“Why not us” has been the Bengals‘ rallying cry for the 2021 season. The phrase, which was first uttered during training camp by tight end C.J. Uzomah, had already been printed on T-shirts prior to the Bengals’ 26-19 triumph over the Raiders in the AFC wild card round, a win that ended Cincinnati’s 31-year drought without a postseason victory.
Cincinnati’s resurgence has been led by coach Zac Taylor and quarterback Joe Burrow. This time a year ago, Taylor received a public vote of confidence by team owner Mike Brown after he went 6-25-1 during his first two seasons. Taylor has rewarded Brown’s faith in him by leading the franchise to its best season since the franchise represented the AFC in Super Bowl XXIII. Taylor has benefited from the play of Burrow, who led the NFL in completion percentage during his first full season under center. In last week’s win over the Raiders, the unflappable Burrow completed nearly 71% of his throws that included touchdown passes to Uzomah and receiver Tyler Boyd.
The Bengals will now take their act to Nashville with the hope of delivering the franchise’s first road playoff victory. In order to do that, Cincinnati will have to defeat a Titans team that is rested and healthy after playing without most of its key offensive players throughout the regular season.
Here are three reasons why the Bengals will defy the odds by taking down the AFC’s top-seeded team, starting with the player that has been dubbed “Joe Cool.”
Burrow’s favorite player growing up was Drew Brees, who immediately brought credibility to the Saints upon arriving in New Orleans in 2006. Burrow has had a nearly identical impact in Cincinnati, as the Bengals believe they can play with and beat the NFL’s premier teams. Cincinnati proved it in Week 17 by overcoming a 14-0 deficit to knock off Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs. Despite sharing the field with Mahomes, Burrow was the better quarterback that day, as he threw for 446 yards and four touchdowns.
Burrow played like a seasoned veteran in his playoff debut. He led the Bengals on six scoring drives while showcasing the poise and skill that made him the No. 1 overall pick in the 2020 Draft. With the game in the balance, Burrow led the Bengals on two second-half scoring drives that included several clutch completions to rookie phenom Ja’Marr Chase, who caught nine passes for 116 yards in his playoff debut.
You have to run the ball in order to have playoff success. That surely isn’t lost on Taylor, who will likely make sure to give Joe Mixon a steady diet of carries against the Titans. That being said, the Bengals’ bread and butter is the passing game, as Burrow is armed with the league’s best receiving corps in Chase, Boyd, Uzomah and second-year receiver Tee Higgins. This unit should be able to take advantage of the Titans’ 25th-ranked pass defense.
The Titans have a strong pass rush. Led by Harold Landry’s 12 sacks, the Titans registered 43 sacks during the regular season. While this is something to keep an eye on, the Bengals should be able to handle the Titans’ pass rush as long as they are able to avoid too many second- and third-and-long situations, which they were able to do in last week’s win over Las Vegas.
The Bengals’ defense has turned a negative into a positive. Losing tackle Larry Ogunjobi is a significant loss, but the Bengals’ defense has embraced the “next man up” mentality heading into Saturday’s game. They are also motivated to play well in honor of Ogunjobi, who served as a pseudo coach during this week’s practices.
Cincinnati’s defense has the talent to go toe toe toe with the Titans’ offense, which features one of the league’s best offensive lines along with running back Derrick Henry, fellow backs D’Onta Foreman and Dontrell Hilliard, and receivers Julio Jones and A.J. Brown. The Bengals’ defense is loaded with talent, led by All-Pro pass-rusher Trey Hendrickson, fellow defensive linemen Sam Hubbard and B.J. Hill, linebackers Logan Wilson and Germaine Pratt, and defensive backs Jessie Bates III, Eli Apple, Chidobe Awuzie and Mike Hilton.
Cincinnati’s defense has already had success this season against some of the NFL’s top backs; it will look to have similar success against Henry.
“I’m looking forward to it,” defensive tackle D.J. Reader said of facing the Titans’ offense, via The Athletic. “They do some good things in the run game. But we’re excited as a D-Line. It’s a big challenge for us. And it’s a challenge we’re gonna go out there and accept and we’re going to go out there and do our thing. I think everybody’s excited about it. But it always starts with us up front. So we’ve got to always create that special moment up front and just create the game going from there. It’s going to start and end up front, every game.”
Along with having a stout run defense, the Bengals also possess an opportunistic defense. The defense came up with two turnovers in last Saturday’s win over the Raiders, with the second turnover — an interception by Pratt — sealing the win in the game’s final seconds. The unit is certainly capable of forcing turnovers against a Titans offense that coughed the ball up four times during their 19-13 loss in Pittsburgh in Week 15.
‘Why not us’ attitude
It may sound simple, but having believe is paramount to postseason success. Go through the list of all-time playoff upsets and you’ll find teams that were not devoid of confidence. The ’68 Jets, ’83 Raiders, ’96 Jaguars, ’97 Broncos, ’01 Patriots, ’05 Steelers, ’07 and ’11 Giants, and ’17 Jaguars pulled off shocking upsets by having a mindset that matched or even surpassed their talent. The Bengals have that same mindset.
That mindset is shared by both sides of the ball. The Bengals’ defense is hungry to prove that it is one of the league’s top units. Cincinnati’s offense, led by Burrow, is looking to solidify its position as one of the league’s elite groups. As a franchise, the Bengals are determined to set a new standard of expectation that includes deep postseason runs. That starts with this Saturday in Nashville, as the Bengals are looking to take decades of frustration out on the Titans, while in the process ushering in a new era in Cincinnati.