them.

"I think that when Vonn (Bell) was speaking and when Tyler (Boyd) was speaking, started getting us up," said running back Joe Mixon, whose gambit ended up getting more yards running and catching than Derrick Henry, the King himself.

"Then after I spoke, it seemed like them boys were like, 'Man, let's go, I'm ready to play.' When Joey B came out and spoke to us, it was like, 'OK, it's that time.' And everybody was just ready. Went through the whole day."

In becoming the first Bengals playoff quarterback to win a road game, Burrow became just the 11th first- or second-year quarterback in the 52 seasons of the merger to go to a conference championship game and on Saturday, after eight quarters in, he seemed to sense just exactly what an NFL postseason is.

"It's not normal. This one was really, really hard. Intense game. This is what playoff football this deep into January is like. It was really, really hard," Burrow realized after getting hit 13 times and still completing 76 percent of his passes.

"It was just you and just a really good team with everything on the line. Everyone's probably playing with the same intensity, but it's just, you feel the moment."

After this 19-16 moment, the Bengals have run out of demons to chase. If this had been 2015, Eli Apple would have had a flag thrown on him when he adroitly tipped the pass that ended up in linebacker Logan Wilson's hands. If this had been 2009, Evan McPherson's 52-yarder at the gun would have gone wide right. If this had been 2013, Mixon would have fumbled before finishing off his 16-yard touchdown run.

But this is the fourth week of 2022 and Burrow told them Friday night that he was sick of the "Why Not Us?" thing.

"I said, I'm tired of the underdog narrative," Burrow said. "We're a really good team that has worked really hard to get to this point and we make plays. Whether its defense, offense or special teams, we go out there and get it done.

"I'm tired of the underdog narrative," he repeated for the media. "We're a really, really good team. We're here to make noise and teams are going to have to pay attention to us. We're, like I said, a really good team with really good players and coaches and we're coming for it all."

Burrow's speech Friday night was just as natural as his 19-yard sideline seed to rookie wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase with nine seconds left to set up McPherson's winner.

"That's when he gets a little shy," said Chase of the public-speaking Burrow. "But he still knows how to talk, talk to the team. It's his team. He knows how to talk to us. We feed off him. He brings the energy. He stays calm, that's when we feed off him. Whatever he's doing, that's how we're going to respond."

The Bengals are coming for it all this week, in large part, because of that defense they started to rebuild the month before they drafted Burrow. They started it on the first day of that pandemic free agency in 2020 when they made Texans nose tackle D.J. Reader their highest paid free agent in history (four years, $52 million) and since then they've committed nearly a quarter of a billion dollars to defense.

Talk about watching your money grow. In the two games in the postseason the Bengals haven't allowed 20 points while forcing four turnovers that included Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill's three interceptions. And there was Reader in the middle of two of the biggest non-pick plays on defense. The two stops on Henry, one on fourth-and-one with 7:15 left and the Titans gong for the dagger at the Bengals 15, and the other on a two-point conversion.

Reader was just as forceful pushing back in the postgame at what he perceives are the slights directed at a team that won two games two years ago.

"You've seen the clippings. You've seen what's on Twitter. You all see what's going -- the NFL, what is it, Good Morning Football, where only one team -- you know what's going on. It's not a surprise. I get it. I get it," said Reader of the disrespect.

"It's personal. Yeah. It matters to you all the time. You want somebody to doubt you, your ability to do your job? As a journalist, you want somebody to doubt you to do your job? No, it's disrespectful. You've got to go out there and take it. You got to earn respect, so we get it. We'll keep chopping at the wood like we've been doing."

The moment was emotional for a guy like Reader, who suddenly remembered the nine-year-old in Greensboro, N.C., running around in garbage bags trying to cut weight so he could play in the youth league.

"They don't look at themselves that way," Reader said of his teammates. "How can you look at yourself as the underdog when you overcome all that? You can't. I tore my quad tendon last year. I'm back in the playoffs. This is great. I don't look at myself as an underdog. I'm overcoming everything."

After they signed Reader, they kept it going this past offseason.

Trey Hendrickson broke Reader's signing record, then he broke the Bengals sack record after a year the Bengals finished dead last in sacks. They heisted slot cornerback Mike Hilton from the Steelers and he made Saturday's biggest, most spectacular play when he stole seven points and the highlights on a blitz at the Bengals 9 where he tipped Tannehill's pass to himself. They got a blue light special in Apple's best season capped by Saturday's terrific break on the ball with 20 seconds left.

"I think the guys who were on this team when I came in, we brought in an attitude of, 'We're going to play defense and worry about our job and worry about what we're going to do, we're going to go out there every day and grind,'" Reader said. "And it translates. You're not complaining, you're not this, you're not that.

"We don't have an indoor (facility). Nobody out there complaining. Four degrees couple weeks ago. Nobody said nothing. It's what we do. Guys are out there playing. Guys want to play football. They want to go out there and grind. There's a lot of guys on this team who have been passed on or moved from team to team and whatever, not good opportunities. You know how many free agents we got -- the old team didn't want them. So that's where we come in and take the attitude with it."

Everybody wanted Burrow and on Saturday he and Reader made for some excellent, symbolic bookends from that first month of the overhaul that culminated in Saturday's rough draft of history.

"That's who we're trying to get the ball to. No matter what's going on with him, we'll go out there and get the ball back to him," Reader said. "He's the toughest guy in the league, though. He's tough. Just gritty. Love it. I love that about him. He's a super tough guy. He doesn't complain. Goes out there does his job. I really appreciate Joe."

What Burrow appreciates about his team is that on Friday night he felt like he was talking to his buddies.

"I think, number one, we've brought in a lot of guys that have been in this kind of moment in this game," Burrow said, "and two, we're also a really young team that doesn't really don't know what we don't know. So, we're out there playing football with our friends, so that's what it's like."