ORCHARD PARK, N.Y _The Bengals danced through the snow and into the visitors' locker room at Highmark Stadium singing about the refunds the NFL has to send to the folks who bought tickets to the AFC Title Game That Never Was, thanks to their bone-rattling 27-10 mastery of the deer-in-the-headlights Bills in Sunday's AFC Divisional.
But the people who really should get their money back are those who bet against the Bengals' night-at-the-improv offensive line. The three backups grabbed center stage with one of the more remarkable efforts in franchise history and NFL postseason lore when they went on the road in the playoffs and dominated a top five rush defense with 172 yards while making sure Pro Bowl quarterback Joe Burrow got sacked once and hit just three times in Cincinnati's most efficient three-hitter since the Tom Browning days.
It was quarterback Joe Burrow's unheard of new offensive line that set Championship Sunday's schedule and not the powers that be and put the Bengals into their second straight AFC title game in Kansas City (6:30 p.m.-Cincinnati's Local 12) and sent the Bills to the golf course instead of Atlanta.
When running back Joe Mixon got a game ball for the third best rushing game in Bengals postseason history (105 yards on 20 carries), he flipped it to rookie left guard Cordell Volson, who handed it to center Ted Karras, who handed it back. On a day the Bengals had the ball for more than 33 minutes, it's the only time they gave it up.
"It was really amazing all day," said Burrow after he presided over one of the most physical Bengals' wins in recent memory. "And then the most impressive was our four-minute drive where we got three first downs running the football. It's tough to run the football in those situations and they were able to get the job done for us."
To make it even more memorable, it was Jackson Carman's coming of age on his 23rd birthday he celebrated by helping Mixon join Cedric Benson and Ickey Woods as Bengals' 100-yard postseason rushers.
Carman, a second-round pick last year at the ripe old age of 21, finally made his first NFL start at his college position Sunday in a season that began with him losing the left guard job to the fourth-rounder Volson and then saw him inactive for 13 straight games before the injuries piled up. Karras, the heartbeat of the new and old line, had seen enough as the team spokesman emerged from a one-on-one with NFL Sirius Radio.
"I think Jackson Carman showed he's a left tackle in this league," Karras said. "And what a performance by all the guys."
Especially Karras, who got his knee rolled late in the first quarter and needed a brace to not miss a snap. And there was no way Karras was missing it. Two years ago in this building the Bills denied his Dolphins a post-season berth in the last game of the last season. Last year here the Bills ended his Patriots season in a playoff blowout.
"He's just a warrior," Volson said. "He kept fighting and someone you love playing with."
Bengals head coach Zac Taylor said he didn't bring out the run game because of the snow or the new line. It's the first time Mixon carried more than 16 times since the first win in the streak against Carolina Nov. 6, when they had season highs of 39 carries for 241 yards. Sunday's 34 for 172 were second best.
"The two runs we had against them last game, we felt good about it, so we dialed some of those up," said Taylor, pointing to offensive line coach and run game coordinator Frank Pollack. "I thought Frank had a great plan in the run game. Joe Burrow did a great job executing the checks that we needed to check. And man, when Mixon and Samaje (Perine) got the ball … it was always two or three more (yards) after contact. That was a great job by those backs."
Karras, making his fourth appearance in an AFC title game next week, has very definitely been here before.
"My season ended here horribly the last two years. I really wanted to get a win," Karras said. "Very grateful. We're in the Final Four with a chance to go to the big dance."
It was Karras who kept things straight early on Sunday. He also wasn't coming out because there was that hostile crowd as loud as ever and there were the Bills with their typical stunts and games testing Carman early.
"We were able to pick up the different movements and stems and things on the edge and plugging pressures," Carman said. "Ted did a good job keeping us all on the same page. It's football. They did stunt and did a couple of things and we able to handle it as a unit."
Last week Carman spoke so eloquently about how much he had learned and grown in these two seasons since coming out of Clemson as Trevor Lawrence's left tackle. Coming off back surgery. Switching from tackle to guard and from left to right. Benched twice as a rookie. Losing out to Volson this year. On Sunday he had tickets for people who believed in him all the way. His mother. A cousin. His brothers. His coach at Fairfield High School, Jason Krause. In this week of home grown Sam Hubbard, Carman's emergence remind everyone he's a hometown kid, too, from the Cincinnati suburbs.
"My birthday," Carman said. "I wanted to go out there and have fun."
Did they ever. With Carman playing for Jonah Williams (knee), Max Scharping making his second Bengals start playing for right guard Alex Cappa (ankle) and Hakeem Adeniji making his third straight start for La'el Collins (ACL), the Bengals' new line was supposed to be circling the wagons against a top six defense and one of the loudest crowds in the NFL that had seen their beloved Bills lose only one of 14 home playoffs games. The best home record in NFL postseason history.
"Luckily, "Karras said, "we got a lead early (14-0) so I think that dampened (the crowd's) hostility a little bit."
The Bills are now, as Bengals senior defensive assistant Mark Duffner reminded the postgame locker room celebration, "13-2!"
But there were no holding penalties and only a false start each from Volson and Carman. The one dicey moment came late in the third quarter came when Carman threw down rusher Shaq Lawson and Burrow got his legs tangled awkwardly.
"At first look, he was unbelievable. I'll have to watch the tape," Burrow said of Carman, "but I felt nothing from that side all day."
Cappa, week-to-week after missing the last two postseason games, made the trip and raved about his replacement, the veteran waiver wire pickup Scharping.
(Maybe people didn't realize that Scharping started two postseason games as a rookie, one in the Arrowhead Stadium noise machine. And that Adeniji started all four postseason games last season at right guard. And that he and Carman split those snaps when they won the AFC title in Arrowhead last season and that maybe they were a year better and wiser.)
"They stuck together. That last drive, we must have run the same play (eight) straight times," Cappa said. "And we held the ball for (five minutes). A lot of that was awesome … Max has played a lot. Thirty starts. We knew. We had confidence in everybody."
That last drive was good, but the drive to take a 24-10 lead with just over 16 minutes left in the game was the best. There was Scharping pulling to open a seven-yard hole for Mixon. On third-and-1, there was Carman being a monster to allow Mixon's third-and-one toss for 13 yards, a bolt into the red zone. And then there was everybody, Adeniji and D'Ante Smith, Sunday's occasional extra tackle playing in his fourth game, helping Mixon wedge into the end zone from one yard out.
"These guys are dawgs. Make sure you spell it d-a-w-g-s. Dawgs. They were dawgs," said Mixon, who earlier riffed to a media throng about his team's chemistry.
"The backups have been doing it year," Mixon said. "They've come through in a major way. We've had it all year. They've stepped up in big moments. In games like this when the lights are on, we shine."
In the last few hours of his 23rd birthday, Carman was on the Bengals' charter watching the game on his iPad.
"This is a great way to celebrate," he said.