Cam Taylor-Britt, the Bengals' most impactful rookie cornerback since Leon Hall in 2007, helped defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo deliver one of his playoff clinics during Sunday's 27-10 AFC Divisional win over the Bills.
After leading the NFL in allowing the lowest passer rating this season, the Bengals stymied Bills quarterback Josh Allen on 68.1, more than 30 points below his career playoff number.
"Be physical. They don't like that. Receivers are soft," said Taylor-Britt, who talks openly like Adam Jones and plays physically like Hall, two of the Bengals starting cornerbacks the last time they won a dozen games in 2015.
With Taylor-Britt their top graded coverage player on Sunday by Pro Football Focus, the Bengals pulled the plug on Allen's big play-offense that finished second in the NFL in scoring this past season and had generated Allen's three straight 300-yard playoff games that included last week's career-high 354 yards against the Dolphins.
If you want to know how they did it, how they held the Bills to just three pass plays of at least 20 yards, check out Allen's last, best shot to get back in the game on one of the last snaps of the third quarter.
Down 24-10, Allen was staring at a third-and-two from his own 20 when he saw wide receiver Gabriel Davis badly beat Taylor-Britt down the left sideline and threw a great ball that would have been the lightning strike Buffalo needed.
Now, remember, Allen to Gabriel has been like Montana to Rice the last two postseasons with six touchdowns. In fact, Montana-Rice is one of only three duos that have more playoff TD connections in a two -season span than Allen-Davis. Plus, Allen's postseason targets to Davis have netted six touchdowns and no interceptions with an average of 18.6 air yards.
But not Sunday, when Davis had two catches for 34 yards. Not here, when Taylor-Britt showed his grit and recovery speed as Davis looked like he was off on one of his long ones. But Taylor-Britt caught up to him and Allen still put it over Davis' shoulder and when Davis was about to put it away, Taylor-Britt kept scraping at the ball and it slid out.
Punt. Ball game.
"I've been looking at the film," Taylor-Britt said Monday. "It was a good release, and it was icy and I was like, 'Oh Lord,' and I just didn't want to panic. That's one thing a lot of DBs do when they get beat is panic and get to holding and get a (pass interference) that way, so I just wanted to play through his hands. His eyes got kind of big. When the ball is coming, eyes get big and it's just one play for the catch at that point so I just wanted to make sure I shot my hands at the right point and I did."
And Allen's other big target, three-time Pro Bowler Stefon Diggs coming off his fifth straight 1,000-yard season, left mad with four catches for 35 yards. In three routes against Diggs, Taylor-Britt gave him just two catches for 11 yards with plenty of muscle.
"Be physical because the physical guy that I am, he's a receiver that doesn't like that stuff. I wanted to keep putting hands on him at all times," Taylor-Britt. "Just kind of rattle him a little bit. He gets a little frustrated here and there. I wouldn't say get in his head but get out of his game. Just wanted to play a complete football game and play sound, play within the defense, hold my leverages whenever I was guarding him. I just played top-down. Just didn't want to let him get any shots over the top."
A second-round pick out of Nebraska, Taylor-Britt was thrust into the starting role abruptly, just eight days after his NFL debut. That was delayed until Oct. 23 because of training camp surgery. But when their No. 1 cornerback, Chidobe Awuzie, went down with an ACL tear on Halloween, it was time and he pretty much is doing what Anarumo is telling him.
Such as on Sunday.
"We challenged them. I thought the corners did a good job, I thought Cam did a good job on Diggs, getting him a little flustered," Anarumo said. "Being aggressive at the line with him, I think that's important with him that you do that, don't just give him free access. And he didn't shy away from that."
Taylor-Britt also extended the Bengals' streak of fourth-quarter turnovers to seven games by picking the perfect time for his first NFL interception when Allen flung one in the end zone in the last minute and Taylor-Britt played Cover Two, Anarumo's instructions and the ball perfectly.
"I just wanted to play top down. They tried to hit us with some type of crossers," Taylor-Britt said. "I was just basically looking at Josh the whole time. I saw something down below, but I didn't want to bite on that because it's the end of the game. They want a touchdown, not five yards. I just kept getting deeper and deeper and he actually threw the ball and I went to get it."
The next thing Taylor-Britt knew what he was doing, his teammates beckoned him to stay in the end zone and do snow angels to celebrate.
"I had no idea what that was," Taylor-Britt said.
What it was is the continued education of a rookie.
"I feel like I've improved tremendously throughout this season," Taylor-Britt said. "There's plenty more to go, most definitely, just growing throughout these games, you see a lot from these quarterbacks and these offenses. Coming up this weekend we'll see one of the top offenses, just like last weekend and so we've got to be on our P's and Q's with that."
A little Leon and then he offered a little Pac.
"Watch,' he said mischievously, "I'm a going to get one this weekend."
MORE CHESS: Anarumo faces Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes for the fourth time in 393 days in Sunday's AFC title game (6:30 p.m.-Cincinnati's Local 12) and in allowing Mahomes a total of two field goals in three fourth quarters to build a 3-0 record against him, Anarumo has won the reputation as the architect of the blueprint that has stopped Mahomes.
