NASHVILLE _ On a day the bruising Bengals finished off another November to Remember by outTitaning head coach Mike Vrabel's mashing Titans, wide receiver Trenton Irwin, the Stanford student who has become a symbol of the Bengals vat-deep roster in the last two weeks of November football, made a smart move.
Because he led the Who-Dey chant last week when the Bengals celebrated a win in Pittsburgh, Irwin got to choose the player to do it in Nissan Stadium after the Bengals replicated last year's grimy and gorgeous win in the playoffs here with a win that put them squarely in this year's playoff picture as the co-leaders in the AFC North. After the Bengals had pushed back on Tennessee's second-ranked run defense with 108 yards and allowed its league-leading pressure just one sack of quarterback Joe Burrow, Irwin chose the most experienced offensive lineman in right tackle La'el Collins.
"Damn right," said Collins about how November football, a playoff push and the offensive line go together. "It's going to be like this for the rest of the year. As long as we do our job up front, nobody is going to beat us."
First things first. As they finished up in the locker room and prepared to take the flight home to enjoy a Victory Monday Off Day, some of them gathered around a TV to watch the Jaguars beat the Ravens to put the Bengals back in a first-place tie with Baltimore at 7-4.
Of course, it was Zay Jones, the nephew of another Bengal who had a November to Remember, Jeff Blake, who caught the Jags' winning two-pointer. Just as naturally it was a Bengals draft pick, Marvin Jones, who caught Trevor Lawrence's touchdown pass to set up the two-pointer.
"At the end of the day," said middle linebacker Logan Wilson, calmly holding court with the media as the Joneses kept up with the AFC North, "we control what we control and everything we want is in front of us at this point."
Bengals head coach Zac Taylor gave everyone a game ball and he should have given himself one because he knew the exact tone to strike during a week the Bengals kept hearing about that physical Vrabel defense had in the top ten again in key defensive categories and punishing Titans running back Derrick Henry racing to the NFL rushing lead on his 247-pound yards after contact.
"We felt it all week. We felt it last night. Felt it as we took the field today," Taylor said. "One thing this team took to heart was how physical they heard this game was going to be and that's a credit to Tennessee because that's how they play, but our guys answered the bell today. You know, and to hold their lead back to 2.2 yards a carry and 38 yards, for the offense to rush for over 100 yards, for guys to step up and make one-on-one plays, for Mike Hilton to come off the edge and tackle that back one-on-one like he did, I thought was just a tremendous team effort today."
The 5-9 Hilton and 80 pounds lighter than Henry played huge Sunday and he knew it. "They brought me here for games like this." Although the Bengals felt like they blitzed him about the same, he thought they blitzed him a little more than usual as he racked up seven tackles. They clearly blitzed him on first-and-10 from the Bengals 25 as the clock ticked to seven minutes left in the game and Cincy leading, 20-13.
"It's what I do best," Hilton said. "I live for games like this."
With Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill calling out, "Nickel corner coming," still nobody touched Hilton as he stormed in one-on-one to take out Henry's feet for no gain. Two passes later, Tennessee had to take the field goal. While Taylor extolled Hilton's cat-and-mouse games with quarterbacks, Hilton talked how they mixed it up a tad. They didn't use as many five-man fronts as they did in the playoff game because Tennessee played more three receivers and in the end that probably did the Bengals a favor because backup nose tackle Josh Tupou (calf) was still out.
"I don't know what his height, weight is," Taylor said. "I'm not going to guess, but he doesn't care. He plays like he's a 6-4, 240-pound linebacker. And that's what you need from a nickel. I've always maintained that those scrappy nickels are the biggest pains to deal with. He's smart. He's scrappy. He can cover. He can tackle. He can do it all."
They also used some three safeties occasionally (rookie Dax Hill blitzed Tannehill into a third-down incompletion on one of his six snaps) when the Titans went with heavy personnel.
"We wanted to show them a little two-high and one-high. We definitely wanted to put it in Tannehill's hands and, you know, good things came our way. We were able to stop the run and make them one-dimensional," Hilton said. "I'm known as the best nickel run stopper in the league. I can just keep offenses off balance whether I'm blitzing or I'm not. I just like being able to move around and keep them off balance. It helps the defense as a whole."
It was a matchup of the Bengals' No. 1 red zone offense against the Titans' No. 2 offense and No. 1 muscled up. The Bengals didn't give up a touchdown on the Titans' three red-zone trips, holding Henry to seven yards on three carries inside the 20. Rookie cornerback Cam Taylor-Britt broke up a goal-line pass at the end of the half, but the biggest red-zone snap may have been late in the third quarter on second-and-five from the Bengals 7 and defensive end Sam Hubbard crashing down with free safety Jessie Bates III to hold Henry to a yard.
Hubbard, who had the Bengals' lone sack to go with six tackles, has fondness for those guys in the back end.
"I took on a couple of pullers and dove at (Henry's) legs trying to make a tackle and I missed," Hubbard recalled of a play. "Mike came in and cleaned up for the TFL. I know we've got guys that rally to the football and that lets me play fearless."
While the Titans went 0-for-3 in the red zone, the Bengals basically scored on one of two and that was the difference as running back Samaje Perine's mashing, muscling seven-yard touchdown run behind what amounted to a three tight-end set sent a heavy message in this showdown of physicality.
"Oh man, Samaje. Man," Collins said. "He is physical. Nobody wants to tackle him. He hits hard. He hits hard."
Perine caught his biggest play of the year on a 32-yard screen. But on his first catch of the day, he flashed the stiff arm that Tennessee's King Henry is known for and someone asked Logan Wilson if he saw Perine's impression of Henry.
"That's a Samaje Perine impression," Wilson said. "That's what we're going to call that one now."
Meanwhile, the Bengals offensive line was offering a pretty good impression of the November To Remember offensive line of Dave Lapam that played in the Bengals' first Super Bowl to close the 1981 season. The Titans' nine sacks of last January were a distant memory. Lapham, the long-time Bengals radio analyst, did one of his post-game interviews with a rare joint appearance of center Ted Karras and right guard Alex Cappa, saying this group is playing as well as any line in the league.
The quarterback agreed.
"They're playing as good as anybody in the league. Our run game has really taken off," Burrow said. "Our protection was awesome today. I had so much time in the pocket to be able to find guys or try to find an escape route and go make plays with my legs. I am so proud of those guys for how they are playing."
Taylor congratulated his men for being the first Bengals team to go unbeaten in November since 1982. That was nice, but they were only 2-0 because of the strike. The year before, the Lapham Bengals went 5-0. These guys went 3-0 with two of the wins on the road for their AFC North win and then gaining a division tie.
"That's a long time ago," Hubbard said. "They remember what you do in November."