Bengals captain Mike Hilton is being, well, Mike Hilton as he eyes another trip to Arrowhead Stadium with everything on the table Sunday (4:25 p.m.-Cincinnati's Local 12) against the Super Bowl champion Chiefs.
Two years ago it was the AFC Championship Game, where he helped safeties Jessie Bates III and Vonn Bell conjure up what he calls "one of the biggest plays in organizational history," with the overtime interception that put the Bengals in the Super Bowl.
Last year it was the next AFC title game, what he calls "probably one of the worst games of my career," a terrible trip that began with him declaring the week before in the euphoria of Buffalo they were going "to Burrowhead," and ended with a Patrick Mahomes pass whizzing past his fingertips for a third-and-10 red-zone touchdown.
"That was everything in my mind. I feel like I let my team down and I kind of left them out there to dry," said Hilton after Thursday's practice of his offseason motivation. "I had some months to think about things and I've got another opportunity this Sunday. I want to help turn around this team again. They count on me to lead them on and off the field and that's what I've been trying to do."
The numbers say he has. Of Pro Football Focus' 10 cornerbacks who have played at least 327 snaps in the slot, he's the only one with an interception who hasn't allowed a touchdown while passers have a rating of 78.2 against him, the lowest among the ten.
And in the last four games the Bengals have morphed from Joe Burrow to Jake Browning, he has cranked it up with vintage versatility in the slot with a goal-line interception, three other passes defensed, and four tackles for loss among his total of 18 and says, "I'm playing some of the best ball of my career on the ball, in the backfield, doing what I do best."
The 5-9, 180-pound Hilton, the ever feisty undrafted free agent, is getting even feistier as he approaches his 30th birthday in March. He has apparently heard some things.
"I know a lot of people expect me to slow down and not be the type of player I am, but that does nothing but motivate me and get me going. I love that negative energy. 'He can't do it anymore.' Just because I know how hard I work. I'm never going to give up," Hilton said.
"You know how it is. People feel like when you get to a certain age, you slow down. But that's not the case. You know when it's time. I'm far from that. I feel good. I'm still playing at a high level."
Hilton has directed his fire to a defense that has been flattened by the big play since Texans rookie quarterback C.J. Stroud came into Paycor Stadium last month and unfurled eight passes of at least 20 yards. The stretch reached a peak last Saturday when three Pittsburgh passes accounted for nearly 200 yards, which upset not only defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo.
"We just have to be in better position. Early on it was more missed tackles than anything," Hilton said. "Later on it's been guys not being in the right spot. They let somebody get behind them in a zone or something. Not communicating pre or post snap. Just being aware where certain people are. Knowing that teams are going to get the ball to their main guys. We just have to make sure we have somebody on them."
Which is what happened two years ago in overtime of the title game. They knew on third-and-10 from his own 25, Mahomes was looking for the raw speed of wide receiver Tyreek Hill on what looked to be an over route. Bell, Bates, and Hilton passed the word to each other and Hilton worked his technique.
Bell and Bates were in their second year in the system and seasoned pros. Hilton is helping along the first-year tandem of sophomore Dax Hill and rookie Jordan Bates, as well as rookie cornerback DJ Turner as he emerged as a starter for the injured Cam Taylor-Britt. All those guys were in college in that first title game.
"It was one of those plays where everyone was on the same page in a critical moment, critical down," Hilton said. "We won that game and we have to find a way to get that same chemistry and communication.
"We feel confident about the guys we have."
Hilton only has to point them to Mahomes' magic against him on third-and-10 last year from the Cincy 19 in a 13-13 game late in the third quarter. He says he gave up two other explosives, but it's that one that keeps gnawing at him.
With Mahomes dancing in the pocket and looking like he may take off, wide receiver Marquez Valdes-Scantling got a slight step behind Hilton taking them across the field into the end zone. Suddenly, Mahomes stepped up and flicked a low-flying bullet that Hilton just missed with a dive.
Touchdown. Chiefs, 20-13.
"Not many quarterbacks make that throw," said Hilton, no doubt relaying the message to the kids. "But I had to be in better position to finish the play."
JA'MARR PREPS: Bengals Pro Bowl wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase (shoulder) said it's going to be a game -time decision Sunday when it comes to the sprained AC joint in his shoulder. He says his range of motion is coming back, but he says it's largely a matter of preparing himself mentally.
It sounded like he already is after Thursday's practice, "adding fire to the fuel," as he analyzed the Chiefs secondary. It will be recalled Chase made one of the huge plays in last year's title game on fourth-and-six from the KC 41 when he knifed through cornerback L'Jarius Sneed and safety Bryan Cook for a leaping 35-yard catch that set up the tying touchdown early in the fourth quarter.
Chase says it came out of KC's "double-double" coverage where they double both him and wide receiver Tee Higgins: "I know what I see on paper, I know what I see in the game. They double everybody. They can't do it one-on-one. Their best player is Sneed. That's a fact. Everybody knows that. That's why they double double."
Cook is out Sunday. Chase? He says he never likes watching games from the sideline and last Saturday was no different. So he kept track of the coverages on Higgins and Tyler Boyd "and be like another coach." He says it's the time of the year that comes down to "sacrifices." As for maybe playing limited snaps, Chase kept that option open, but what's limited?
"When I'm in a game, " Chase said, "I'm not thinking about myself being hurt."
MORE JUICE: Cam Taylor-Britt, the Bengals 'top cornerback, gives them a huge lift as he returns from a five-game stint rehabbing an injured ankle. He started last year's title game in an impressive outing by the Cincy cover people.
Taylor-Britt allowed just one catch on five targets, per PFF, a 13-yarder to tight end Travis Kelce. Although Valdes-Scantling hurt them with 116 yards and that big touchdown, they kept Mahomes relatively in check, holding him to 20 points until that winning field goal in the final seconds. It seemed to be a harbinger of this year, when the Chiefs have scored 20 or fewer points in eight games (all losses) after eight games with 20 or fewer points combined in the previous two seasons.
Mahomes has a career-high 14 picks and is averaging his fewest passing yards per game as he looks for consistency from receivers who have dropped 28 passes, 19 by the wide receivers, and six of those from Justin Watson, all NFL highs.
But Taylor-Britt is wary of their speed as the Bengals get back to basics in order to prevent he big play. Earlier in the week, Anarumo said he expects the Chiefs to come out gunning despite their offensive woes.
"From the top down," Taylor-Britt said Thursday. "You have to get your hands on the receivers. You can't let those guys take the top off. In some situations, they just tried to run away from Man (coverage) with speed and they try to pick us. In any situation, short-yardage, too, you have to look for things like that.
"Put pressure on them. Make them make some crazy decisions. He wants to throw the ball down the field. He doesn't want to check it down, so we have to play top down and plaster the receivers (on Mahomes' scrambles)."