As great as Joe Burrow has played and as dangerous as Ja'Marr Chase has been and as big as Joe Mixon looms, this Bengals postseason has belonged to the defense.
And as monstrous as nose tackle D.J. Reader set the tone against the Titans in last Saturday's AFC Divisional with 44 big-man-big-game-big-check snaps, their run has also been personified by defensive back Tre Flowers' waiver claim 26 snaps. He had five on defense and 21 on special teams, where he made a huge tackle on a Titans' punt return at the Tennessee 16 as the clock ticked under three minutes in, of course, a game tied at 16.
"Thanks for noticing," says Flowers, who became a Bengal overnight on Oct. 14 when the personnel department invoked the you-can't-have-too-many corners principle.
"My first tackles as a gunner."
He'll be doing a lot more than that in Sunday's AFC title game (3 p.m.-Cincinnati's Local 12) in Kansas City as the Bengals designated hitter against tight ends. For the second time in a month he'll be matched against future Hall-of-Famer Travis Kelce.
If you think this has been a fun ride, how about for Flowers, a four-year pro who has never not made the playoffs in a career he never had been assigned the tight end or covering punts until he arrived at Paul Brown Stadium? That's how this defense has advanced. They like to call it doing their 1/11th.
After what Kelce and quarterback Patrick Mahomes did to the Bills last Sunday in the last 13 seconds of regulation and the only five minutes of overtime (62 yards, an impromptu 25-yard dagger, the winning touchdown), what Flowers and the Bengals did back on Jan. 2 looks worthy of Canton.
They held Kelce to 25 yards on five catches and according to Pro Football Focus, Flowers held him to two catches on three targets for seven yards. And the incompletion was on a huge second-and-nine in the second half that Flowers wrestled away from Kelce to prevent a first down. The Chiefs had to punt after the next snap and it became another necessary play in a game the Bengals won erasing three 14-point deficits.
"He's a special player. You have to keep your eyes right," Flowers says. "You know they're going to get the ball to him. You have to be within arms' reach, for sure. You try to make a play when you can. They're going to catch a few, though."
And the 6-3, 215-pound Flowers has quite a reach. So long that after the Seahawks took him in the fifth round out of Oklahoma State, they switched him from safety to cornerback and he ended up starting 40 games, three in the playoffs.
As often happens in the NFL and as Flowers discovered in an October surprise, things happen overnight. Seattle lost some key people in the secondary during the offseason and when Opening Day arrived he was just one of two cornerbacks that had been with the club since Aug. 16.
Not exactly a breeding ground for success. When Flowers lost his job (PFF had him for allowing 14 completions for 208 yards and a touchdown on 136 coverage snaps for a 139 passer rating against him), conflicting reports surfaced. He either asked for his release or Seattle cut him.
"It was time for a change," Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll said back then. "He did a lot of good stuff. He was a really good technician, but you have to finish the plays, make the plays, and come back when you don't. You have to find successful plays to build on, so it was just his time to go on, that's enough to say."
What has not been conflicting is that Flowers has been the consummate team player since becoming a Bengal. When their best special teams player, kick returner and gunner Brandon Wilson went out for the season, Flowers jumped in to cover punts. Then when the other gunner, Stanley Morgan, Jr., got hurt for the playoffs, Flowers became a staple. Before that, when the corners began to get racked up (they claimed Flowers the week Trae Waynes re-aggravated his hamstring), defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo began using him as a hybrid safety-corner to stop the bleeding against tight ends.
Flowers provides a different look for Kelce. Kelce doesn't see many long, lean guys like that can be physical and run at the same time.
"I was a safety my whole life. I got drafted as a corner. Wherever you need me," Flowers says. "I've got size and speed. I pride myself on being physical. I've always been like a slimmer guy."
Flowers just shows up and plays. Before getting five snaps against the Titans, he had a much bigger role in a different game against the Raiders the week before when he was on massive Darren Waller and allowed 34 yards on three targets, including a third-and-long on the last drive.
But talk about coming back. They made sure Waller didn't get targeted on the last three snaps and Raiders quarterback Derek Carr had to go elsewhere and threw a pick to end it.
