After he helped beat the Bills from the inside out in last Sunday's AFC Divisional with that gritty joy he plays the slot, his head coach called Mike Hilton, Jr. "the best nickel in all of football," and that's no surprise to his best friend as the Bengals' second straight AFC title game looms Sunday (6:30 p.m.-Cincinnati's Local 12) in Kansas City.
"Pops," kept moving him up a spot or two in the Atlanta-area rec leagues since his youngest son always seemed to be a step or two ahead of the kids his age in Tyrone, Ga. Eventually Mike Hilton Sr., stopped worrying about how miserably Zachary's little brother took losing.
"When we moved into the neighborhood," Mike Hilton Sr. says, "all the kids seemed to be around his brother's age. Three or four years older and he was always out there in the backyard and the street trying to keep up with them when they were playing.
"Since he was five years old, if he lost a game he used to have his head down until the next day. It worried me a little bit and then I started to think it's maybe a good thing. If a kid's good with losing, it's not going to push him to win. So I figured, that's OK, let him be who he is."
What he is came blasting through the Buffalo snow as Bengals defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo's 184-pound road white uniformed knight, one of the most versatile pieces on a chess board that has helped provide the Bengals defense with checkmate in their five AFC playoff games over the last two years. Expect more of the same sideline-to-sideline interchangeability this Sunday against Patrick Mahomes and company, the cornerstone of Anarumo;s Staten Island Stew scheme of varying looks.
(It will be recalled in last year's AFC Divisional, another stone-cold road conquest in Nashville, it was Hilton's amazingly absurd tap-to-himself interception while blitzing Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill in the red zone that is one of the signature moves of that Super Bowl run.)
"It's not being cocky," says Mike Hilton, Jr., who agrees with Zac Taylor. "There's no other nickel in the league that can do what I can do. Coverage-wise. Blitz-wise. Stopping-the-run wise. I just don't think there are too many like me."
Maybe the Queen is the most versatile chess piece, but not in Hilton's orderly world. He may be Anarumo's Swiss Army Knife, but he was raised by a U.S. Navy first class petty officer. "My Queen," in his phone is wife Chassidy, the girl he's been with pretty much since she introduced herself on the first day of seventh grade at Flat Rock Middle School.
And, she wasn't surprised either as she watched last Sunday back in Cincinnati with their children, three-year-old Mikali and Mike Hilton III, eight months.
"The way Mike is on the field, that's how he is at home," Chassidy says. "He radiates how he really feels. He always gives it his all. That's just how he is every day. My children could eat him up."
There were no spectacular interceptions Sunday. Just a riveting clinic on how to play slot cornerback in the 21st century NFL as the clock ticked under a dozen minutes left in a game the ever dangerous quarterback Josh Allen dared think he could bring the Bills back from 27-10.
He started the drive throwing a 32-yard pass to tight end Dawson Knox, but before the butterflies could begin with a gnawing sense of a comeback, here came Hilton blitzing out of the slot on the next play and there was Allen forced to throw it away when he was unable to get out of the pocket.
Then, in rapid succession, Hilton:
_On second down, he knocked down wide receiver Cole Beasley just as he caught it at the first-down sticks.
_On first down, he dropped back as if he were going to cover, but at the snap came sprinting at Allen's right side. No one reacted until it was too late and he threw himself into Allen as he released the ball for what could have been a fumble but was called an incomplete pass.
_On second down, he pressured again, backed out to keep Allen inside and then trailed a scramble to help tackle him before the sticks.
_On third down, he lined up on the other side and hid behind edge Trey Hendrickson on another blitz, forcing Allen to unload it for the short first down.
_On first down at the Bengals 20, he cut down running back Devin Singletary in space for a one-yard loss on a safety-valve toss and even Singletary had to give Hilton an admiring tap on the helmet. It set the tone for a drive that failed shortly after on fourth down and had the Who-Dey faithful calling Delta for flights to Kansas City.
