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Zac Taylor On Bengals' Journey Back To AFC Title Game:  'They Know What It Takes' 

Zac Taylor led the Bengals to the AFC title game through the snow in Orchard Park, N.Y.
Zac Taylor led the Bengals to the AFC title game through the snow in Orchard Park, N.Y.

Bengals head coach Zac Taylor joins the Steelers' Bill Cowher (2004-05) and the Ravens' John Harbaugh (2011-12) as the only AFC North coaches to take their teams to back-to-back AFC title games. He talks about the journey to Sunday's game (6:30 p.m.-Cincinnati's Local 12) in his weekly chat with senior writer Geoff Hobson.

GH: You're known for keeping extensive daily notes. Have you gone back to look at your notebook from last year's week of the AFC title game in Kansas City?

ZT: We've gone through and started the process looking at anything that might help us. I know last year the temperature was in the mid-40s, pretty sunny there. It (will) probably be a little different this year. I think our guys will be locked in and focused.

GH: Having the experience of preparing for a conference championship, does that change anything for this week?

ZT: Truthfully, 'conference championship' is a label to put on a pretty normal week for us. There will be a lot of attention to it outside of the building and there are only four teams left so there's only so much you can talk about at this point but for us inside the building, the process remains the same. We have seven days to get ready. We'll do our best to tune out all that noise and get on the airplane and go get ready to play a night game.

It's a normal seven-day week for us. There are not many changes at this point that need to be made for us. I think our guys are in a good flow. They've got a good routine, and I would hate to change that. 

GH: You've really been able to motivate this team by pointing out some slights and chips on the shoulders. Some groups may not respond to any of that, but these guys are so competitive, it seems to be a switch you've been able to pull.

ZT: They want the toughest road. Whatever ammunition I can give them to help them understand that we're in a tough road, I'll give it to them because that's what they respond the best to. With high stakes, I like our team's chances because of the mindset they have every day they walk into the building. 

GH: Some teams are fragile. You couldn't do that, right?

ZT: Not this team. That's all I can speak to is how our guys are built right now and how you can interact with them.

GH: You said it best that when these guys 'step on the field, they're ready to attack'. They just seem to be playing with a tremendous amount of confidence.

ZT: They do. That's just because they know how prepared they are. They know what it takes. To follow a routine, get themselves ready for when they walk on the field on Sunday and be at their best. We're still early in that process. We haven't done anything yet so who knows if we're going to be prepared. I trust our guys are going to put in the work but (it's) still Monday. We got a long week's work ahead of us.

GH: How would you describe offensive line coach Frank Pollack and what he did this past week?

ZT: He's just done a great job. He's so consistent and such a tireless worker. To put together a great run-plan and continue to develop these guys and that's not just this week thing, that's a last six months thing to make sure that all the depth is ready when their number is called.

Guys that we're counting on to step up when they get an opportunity, and it just so happened that three guys had the opportunity at once and you're talking about a rookie left guard and a new center. I thought that was awesome how those guys played together, the way they communicated, the job that Frank did getting them ready for this game put them in a really good position.

GH: I think the one thing we often leave out when we talk about an organization and what you need to be a great team is development. There's the draft and free agency but there's also making these guys better from the day they walk in the building.

ZT: Correct. I mean, there's always going to be stories written about guys their rookie year and the expectations of how they met them or didn't meet them, when in reality that books not written for years down the road. We understand that and realize that. Frank's done a great job just staying on these guys and helping them develop and what do you know? They get better, they make the most of their opportunities when they get out there.

GH: It's not like you were bringing up three players from the practice squad who had never played. Hakeem Adeniji, Jackson Carman, and Max Scharping all had previous starting experience.

ZT: These guys have played, they know what the expectations are, they know what it's going to feel like physically and mentally. They stepped up and made the most of their opportunity.

GH: Watching Joe Burrow in Buffalo, did you kind of just take a step back in amazement? He had never played in the snow and he looked like Santa Claus out there.

ZT: Yeah, he did a great job speeding through his progressions when he needed to and just making sure we were getting the ball downhill and finding completions, and he did that countless times. He just found check-downs when they were sinking in coverage, and when opportunities were there down the field he took them, and they paid off for us. He managed the game really well.

GH: After the game you told your team what a killer instinct it has. Do you think that comes partly from Joe's personality?

ZT: Yeah, he's got that mindset that you've got to have. You've got to have that right edge, right urgency, and he's got exactly that.

GH: How would you describe Burrow as a guy? He's kind of an interesting guy, isn't he?

ZT: He is prepared. That's the best way to say it. He's got an edge to him, and he's always prepared. I like that in our quarterback.

GH: Were you surprised how dominant your running game was Sunday in Buffalo?

ZT: They brought a physicality to the party, and I thought our backs ran really hard. It started with Joe Mixon and Samaje Perine. So many times, you're getting prepared for a second-and-six call and instead it's second-and-two because of the way they finished. It was really good to see.

GH: Something this team doesn't get credit for is how physical it is.

ZT: People are being lazy; they just don't watch. They see us throw the ball for explosive plays and then they assume that you must be a finesse team. We know that we can be physical every single game we play.

GH: The running game hasn't been at the centerpiece of this offense very often lately. What happened Sunday? The weather, the style of play you wanted, or just the way the game unfolded?

ZT: I think people just get locked in on the yardage and that's never our focus on offense. It's efficiency. It's on second-and-two, calling a run, and getting three yards. Getting a new set of downs. On the goal line and getting it in or on first-and-10, getting what we need to stay on schedule. We don't always have the volume in our carries to be able to have 100 and something yards, but the efficiency has been there for a really long time.

We have not for one second been down on our running game. We get exactly what we need from it and often times we throw in RPOs (run-pass options), so the ball that got handed off for six yards could be thrown for 10 yards and to me that's an efficient run play because that's just how we built it.

GH: Running back Joe Mixon just seems to show out in big games. He was huge in the overtime of last year's AFC title game and last week in Buffalo come right to mind.

ZT: I mean, he's 225 pounds. When the elements get rough and as games go on, he becomes a really hard guy to deal with. It's nice when you've got a two-score lead and you're not maybe throwing the ball to make sure you win it, and you can lean on the run game to close it out. That's where he can really be at his best. So, that was a great job to finish it out.

It's good just to be able to hit people where you feel like you've got your best opportunity, whether that's in the pass game or the run game and helping complement each phase. We're prepared to do it however we've got to do it.

GH: Why do you think this team plays so well on the road?

ZT: We only lost one game at home this year, and that was the first one. I just feel like we've got a good team. Whether we're at home or on the road, we're going to be consistent with our approach and follow our routine and walk out on the field ready to go. I really feel the same when we're at home and when we're on the road. The guys probably feel the same way.

GH: Is there anything you've taken from Chiefs head coach Andy Reid through the years?

ZT: There are a lot of concepts we've stolen over the years from things they did in Philly, things they've done in Kansas City. He's innovative. He's one of the best to ever do it. There are probably more plays than I can count that I've stolen from him over the years.

GH: Do you think you'll run any of those plays Sunday?

ZT: It's possible.

GH: Did you run any of those plays in the last AFC Championship Game?

ZT: Nah, I don't think so. I mean, they pop up from time to time. There are things that we carry every week, but I don't think we ran any of them in that last game.

GH: How hard is it to win 10 in a row?

ZT: It's hard. In this league, it's difficult. It's a challenge to be able to do that, and our guys have responded each and every week. They haven't looked down the road, they just focus on what's right in front of them. I think that's a big reason why we've been able to go on the run that we're on right now.