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Deja Vu Defense Jump Starts Another Bengals Playoff Run As More Late Heroics Claim Wild Card Win

Bengals defense rules The Jungle again.
Bengals defense rules The Jungle again.

The Paycor Stadium press box residents were already calling it the greatest play in Bengals history even before Sam Hubbard took a shower.

Given that Hubbard's 98-yard touchdown is an NFL postseason record for a fumble return and held up for the winning score with 11:39 left in a Wild Card Game that gave them their first playoff victory in back-to-back seasons …

As the kids say, "Facts."

 "You can't even dream that one up. It's pretty special," said Hubbard, the homegrown defensive end after the 24-17 victory over the Ravens. "I was just glad to see my teammates' faces because that was a bad one. It was a toughly fought game. A lot of adversity, very physical. To make the play and be the guy to come through is an amazing feeling. Not only for my teammates, but the fans as well."

The second biggest throng in Paycor history (66,399) watched what is becoming common place around these parts. An excruciating, exhausting, euphoric playoff win secured as late as it can get by a defense that brings them into Sunday's 3 p.m. AFC Divisional in Buffalo. It was also the Bengals' ninth straight win in a game they forced a fourth-quarter turnover for the sixth straight game.

 "Just the second half in general this entire year, that's really been the story line for our defense, is rising up and really just not allowing the (opposing) offense to have anything,' said head coach Zac Taylor. "For our offense to go and get into a rhythm and be able to score points, but our defense in the second half, which has been fantastic — today was no different."

So crazy, but it made so much sense in a classic AFC North game decided by muscle and inches and seconds. And where turnovers always seem to turn into points.

With an injured backup quarterback, Ravens head coach John Harbaugh played a robust brand of four-corners. Harbaugh has an NFL-record eight playoff road wins largely because his Ravens teams came in with a plus-12 turnover margin in the postseason.

On Sunday, they were a big minus one. The Bengals cashed two turnovers for 14 points. The Ravens turned one into a field goal and that was it.

"You get three possessions in the first half," Taylor said of a night they had only seven. "We got our third possession with four minutes left in the half and it felt like that's just the way it is. Every possession is so critical because those two turnovers we got on defense — you win the turnover battle two-to-one and you win the game in a game like that. There's no secret sauce there."

The man who stood up Ravens quarterback Tyler Huntley in the middle of the line when he tried to leap and place the ball from the Bengals 1-yard line over the goal line and break up a 17-17 game was linebacker Germaine Pratt, whose interception last season at the Bengals 2 with a dozen seconds left preserved the 26-19 Wild Card win over the Raiders.

"We're going to need turnovers to get back to the Super Bowl," Pratt said. "I'm glad we started early."

The man who punched the ball out of Huntley's hands, middle linebacker Logan Wilson, hauled in an interception in the last minute to set up the winning points in last year's Divisional.

"Just play hard. And when you're conscious of it, make the conscious effort to get the ball out, that's the kind f guys we have on defense. That's reiterating that mindset," Wilson said.

Free safety Jessie Bates III, who tipped Patrick Mahomes' pass to teammate Vonn Bell to tip the overtime of last season's AFC title game to the Bengals, made Hubbard's play possible when he chased down Huntley to force him out of bounds at the 2 and prevented a 37-yard touchdown run.

"It's not about me. It's not about the hustle play at all. It's just the tradition that we've created here in Cincinnati," Bates said. "That's what we're all about — doing our job until the play ends. We've got one of the best red zone defenses in the league, so anytime we can line up another snap, we'll be in good shape. It's just the tradition and the standard for our defense."

"It's the chemistry we have on this defense, the love that we have for one another. We have no doubt in one another. If somebody gives up a play, we know we'll line it up and have their back. It's the tradition, it's the motto that we have here in Cincinnati. It's all love within all of us."

Get the idea? These guys have it in their minds to do it again.

"It's good to see," Taylor said, "that they brought that type of defense into the playoffs."

