ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — Cincinnati Bengals coach Zac Taylor jokingly apologized for messing up everyone else’s plans after his team beat the Buffalo Bills to advance to the AFC Championship on Sunday.
After the league sent notice to the Bills and Chiefs to start pushing their potential neutral-site AFC Championship matchup tickets to fans, the Bengals took offense to that narrative. The Bengals were as much as six-point underdogs going into the divisional round matchup at Buffalo.
The betting lines grew more skewed in Buffalo’s favor as it became clear the Bengals would in fact be without three of their starters on the offensive line, but Cincinnati scored touchdowns on its first two possessions, while forcing a pair of three-and-outs on defense, en route to a dominant 27-10 win Sunday in snowy conditions at Highmark Stadium.
The third-seeded Bengals play the top-seeded Chiefs in the AFC Championship on Sunday at Arrowhead Stadium in a rematch of last year’s conference final that sent Cincinnati to its first Super Bowl in 31 years.
Here are three takeaways from the win:
1. Chip on their shoulders
The Bengals have been a team that thrives on feeling disrespected and that once again was the case this week.
They made a bit of a statement with their performance Sunday, holding the second-best scoring offense to 10 points and beating the No. 2-ranked scoring defense in the league. Buffalo also had a 13-1 record at home in the playoffs all-time, and Taylor put that stat up on a screen this week during a team meeting as a source for motivation — one of many the Bengals had fueling them.
“It’s just these moments are a whole team,” Taylor said. “You just look at the leadership in every position. You know, we talked about last night, they were 13-1 at home in the playoffs, the best home winning percentage in NFL (playoff) history, and I wanted to show that to the team because I knew what that would do to them. And it wouldn’t put fear in them, ‘Oh my God, we’re walking into an environment that people don’t win,’ and it was going to be the opposite. And it was. ... Our guys responded the way that I thought.”
Buffalo and Kansas City had sold 50,000 tickets combined for their potential game in Atlanta, and players after the game Sunday commented they hope everyone gets their refunds. Fans also could have bought tickets to a potential Bengals-Jaguars matchup at Paycor, had Jacksonville beaten Kansas City, but the league was promoting the neutral site game in memos to teams and press releases about ticket sales.
“We had our mindset to go play in Kansas City, and it is tough because they have to formulate the plans for coin tosses and they’ve got to formulate the plans for neutral site games and we just keep screwing it up for everybody,” Taylor said. “And I hate that for people to have to endure all those logistical issues and then we just keep screwing it up. So I’m sorry.”
2. Offense steps up
Jackson Carman made his first start of the season, joining fellow backups Hakeem Adeniji and Max Scharping on the offensive line, and the Bengals cruised to their best performance in a while.
Joe Burrow completed his first nine passes for 105 yards and two touchdowns on the first two drives, not even having to get to third down until nearing the red zone on the second possession. He finished with 242 yards passing and was sacked just one time. The Bengals also rushed for 172 yards, including Joe Mixon’s 105 yards and one touchdown on 20 carries – against the league’s second-best run defense.
“These guys came out and played so hard against a great team, a great defense,” said center Ted Karras, who tweaked his knee in the second quarter but finished the game. “(Bills defensive coordinator) Leslie Frazier has a great unit, and we shoved it right down the field, so it was a lot of fun today. Snow game, never played in a snow game, I had to change out my towel quite a bit, and credit to Joey B (Burrow) and all the receivers too and Mixon and Samaje (Perine) for great ball handling all around today.”
Chase caught the first touchdown for 28 yards, Hayden Hurst grabbed a 15-yard pass for the second one, and the Bengals went into halftime up 17-7. Mixon’s touchdown came on Cincinnati’s first drive of the second half, and the Bengals were able to chew up clock with the running game in the fourth quarter.
3. Most complete game?
The Bengals have relied on turnovers and big stops from the defense to win close games this season, and that was their mark through the playoffs last year. On Sunday, they remained steady but it wasn’t all on the defense’s shoulders.
Taylor said it was the offense’s turn to let the defense catch its breath, but Sunday might have been the team’s most complete game this season.
Cincinnati had another fast start to the game but kept the upper hand after limiting the Bills to a field goal on the opening drive of the second half and then responding with a touchdown drive to regain a 14-point cushion.
For the defense, it was business as usual. Josh Allen completed 25 of 42 passes for 265 yards, was sacked once, by Vonn Bell, and had two near fumbles that were ruled incomplete passes. Eli Apple broke up a fourth-down pass to the end zone with 7:23 left and the Bills desperately trying to climb out of a 17-point hole. Cam Taylor-Britt intercepted Allen with a minute left on the last drive.
“I thought our defensive line led the way, by harassing (Allen) and everybody else fed off of that,” Taylor said. “It was great communication in the back end, so I’d like to highlight the defensive ends because they really got the party started. But I thought our whole defense played excellent throughout the whole game.”
Apple said the fast start on offense made it easier on the defense, but the guys on that side of the ball rose to the challenge of stopping another top passing team. Stefon Diggs finished with just 35 yards on four catches and 10 targets. Gabe Davis had just two catches for 34 yards.
“Anytime they can get off to a great start like that, makes our job easier,” Apple said, noting the Bengals have the best defense in the league. “We can pin our ears back, rush the passer, get to the ball, and we’re a tough team to beat when we’re like that.”
Bengals defense: Cincinnati held Buffalo’s high-powered offense to a season-low 10 points.
STAT OF THE GAME
172: Rush yards by the Bengals, who rediscovered their running game behind a dominant offensive line and running back Joe Mixon. Mixon finished with 105 yards on the gorund and a TD and Cincinnati averaged 5.1 yards per carry
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