ANALYSIS: 5 takeaways from Bengals’ long-awaited playoff win

CINCINNATI -- The Cincinnati Bengals drew a stadium record crowd to their playoff opener and delivered what the home fans have been waiting for since 1991.

The Bengals ended their 31-year playoff drought Saturday, beating the Las Vegas Raiders 26-19 in a Wild Card game in front of 66,277 fans at Paul Brown Stadium.

They took the lead at 7-3 with less than five minutes left in the first quarter and never lost it but had trouble creating a cushion while settling for four field goals and no touchdowns in the second half. The Raiders cut a 26-16 deficit to seven points with 6:46 left and got the ball back for one last drive with 1:51 remaining.

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Las Vegas made it as far as the 9-yard line before Germaine Pratt ended the game with a fourth-down interception at the 2-yard line with 12 seconds left.

Here are five takeaways from the game…

1. Ready for the next one

The Bengals cleared one big hurdle earning the city’s first playoff win in more than three decades, and now they’ve set the table for a potential run at an AFC title. They won’t find out their Divisional Round opponent until Sunday evening at the earliest, but they will be playing at Tennessee or Buffalo.

The NFL re-seeds teams in the second round with the No. 1 seed in each conference facing the worst remaining team and the two teams in between facing off. If the seventh-seeded Steelers upset the Chiefs, they would travel to top-seeded Tennessee next week and the Bengals would play at Buffalo. A Chiefs win would send the Bengals to Tennessee.

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While the Bengals were glad to get the win, especially for the fans waiting so long for it, they believe this is just the start.

“We feel like if we’re on top of our game, we can beat any team in this league,” Bengals coach Zac Taylor said. “We’re not afraid of anybody. This team’s got a ton of confidence. We always know it’s going to be difficult. Whoever we play next, it’s going to be a great team, but our guys won’t worry about that. We feel like we can put pressure on teams as well. We can be aggressive and teams have to worry about us, and our players really feel that and apply that.”

2. “The turnover guy” saves the day

Defensive end Sam Hubbard said Germaine Pratt is “the turnover guy” in practices, so it was fitting for him to get the fourth-down interception at the 2-yard line to seal the win with 12 seconds left. A pass breakup would have been just as good in that situation, but Pratt said the pick is more rewarding.

Pratt said he was just reading Derek Carr’s eyes in the Cover 3 situation with inside help, and the Raiders were running the same play that Jessie Bates almost picked off two plays earlier.

“It was the same read for me,” Pratt said. “I read the quarterback’s eyes and he threw it. I was trying to make a play and take advantage of the opportunity.”

Pratt ran off the field with that ball and plans to save it. However, keeping with the theme of not wanting to celebrate Saturday’s win too hard, he said “the next one (interception) is what matters most.”

3.  Second-half struggles

Joe Burrow completed 24 of 34 passes for 244 yards and two touchdowns, including an off-balance throw as he was scrambling to the sideline and saw Tyler Boyd open in the end zone. However, Burrow was disappointed the offense didn’t do more. Evan McPherson had four field goals, three of them on red zone trips. They were 2-for-5 in the red zone and 1-for-2 in goal-to-go situations.

Taylor put that on himself as the playcaller.

“It’s tough for me to find a rhythm there, to be quite honest with you, to get us into the best stuff,” Taylor said when asked about redzone efficiency. “It was disappointing because we scored on our first five drives of the game. But, like you said, it didn’t feel like we had enough points on the board. I just put that more on me, trying to find a rhythm there in the red zone.”

Burrow’s 10-yard touchdown pass with 1:51 left in the second quarter gave the Bengals a 20-6 lead before the Raiders answered with a touchdown going into halftime, and Cincinnati settled for two field goals in the second half and nothing else.

C.J. Uzomah had the other touchdown, the first one of the game, when Burrow zipped a 7-yard pass into tight coverage the first drive for Cincinnati. Uzomah finished with six catches for 64 yards.

Credit: Jeff Dean

Credit: Jeff Dean

4. A winning combination

The offense didn’t play as well as Cincinnati hoped, but Ja’Marr Chase still finished with 116 yards on nine catches, including some at crucial points, and his connection with Burrow remains a winning combination for the Bengals.

On Cincinnati’s last scoring drive of the game, Chase caught a back shoulder pass for a 19-yard gain on third-and-7, putting the offense across midfield. It was a go-route that Chase had to adjust to in order to extend the drive.

“I’m like that every game, no matter who is across from me,” Chase said. “I have that dog mentality. It’s either be stopped or not be stopped. I don’t think I can be stopped.”

The Raiders had limited Chase to three catches for 32 yards in the first matchup between the teams in Week 11, but he’s had 100 yards or more in each of his last full games. He only played long enough last week at Cleveland to break Chad Johnson’s single-season receiving record, which he did in the first quarter.

Chase said he has felt comfortable with Burrow since college, and that just continues to grow. It was a connection that helped LSU win a national championship in 2019 and continues to pay off for Cincinnati.

5. Powering through fatigue

The Bengals defensive line lost Larry Ogunjobi and Trey Hendrickson to injuries in the second half. Ogunjobi was carted off with a foot injury, and Hendrickson suffered a concussion. Taylor didn’t have any injury updates to provide after the game, but both players had been important factors in the first half and throughout the season.

Hendrickson had a strip-sack to cause Carr to fumble in the first quarter, and Ogunjobi picked it up to put the Bengals on the 15-yard line after taking the lead at 7-3. McPherson got his first field goal of the day on that drive and Las Vegas seemed a bit out of sorts with the momentum swing.

Hubbard then sacked Carr on the next drive, at the half-yard line, to force a punt and set up another short field, and the pass rush was on fire at that point.

But after Ogunjobi went down with about 10 minutes left in the third quarter and Hendrickson a few minutes later, Cincinnati was thin up front. Cam Sample had to play some defensive tackle – Josh Tupou was inactive with a knee injury – and Hubbard played almost the entire second half.

Backup defensive tackle B.J. Hill added the team’s third sack on the final drive, and the defensive line did well keeping pressure on Carr despite fighting through fatigue, and the secondary came up with some big pass breakups throughout the game. Carr completed 29 of 54 passes for 310 yards and one touchdown, and the Raiders were 1-for-5 in the red zone and 0-for-2 in goal-to-go situations.

“Guys stepped up and just had to grind it out,” Hubbard said. “We were trying to keep (Raiders QB Derek Carr) in the pocket, doubling guys on the back end. Just grinding it out, keeping them out of the end zone, doing whatever we could. Everybody’s fighting, clawing together. I think the love we have with each other as teammates is what allowed us to bow up at the end and in the red zone so many times.”

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