ANALYSIS: 3 takeaways from Bengals’ wild-card win over Ravens

CINCINNATI — Sam Hubbard said he was just thinking “don’t get caught” as he was speeding down the field for what turned out to be the game-winning score in a wild-card playoff victory against the Baltimore Ravens. He couldn’t have dreamed up a bigger play for himself.

After Bengals linebacker Logan Wilson punched the ball out of Ravens quarterback Tyler Huntley’s hands at the goal line with the game tied, Hubbard recovered the fumble and ran it 98 yards for a touchdown to give Cincinnati a 24-17 lead with 11:39 left. Those turned out to be the final points of the game, and the Bengals advanced in the playoffs in back-to-back seasons for the first time in franchise history.

Third-seeded Cincinnati plays at second-seeded Buffalo in the AFC Divisional Round at 3 p.m. Sunday. Here are three takeaways from Sunday night’s win:

1. Defense saves the day

On a day the offense managed just 234 yards, the Bengals needed big plays on the other side of the ball to have a chance, and as usual, and especially like last year in the playoffs, the defense came through in the clutch.

The Ravens had the momentum after scoring a touchdown on a 41-yard pass from Huntley to Demarcus Robinson to tie the game and then forcing a three-and-out for the Bengals. Huntley had scrambled 35 yards to put Baltimore on the 2-yard line – almost scoring before Jessie Bates swooped in to push him out of bounds – and he nearly broke the plane of the goal on his extension two plays later.

ExplorePHOTOS: Bengals beat Ravens, advance in playoffs

Wilson punched the ball out with help from Germaine Pratt, and Hubbard was “in the right place at the right time” to recover. As he was running down the field with the ball, Hubbard said he was thinking about his 43-yard return at Las Vegas last year when he got tackled at the Raiders’ 31-yard line. He had joked to teammates after that he would just pitch the ball to them next time, but it didn’t come to that. Hubbard said he saw on the big screen that Mark Andrews was coming in for a tackle around the 25-yard line but he yelled “somebody block him” and linebacker Marcus Bailey made the stop, allowing Hubbard the chance to complete the longest fumble return for a touchdown in NFL playoff history.

“You can’t even dream that one up,” Hubbard said. “It’s pretty special, but I was just glad to see the looks on my teammates’ faces because that was a battle. That was a tough-fought game, a lot of adversity, very physical, and to make the play and be the guy to come through is an amazing feeling not only for my teammates but for the fans as well.”

Akeem Davis-Gaither had the first turnover of the day on the Ravens’ first possession, after the Bengals got on the board with a 39-yard field goal from Evan McPherson on the opening drive. His interception of Huntley set up a 60-yard touchdown drive, capped by a 7-yard pass from Joe Burrow to Ja’Marr Chase for a 9-0 lead early in the second quarter.

Credit: Nick Graham

Credit: Nick Graham

2. Overcoming another O-line loss

The Bengals came into the game already down two starters on their offensive line, but they lost another one Sunday when left tackle Jonah Williams went down with a left knee injury on the team’s last drive of the second quarter. He did not return and was seen wearing a soft brace and using a crutch in the locker room after the game.

Fairfield High School graduate Jackson Carman, the team’s 2021 second-round draft pick and a former left tackle at Clemson, replaced Williams to finish the game. Cincinnati had just lost right guard Alex Cappa to a left knee injury last week in the regular-season finale against Baltimore, and right tackle La’el Collins is on injured reserve with a torn ACL suffered in Week 16. Max Scharping started in Cappa’s place and Hakeem Adeniji has been playing in Collins’ spot.

“I’d assess them as they’re fighting and giving us a chance,” Bengals coach Zac Taylor said of the state of the offensive line now.

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Jackson has been primarily a guard since he was drafted, spending last season at right guard before losing the job to Adeniji to finish the season. He came back this season competing for the left guard job after Cappa arrived in free agency, but rookie Cordell Volson won that job and Carman has been No. 2 on the depth chart there.

“Jackson’s played a lot of football for us,” Burrow said. “We have faith in him. He works hard, he gets his job done. We’re going to count on him a lot.”

Burrow was sacked four times Sunday, the most he’s taken since the Week 8 loss at Cleveland when he was sacked five times. Since then, he hadn’t been sacked more than twice, and the Bengals haven’t lost again.

Baltimore “mixed things up” with some blitzes and different coverages in the second half, Burrow said, but the Bengals did enough to get the win. Cincinnati was 2-for-2 in the red zone and in goal-to-go efficiency, while Baltimore was 1-for-4 in the redzone.

3. No surprises here

Although the win never felt secure until the Ravens’ fourth-down pass fell incomplete in the end zone on a 27-yard attempt as time expired, the Bengals never panicked, Burrow said. Last year’s playoff run taught them they didn’t need to.

The win Sunday was more expected than those playoff victories last season when Cincinnati earned its first playoff win in 31 years, but the team was just as satisfied advancing this time. The Bengals repeated as AFC North champions for the first time in franchise history and advanced in the playoffs for the first time in back-to-back seasons.

Sunday’s win was the team’s ninth straight and second against the Ravens in as many weeks.

“Playoff wins are always hard, always very satisfactory when you get them,” Burrow said. “We’re going to enjoy this one, then move on to the next one when the time is right.”

The Bengals celebrated their first playoff win much like they did the other ones last year, handing out game balls at bars around the area. Taylor delivered one to Blind Pig, Tyler Boyd was taking one to a bar in Over-the-Rhine, and Vonn Bell brought one to Crowley’s in Mount Adams. Three more will be delivered at a later time, for a total of six.

“It’s special,” Taylor said. “There’s such a tremendous history here. You don’t take anything for granted in this league. At this point, it really doesn’t matter what seed you are. Every game is going to be a dogfight, and we knew that, and we were going to get their best shot and we knew that. Our guys found a way to win. Is it different than last year? Winning’s just fun. We work so hard and this season is so long. You go through all the peaks and valleys with all the people in this room. You’re here every step of the way – to get to the playoffs and it can all be over in a heartbeat. Our guys didn’t want that to happen, so they found a way to move on.”

Credit: Nick Graham

Credit: Nick Graham

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