Bengal rookie Evan McPherson (Bengal file photo)
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The Bengals enter next Sunday’s AFC title game on rookie Evan McPherson’s 52-yard field goal that downed the Titans, 19-16
After stuffing fourth-and-first Derrick Henry, Bengals center linebacker Logan Wilson caught cornerback Eli Apple’s deflected pass with 20 seconds left at the Bengals 47. Joe Burrow then delivered a 19-yard arrow to the rookie wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase to settle it all as Burrow finished with 348 yards and a 93.1 passer rating.
A deadly turnover turned into Burrow’s first interception since Dec. 5 and 209 consecutive assists. And it shouldn’t have happened. He went for the action and threw a catch ball to running back Samaje Perine and it came out of his hands. Safety Amami Hooker dipped the Bengals 27 with 1:19 left in the third quarter.
Then the Titans pulled a page from the Bengals playbook against a Cincinnati secondary who had an unusually tough night defending the long ball. On the second and 16, Tannehill threw a beauty at the right pylon to wide receiver AJ Brown who passed cornerback Chidobe Awuzie and strong safety Vonn Bell (having a good game) and when Awuzie didn’t turn his head in time, Tannehill put right in Brown’s stomach for a 33-yard touchdown that tied it at 16 with 15 seconds left in the third quarter.
Burrow’s offensive line responded in the first set of the second half, when they scored another touchdown to continue a season-long trend. On third-and-one, the Bengals, who went seven yards on the ground in the first half, headed for a quick screen for wide receiver Tee Higgins, to get it. Then at third-and-five, Burrow tied the quarterback for seven yards, with the first down sign.
Then Mixon finally had room. He went to the right, got stuck then did a razor cut jump to the left and there was no one there and he knew it because he stepped in high from the 5. It was a 16-yard touchdown run and with 9:34 left in the third quarter, they had that coveted two-point lead at 16-6 that everyone thought the Titans couldn’t erase.
But they did it with 10 points in the final 95 seconds of the third quarter.
The Bengals rolled to within field goal range, but Burrow suffered a 16-yard loss on a sack by unblocked linebacker Harold Landry that was cleared by outside linebacker Bud Dupree and they had to punt.
The Bengals defense responded again from their own 35 on fourth-and-one when Wilson dethroned the King and blasted Henry for no gain.
But the Bengals couldn’t help it. After giving Joe Mixon a fake look, the Titans ended practice with 2:43 left on their ninth sack of the night, tackling Jeffery Simmons’ third and 13th hit on Burrow.
The Bengals took a 9-6 halftime lead on three McPherson field goals as the Titans’ ferocious pass rush left no room for Burrow and in the first half hit him for five bags.
But the Bengals defense was even better, snarling downhill to hold Henry to 30 yards on 10 carries and the Titans to just 129 overall by knocking them off the field on four of five third downs.
They only faltered once in the half and that’s when Tannehill hit wide open receiver AJ Brown for 41 yards on the lone touchdown of the half. But another Bengals penalty proved fortuitous for them. When a penalty from too many men on the field on the extra point brought it closer, the Titans went for two. But underused linebacker Clay Johnston came screaming down his left edge as they tried to hit Henry on the right side. But Johnston grabbed an ankle, rookie tackle Tyler Shelvin penetrated and strong safety Vonn Bell lifted him to hold it tied at 6.
Burrow was sacked five times in the first quarter, but a late game flag and timeout wiped out two. The Titans tortured them with essentially four-way runs, but they disguised them well and the Bengals struggled to determine who came and who didn’t. Burrow finished the half with 102 of 17 of 24 passers for 178 yards.
When they got the ball back with 6:07 to go in the half, they seemed to get it. After Burrow converted a rare third and short (Bengals were just four of nine in the half) on midfield to tight end CJ Uzomah, Burrow hit two big plays in the middle of the Titans area. for a total of 35 yards. Higgins, a Tennessee native, was the Bengals’ leading offensive player in the half with five catches for 71 yards.
But they had the ball at Titans 20 at the two-minute warning and pulled back. Uzomah fell on a screen to set up another long third which was made even longer when right tackle Isaiah Prince made a false start. Then Burrow didn’t get rid of it and took a tough sack (his fifth of the half) that gave McPherson a 54-yard try in freezing weather. He made it 9-6 with 1:30 left in the half for his third of the game and seventh playoff placement, already the second-most in Bengals history and two shy of the Jim Breech’s club record.
The defense was important again, forcing Tannehill out of the pocket on his next three passes to force the Titans’ fourth punt.
Free safety Jessie Bates III, who picked Tannehill last year at Paul Brown Stadium, made it here on the first play of the game. It looked like Tannehill saw nine men on the line and checked a play pass and Bates was all over receiver Julio Jones in midfield and the Bengals had him at Tennessee 42.
Mixon bounced off linebacker David Long Jr, to get the majority of his yards on a 21-yard check after Burrow took a sack when he couldn’t find anyone open. McPherson threw a 38-yarder to start the scoring through Bates.
In the Titans’ first full series, the blitz forced a three-and-out. Strong safety Vonn Bell drilled Henry for nothing on second down and Bell and slot cornerback Mike Hilton came in on third down to sack Tannehill.
But the Bengals couldn’t protect Burrow. On the first down, Burrow threw an unusually poor pass when he rushed to make a low throw to Uzomah. Then he was drilled for a sack with Harold Landry blowing through a hole vacated by right guard Hakeem Adeniji.
An excellent first save by the nose of tackle DJ Reader led to a save and Burrow went to a screen to make up for an all-out rush that disregarded anything but the pass. Chase got inside former LSU pal, cornerback Kristian Fulton, and ran for 57 yards against the Titans 28.
But there was nothing available. Burrow was sacked on second down with Denico Autry getting past left tackle Jonah Williams when Burrow couldn’t unload in time and it was another long third and impassable, so McPherson hit a 45-yarder with 2:11 left in the first quarter for the 6-0 lead.
He was a dominant defensive quarterback for the Bengals. Reader led a push that kept Henry 11 yards on his first five carries as the Titans snagged just 37 yards.