The last time the Bengals played the Chiefs, they had their backs against it.
The Super Bowl lurked three downs, five yards, 90 seconds and a lifetime away and the frenzied Arrowhead Stadium sellout sizzled like jackals while the Stripes tried to wrench the AFC championship from the wand of Kansas City quarterback Patrick Mahomes.
And Bengals defensive end Sam Hubbard, the best NFL defender you never heard of if you live outside Butler County, was about to have a moment in the finest tradition of Moeller High School and Ohio State and all the titles he's helped win with his 9-to-5 down-home reliability.
Trey Hendrickson, his Pro Bowl Bash Brother on the other edge, calls Hubbard's third-down sack-and-strip of Mahomes that forced the field goal that forced the overtime that forced the Bengals into their third Super Bowl "something that is a Cincinnati legend for all-time."
And that was just one of the last three plays of regulation that shows you what Hubbard's versatility means to defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo's sixth-ranked red-zone defense, which no doubt Mahomes tests again in Sunday's re-match (4:25 p.m.-Cincinnati's Local 12) at Paycor Stadium.
"My mom always says that. Whatever that (clutch) situation, that's when I play my best, which I agree with," Hubbard says of the University Hospital nursing supervisor who gave him a steady hand. "I just like that moment …I've watched it. It's probably the best game I've ever played."
Jim Lippincott, the Moeller defensive coordinator who stuck him in the middle of a Cover Three as a safety and told him to go chase down a state title, has to agree. Lippincott, the former Bengals director of football operations, pushed the buttons to let him do it back-to-back in 2012 and 2013 as the Crusaders won it all.
"I didn't see all of his games at Ohio State," says Lippincott, who still always watches the Bengals. "But he's playing better than he ever did at Moeller and Columbus. So smart. Bright smile. Energetic guy. Typical Man of Moeller. Epitome of the Man of Moeller."
Bengals lead, 24-21. 1:30 left. Chiefs first and five from Bengals 5. Chiefs running back Jerick McKinnon carries for one yard, tackled by nose tackle D.J. Reader and middle linebacker Logan Wilson.
Hubbard, who leads all NFL defensive ends in combined tackles since he came into the league in 2018, set the left edge and took on pulling left guard Joe Thuney and spilled McKinnon inside. No one is close to Hubbard in combined tackles on the edge in the last five seasons. Only future Hall-of-Famer Cam Jordan, who has 32 fewer.
"He closed the gap a little bit. Closed down the space," says Reader, with a nod to Hubbard's ability to be strong man on one snap and safety the next. "That's what it means for us having a guy like that. Just the way he plays the game, the way he attacks it. His preparation. Knowing what's coming."
That was Hubbard's 58th snap of the day, about 90 percent of the plays, and Bengals defensive line coach Marion Hobby knew he had plenty left.
"His stamina is unbelievable. The number of snaps he can play in a row is unbelievable. He plays a lot of football," Hobby says. "But he's smart. He knows when he needs a break. Some of these young guys don't know they need a break and keep playing. All three of those plays were instinctive plays. He's watched a lot of tape. You can tell by his reaction on plays."
Best edge you've never heard of. According to Pro Football reference, only four defensive ends are in the
top 12 in the last five years in tackles, sacks and passes defensed: Jordan, Maxx Crosby, old friend Carlos Dunlap and Hubbard.
Dunlap is in here with the Chiefs Sunday, on his second team since the Bengals traded him in 2020 and then signed Hendrickson the next offseason. The rest is Pro Bowl history and Hendrickson's 14-sack season in 2021 that broke Dunlap's club record.
"He's one of the hardest working guys I've ever been around," Hendrickson says. "Loves football. Will do anything he can to get to the quarterback. He'll stop the run. He'll throw his body around. He's a great pass rusher. I don't think a lot of people know that about him. Very twitchy. Gets around the ends with good bend. All those things make an elite pass rusher."
1:26 left. Chiefs second and four from Bengals 4. Mahomes sacked by Hubbard for a five-yard loss on a play that takes nearly a minute. Chiefs call timeout with 39 seconds left.
Lippincott remembers walking off the field with him at Moeller in Hubbard's junior year training camp. "He was a hot-shot lacrosse player when I met him, but it didn't take long for football to become number one." By this time he was such a football player that Lippincott told him, "If you see something I haven't covered, call timeout. Don't worry about me or the head coach. Just make sure we have one."
It took a few months. That Thanksgiving weekend in the state semis, Moeller was trying to protect a lead. But Pickerington North was driving to the 6 in the last minute. On third down they sent the quarterback in motion and Hubbard straightened up and called timeout. After the break, the Crusaders forced a fumble to advance to the state championship they won the next week.
"Sam fixes things," Lippincott says.
"I don't know," Hubbard says. "I just like those moments."