So does he do the opposite Sunday and try to surprise them? Or keep doing what he's doing, knowing in Chiefs Kingdom they've been simmering on it for a year?
"I think what's working for us that day," Anarumo said. "They are such a great team, I don't know that's just that we are going to do this and this is going to work. We'll just kind of get feel for how the game is going and trying to adjust as it goes on to what their new little schemes are and stuff."
One common theme is that Anarumo uses his tight end stopper Tre Flowers on Chiefs Pro Bowl tight end Travis Kelce. Except when he doesn't. When Flowers has got him, he does well on him, like in last's year's title game when he covered him for an incompletion. But according to PFF, five other guys also covered Kelce that day on his way to ten catches for 95 yards.
The last time they played, Flowers had six snaps but didn't cover him (per PFF) while four others had him on a 53-yard night remembered for linebacker Germaine Pratt yanking out one of Kelce's four receptions for a game-turning fumble to start the fourth-quarter streak.
But Flowers is clearly a chess piece Anarumo has used well against Kelce. In the first win over them, Flowers broke up a huge third-down pass in a game Kelce had five catches for 25 yards.
Can they do it again? Flowers (hamstring) missed the Buffalo game and rookie safety Dax Hill was called on to cover Bills tight end Dawson Knox one time and it was a third-down play in the end zone on a high throw Hill made sure he didn't catch. Four others also covered Knox in breaking his string of five straight games with a touchdown catch.
The 6-3, 200-pound Flowers has three inches and 10 pounds on Hill but Anarumo isn't worried about Hill matching up with the 6-5, 260-pound Kelce, largely because of how long he plays.
And, the ultimate chess match is against Chiefs head coach and play-caller Andy Reid, assisted by offensive coordinator and former Bengals running back Eric Bieniemy. Last week against Jacksonville Reid became the third coach in history to get 20 playoff wins, tying Tom Landry and behind only Patriots coach Bill Belichick's 31.
"He has a great timing on when he calls certain things. I've always thought that," Anarumo said. "Kelce caught a lot of balls last week, but a lot of them are check downs and now all of a sudden, he catches and turns it up for six, seven, eight, nine, 10.
"If you are playing any kind of zone, it looks like how come you are not paying attention to Travis Kelce. Well, you are, but he just happens to be a block and release guy and he caught the ball on a shot play down the field. We have to be careful with that and when and where we play man and all that stuff. He does a great job of calling plays and he has a great feel for it."
ZAC'S TRIP: Bengals head coach Zac Taylor, whose five playoff wins are pretty good, too, because he's moving up the ladder and just passed Sean McDermott on the active list and is tied with Doug Pederson, had an interesting bus ride Sunday through Orchard Park, N.Y., to Highmark Stadium. Sitting next to offensive coordinator Brian Callahan, they watched the Bills faithful gather in front yards and back yards and everywhere else in between.
"I thought last year's ride into Kansas City was the best I ever had," Taylor said of the ride to the AFC title game. "This one … was tied for it. The support of those organizations and how early they get there to tailgate and support. We feel that from our fans. On road games it's what you sign up for when you play and coach in this league. Impossible to replicate.
"I was sitting next to Brian going up smiling from ear to ear watching fans do all sorts of things to the bus from afar. You can't bottle this up. You can't replicate it. You just have to experience it. It's pretty cool. "
Mindful of how tough the environment is, Taylor tapped his most veteran starters on each side of the ball to take Sunday's coin toss in wide receiver Tyler Boyd and free safety Jessie Bates III.
"I just think those are two guys who have represented us really well and taken us through some really hard times," Taylor said. "Those are two guys, one on offense and one on defense, that have been here since a lot of these coaches walked in the door and just been consistent and represented this franchise the right way and this city the right way. Just thought we are walking into a tough environment. These guys have gotten us through a lot of tough moments, tough environments. Just an appreciation for those two guys."
SLANTS AND SCREENS: Taylor wouldn't say what many believe. In his 71-game tenure, Sunday was the most complete game: "I don't really compare the games to the other games that we played but I thought it was a really good complementary team effort." …
On trying to beat the Chiefs for the fourth time in two seasons: "We've got to beat them one time in a row. There's more familiarity personnel-wise amongst both teams now, so we understand the environment we are walking into. That doesn't hurt. But at the end of the day it feels like we played them a really long time ago. I don't even know how many games ago it was. I don't even know what month it was in. Teams continue to evolve. Different strengths pop up, different weaknesses pop up so you've got to do the whole game plan thing all over again and then get your guys ready to go and play in a tough environment against a great team."
Injury update on right guard Alex Cappa (ankle): "I think he's improving every day. We'll just see where it ends up."…
On left tackle Jonah Williams (knee): "Improving every day, we'll see where it ends up." …
On center Ted Karras (knee): "He felt good enough to finish the game. We'll continue to get rest these next two days and see where we're at on Wednesday."