Take your pick. But maybe the biggest play in that sequence is the one after the long play to Knox. A disciplined, smart blitz that forced an incompletion. A momentum-killer that put the brakes on the Bills' hurry-up offense and provides a glimpse at Hilton's football acumen and Anarumo's game plan.
"A contained blitz. I saw Cam Sample go inside," Hilton says of the left end on the play. "I knew Cam, with his leverage, was going to (funnel Allen) out to me. I tried not over pursue, stayed outside, contained and forced him to throw it. I stepped up in between Cam and the linemen. There was a lot of space between me outside, Cam inside and the defensive line pushing to me. There was still a lot of space between those two, but Cam did a good job forcing him out to me and I was there to get a pressure. That was the whole game plan. Keep him in the pocket. You know how he is outside the pocket."
Hilton is no stranger to attention to detail. That's how he grew up as the son of a Navy man. Mike Hilton, Sr., was in for ten years and did a tour on the U.S.S. Saratoga as an expert in his field of electronics and it turns out his son is wired exactly the same way.
His mother, a retired court administrator for the city of Atlanta, has always told her husband Junior is so much like Senior.
"That's how I was brought up, how I am disciplined and focused. That's just how I was raised. Be respectful to everybody. Be on time. Do your job," Mike Hilton, Jr. says. "I try to be all about my detail during the game plan week and try to make sure guys are as detailed as possible knowing what's at stake.
"That's Lou knowing when to dial me up and me knowing the situation, knowing what to expect from the offense and knowing how I can affect the play."
The day after the game, rookie cornerback Cam Taylor-Britt was shaking his head on how the 5-9 Hilton can make himself even smaller on blitzes where he somehow pops out of nowhere on people.
Like on that that third down he seemingly leaped from Hendrickson's back pocket.
"Even though I'm on the move, I just try to hide behind some of those guys," Hilton says. "I'm pretty sure they expect me coming. But once I'm rolling and I appear out of nowhere, it kind of catches the offense off balance."
Like his son, Mike Hilton, Sr. is 5-9, and he goes about 165. He had his share of physical labor when he was aboard ship, but he made his grade with his engineering mind.
"I told him," Mike Hilton Sr., says, "there's nothing you can do about your size. You're always going to be one of the smallest guys out there. What separates you is what you've got above the shoulders."
If the Bengals have been the ultimate chip-on-the-shoulder team the past two seasons, then Hilton and quarterback Joe Burrow are the offensive and defensive captains of the unloved.
Burrow, the overlooked small Ohio high school Mr. Football and jilted Ohio State recruit. Hilton, the Mr. Everything on both sides of the ball for a two-time Georgia state championship team who had his heart set on going to Clemson.
"He's always had a chip on his shoulder," Mike Hilton, Sr. says. "Even after what he did in high school, he was only a third star recruit. That and his size probably kept the major schools away. When he didn't hear from Clemson, the idea was to go somewhere to get on the field as soon as possible and be seen."
Ole Miss worked in so many ways. He played virtually right away and he got enough exposure in the SEC that the Steelers signed him after the draft. It also worked out with Chassidy. When he went to Mississippi and she went to Georgia Southern, they agreed to break it off and see what things looked like after college.
"We needed the break. We were all we knew," Chassidy says. "We figured if it was meant to be, it was meant to be and it was."
No wonder she calls him "My King." If you think he's busy on the field, you should see him at home. No matter what shape he's in after work, he's giving baths and being a Dad. While Chassidy sleeps after dealing with the baby at night, Hilton wakes up with his daughter, gets her ready, and drives her to school on his way into Paycor Stadium.
"He plays the same way," Chassidy says. "He's got this energy and he has it at home."
Not long after he had dominated another Divisional, Someone told him he plays like he's 220 pounds and he didn't even blink.
"That's because," says Mike Hilton, Jr. "I've got the heart of a 220-pounder."