He didn't have to fix much on this moment. After setting the edge on one side, on this next play he stood up on the other side and dropped into the flat. Mahomes play-actioned to McKinnon as Hubbard chucked left tackle Orlando Brown. As he back-pedaled he saw Mahomes scrambling away from the rampaging Reader and Hubbard charged in to join the fray and dumped him to set up third down.
"Red-zone dropper," Hubbard says. "When you don't have any work, you help contain the quarterback. I shot my shot and D.J. flushed him right to me."
It was the first of what have to be back-to-back iconic Bengals sacks. Have there been any bigger?
"Those two plays, he had drops but he had eyes on the quarterback," Reader says. "He did a great job of just making sure he was being present. I think he does a great job throughout the game doing that. Big plays. Big players have to make those plays. You pay him the big bucks to go make big plays and he does a good job.
"The first (sack) was really cool to me. I thought his first sack was a lot better. He just kind of sped out of nowhere. Mahomes does a good job of avoiding people when they get close to him. Sam kind of stayed on that low hip and to get him on the ground is a big thing."
Hobby still doesn't look at headlines, so he couldn't tell you if Hubbard is undersold or not. All he knows is the people he knows know him. Players. Coaches. Scouts. Before he was a third-round pick at the opening of the 1990s, he had a coach at Tennessee tell him to stay as far away as he could from newspapers during the season.
"Maybe they're playing one of our opponents or something like that, but they saw the film," Hobby says. "They tell me, 'I like that No. 94. He's a heck of a player.'"
39 seconds left. Chiefs third and nine from Bengals 9. Mahomes sacked by Hubbard for a 15-yard loss. Fumble forced by Hubbard. Recovered by Chiefs left guard Joe Thuney. Timeout by Chiefs with three seconds left.
"That's another one of the things that's underrated about him," Hendrickson says. "That ability to track people down."
The Stand forced overtime when the Chiefs kicked a field goal, setting up more defensive heroics. Free safety Jessie Bates III's tip turned into strong safety Vonn Bell's interception that turned into the Two Joes Drive (Burrow and Mixon) that turned into Evan McPherson's field goal that turned into the Super Bowl.
"What he does for our defense is huge," Bates says. "We can do a lot of different things with him."
Hubbard said pretty much the same thing about Bates and his secondary two weeks ago in Pittsburgh. How their play allows him to play so unencumbered up front.
And this third-down play is one of the many reasons Hubbard reacted to Reader's return in Pittsburgh from a six-week injury with "I wouldn't want to be out there without him."
With everything on the line, Hubbard again dropped into coverage behind the line. This time in the middle of the field.
"We were in the first round of the playoffs against Dayton Wayne and they were nickel-and-diming us down the field passing the ball," Lippincott says of that junior season. "We weren't stopping it. I went straight Cover Three and put Sam in the middle of the field. And they kept throwing it deeper and he intercepted one. I thought he was going to take it to the house. It set the tone for the rest of the game."
This time Hubbard found himself eyeball-to-eyeball with the most dangerous man in the NFL as Mahomes moved through an empty backfield scanning his spread-out receivers and finding nothing.
One Mississippi … Two Mississippi …
"A couple of minutes. A little tango. A little dance. Sam ended up winning the best of that dance," Reader says. "Usually on those plays , he's coming out of the middle of the field, I know if I can get the quarterback off the spot, then I know he'll run him down."
It went way beyond Three Mississippi when Hubbard made his move. By the time he reached Mahomes and knocked the ball out, ten excruciating, exhilarating seconds had elapsed. Long enough for CBS' Tony Romo to go from bewilderment to amazement.
"I saw the guard's eyes turn and I had an opening," Hubbard says. "I was sitting there and he was watching me and he turned to block, thinking I wasn't coming. I went."
Bengals rookie defensive tackle Zach Carter was watching in his Tampa, Fla., home, getting ready to go to the Senior Bowl the next day, not knowing Hubbard would soon be a teammate.
"I'm thinking, 'That's Sam Hubbard. Man, he can move in space,'" Carter says. "The thing about Sam is his instincts. He's always around the ball.
"I had heard of him. I knew him from Ohio State. I'm a football guy. I pay attention. He's one of the guys I truly believes deserves more talk around the league. You turn on the tape and film doesn't lie."
Hubbard could care less about the headline. He got another title. It's like Reader says. Hubbard is one of a bunch of guys under the radar.
"I don't think many of us do," says Reader of the attention. "Because of the guys on offense and with good reason. They're great young players. I don't think we care about that, to be honest. We're proud of what we do in our room. We don't get caught up in any of that."
All Hubbard knows is another big moment is out there waiting Sunday.
"You can see it in his eyes," says Hobby in a week the Bengals are staring at Mahomes again.