"We don't have too many rookies. We're a vet group. We all care about the same things," says Flowers on why it is working for him here. "We all have the right mindset. It makes coming to work real easy."
Here's the answer on how he has embraced going from starter to role player. Sunday is his seventh postseason game. It's his first conference championship.
"My goal is to win the Super Bowl," Flowers says. "Everybody talks about being a starter and coming in as a role player, I want to help this team win."
No question, he says. He's had to come to terms with the reduced role.
"Definitely," Flowers says. "I got over things. You're always overcoming something. But I really didn't have time. I'm all about winning."
And special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons appreciates it because Flowers isn't a gunner by trade and that was obvious when he picked up a penalty Saturday on interfering with a punt catch on a play complicated by a late fair catch signal.
"My rookie year I knew the way I had to make it was play on special teams," Flowers says. "It just so happened I earned my way to the top (and didn't play in the kicking game). But I went to the meetings and I always listened."
It has not gone unnoticed. He says he hears support from his buddies with the Seahawks. "Maybe not from the fans," he says, but that's OK because he's got fans like defensive captain Jessie Bates III in the locker room.
"I love that dude," says Bates, a fellow 2018 draft safety. "He sits right next to me in the meeting room and you can tell that he cares. Tre was a starter for three years at Seattle and he could've easily come over here like 'Why am I not playing defense?' But instead he comes in on packages, he does his job and then he goes and plays gunner for the first time ever and makes huge plays in that aspect of controlling the field. I can't say enough about him."
Yes, Flowers watched Mahomes and Kelce do their thing Sunday.
"When did they get the ball? With 13 seconds left? I don't have any words for that," says Flowers, taking note of Kelce's 25-yard seam route that set up the tying field goal on Mahomes' line-of-scrimmage improvisation. "Two special players. All you can do is cover him as tight as you can and try to make a play."
That's where he is. Seven playoffs game and his first shot at the big one. If he has to cover a punt after covering Kelce, so be it.
"I just want to play football as long as I can," Flowers says. "And this is going to help me do it."
HISTORY-MAKER: The newest Bengal, defensive linemen Damion Square, has a chance to make history Sunday after playing 21 snaps for the Raiders in the last PBS game, the Bengals' Wild Card win over Las Vegas. According to Elias, if Square plays he'll become the first player in NFL history to play in a playoff game against one team and then play for it in the same postseason.
"Come here. Listen to this. History," said Square as he gathered some of his new teammates around him to give them the low down. "I'm here. I'm ready."
The wackiness began after the Wild Card Game. The Bengals had just lost starting three technique Larry Ogunjobi for the season, not to mention backup Mike Daniels for the rest of the way, and they weren't sure about backup nose tackle Josh Tupou's knee and young tackles Tyler Shelvin and Renell Wren just didn't have the experience.
As they prepared for the Titans, they needed a big body tackle for the Tennessee run game and plucked massive Zach Kerr from the Arizona practice squad even as he was on the active roster for the Cardinals Wild Card Game against the Rams.
But knowing they also needed some wiggle on the pass rush inside without Ogunjobi, they reached out to Square after watching him play against them in his 104th NFL game and fourth in the playoffs. He had been elevated to the Raiders roster from the practice squad for the game and since practice squad contracts expire seven days after a team's season, here he is.
And he's here because they like his nine-year experience and because he can play up and down the line and he gives them what they need against the Chiefs as opposed to what Kerr gave them against the Titans on 12 snaps. But both may very well play. The Bengals liked how he played against them and PFF agreed. The web site graded him the Raiders' best pass rusher that night behind only sack maven Maxx Crosby.
"Yeah, it's kind of weird to be right back here but it's really exciting," Square says. "This is the farthest I've ever been in the playoffs. I went to a second-round game against (Tom) Brady with the Chargers (in 2014). But that game never really started."
When his agent approached him after the Vegas season ended and told him about the Bengals interest, he said great.
"I'd love to play for the Bengals next year," Square thought.
Then later that night his wife told him, "No, he's talking about this weekend."
"I said, 'Wow,'" Square said. "So here I am."