Talk about the numbers holding up, the Bengals came in tied with the NFL's ninth best red zone defense. The Ravens had the fourth worst red zone offense. The Bengals are so good inside the 20 because of guys like Wilson. After the game, Hubbard called Wilson "just one of the most aware football players I've ever played with."

Taylor called it a 14-point play, a touchdown the Ravens didn't get and the Bengals did. Next Gen Stats called it a 42-percent play. The Bengals probability of winning before the play was 46 percent, 88 percent after.

"Based on the formation, I knew it was a sneak formation. I knew there was space," Wilson said of fullback Patrick Ricard, tight end Mark Andrews and running back Gus Edwards all jammed next to and behind Huntley.

"I don't remember exactly what yard line he was on, it was at least a yard and half to the goal line. So I knew I had some time before he reached across the goal line and I just jumped up and made play and punched the ball out and Sam was able to go to the house."

He had company. Hubbard called it "a caravan," and he needed them all as he looked at up at the scoreboard and saw Pro Bowl tight end Mark Andrews trying to become a Pro Bowl safety and chase him down.

"I was watching on the big screen. I was like, 'He's coming, somebody block him, please don't get caught.' That's all I was thinking about," Hubbard said.

Hubbard had about a five-yard start on goal-line linebacker Markus Bailey, but Bailey soon caught up to him. So did linebacker Akeem Davis-Gaither, who had the Bengals' other turnover of the night when his interception ended Baltimore's first series. Vonn Bell was with him, too.

But it was Bailey who made the only block he needed. Someone how he ran in front of Andrews and pushed him at the Ravens 30 before Andrews made a desperate dive at the 20.

"In a game like this where field position and any points are crucial, I was going to do anything I could to get him in the end zone," Bailey said. "(Andrews) was behind the right side of my vision. (Hubbard) did a good job weaving around. I think he would have made a play if I didn't get a hand on him. I thought I hit him on the side. I wish Sam had taken a right turn and gone away from him."

Davis-Gaither was clapping for the ball, yelling for Hubbard to lateral it back. But not tonight.

"I always joke after — I think it was the Raiders game last year — I got caught and I always tell everybody, 'If I get a fumble, just get behind me, I'm pitching it to you,'" Hubbard said. "That moment didn't really call for it. I was taking it all the way."

Told Next Gen had him for a top speed of 17.4, Hubbard, one of the mighty men of Cincinnati's Moeller High School, didn't sound surprised. He and his tag-team partner on the other edge, Trey Hendrickson, run a lot during the week.

"I would've liked to get into the 18s, I've been up there. Me and Trey actually try to get our top speeds after practice on Thursdays every week. He's usually in the 20s. I'm trying to get into the 18s, but I got knocked for my 4.95 (40-yard dash) at the combine, and I don't think that matters much now."

It also doesn't matter he ran a total of 123 yards to go 98 or needed oxygen after that nine-play drive.

"I was just with DJ (Reader) and the other D-linemen and everyone was so gassed. They saw me taking off and no D-linemen chased after me. They were like, 'You got it.' It was fun," Hubbard said.

Hendrickson joined in even though he wasn't on the field. He says he was sprinting down the sideline with him.

"Unbelievable. Cincinnati legend," Hendrickson said. "We run every practice. I'm glad he had the endurance, the energy … I was so happy for him. All that effort. All that time. He deserves it. That's the thing about this defense. It never stops never giving up."

Wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase wondered about the next Madden game.

"Hopefully his Madden rating goes up, and his speed goes up on Madden," Chase said. "He's still slow, but as long as his speed goes up, I'm fine with it."

Hubbard is used to all this, too. It will be recalled that he made overtime in the last AFC title game possible with his back-to-back sacks of Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes in the last minute of regulation.

""It's something my mom always told me since I was little. In moments like that, I happen to just play my best, and I pride myself on that," Hubbard said. "But I think that pressure and situation and preparation brings the best out of me, and I love being in those moments."

He could have been talking about his defense, which on Sunday was doing a lot of déjà vu-ing in the last minute.