Jessie Bates is playing the best football of the season when it matters most, and the Cincinnati Bengals are going to need more of that this weekend.
The Bengals free safety opened Saturday’s game with an interception on the first defensive snap, and that set the tone for a great defensive performance in a 19-16 win over the Titans in the AFC Divisional Playoffs. Bates was coming off a solid Wild Card game, too, when he had three passes defensed and six tackles against the Raiders.
Cincinnati looks for another big game from Bates and the defense as it sets to face a top 4 offense in the AFC Championship. They meet the Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday at Arrowhead Stadium for a rematch of the Bengals’ Week 17 win in Cincinnati.
“He’s been terrific and he’s made some huge plays the last couple of weeks,” Bengals defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo said. “I’m so glad we have him.”
Bates has spoken in recent weeks about his slow start to the season, attributing it to a “funk” he was in while thinking too much about his contract situation remaining unsolved. This is the last year of his rookie deal, and the Bengals did not get an extension done for him in the preseason as Bates had hoped. Now he could be facing a franchise tag in 2022, but perhaps his play of late helps his case for a long-term deal.
The interception Saturday, his second of the season, ignited the team. The Bengals settled for a field goal on the ensuing drive but never trailed.
“Yeah, we talked about coming out fast with a sense of urgency and it couldn’t have worked out any better,” Bates said Sunday. “They were in sling formation, a pass alert that we were talking about all week and (Ryan) Tannehill honestly just stared it down and I knew exactly what was going on. It was crazy that it happened the first play of the game. Hell of a way to start the game. It was pretty cool.”
Although this season was a bit of an emotional rollercoaster for Bates, it was all worth it to now be sitting one win away from a Super Bowl. The Bengals have made the AFC Championship twice and won both times to advance to the Super Bowl to end the 1981 and 1988 seasons.
“It’s crazy, man,” Bates said. “It just says a lot about this locker room. These type of seasons are very long. They are bumpy. I remember we lost two in a row and lost to the Jets and everybody thought the world was over. We go and whoop on the Ravens at home, at their place and everybody thinks we are the best team. It goes up and down, up and down.
“I think we have finally been able to be healthy, which always gives you a chance in that aspect. So, yeah, you think about where we were a year ago. Some coaches were thinking about other plans. They had to set up some things if this season didn’t go well. Some they may have not been here. Now they are a little diapered up a little bit, extending their little mortgage and stuff like that. Its’ a good feeling. Winning definitely cures everything. It just doesn’t happen overnight. We have a special group and we are excited for that opportunity (this) week.”
Bates spoke to media Sunday before the Bengals knew who their opponent would be, but said he didn’t care if it was the Bills or the Chiefs. Asked what he remembered about the first meeting with Kansas City, he said the Bengals gave up too many explosive plays in the first half. Outsiders probably are quicker to recall how the Bengals kept the Chiefs without a touchdown in the second half.
Kansas City has averaged 28.2 points per game this season and put up 31 points on the Bengals, who broke the tie on an Evan McPherson field goal as time expired. The Chiefs average 396.8 yards of offense per game (third best) and 281.8 yards passing (ranked fourth) with Patrick Mahomes torching defenses with threats like Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce to target.
Bates was just glad to another chance to play this week, regardless of the opponent. The Bengals had never won a road playoff game before and it’s been a long time since the city enjoyed any postseason success.
“I think we’re aware of it (the history),” Bates said. “We’re winning games. We’re one of four teams left. And like I said, we’ve earned these opportunities to be in this position, so it’s a good feeling. It’s not where the end goal is. We’re not where we want to be, but we have another great opportunity. Like I said, it doesn’t really matter how you win these type of games. You just want to win by one point, win one and advance. So like I said, I’m just thankful and happy to have another opportunity with a group of men that are very special and the main thing that we’re focused on is having the best seven days that we’ve ever had, coming up to get to this next opportunity in Week 21. So we’re going to take care of Week 20, and see what else presents itself to us.”
Bengals at Chiefs, 3 p.m., CBS, 700, 1530, 102.7, 104.7
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