Defense comes up big for Super Bowl-bound Bengals

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Cincinnati Bengals coach Zac Taylor has credited the defense as the catalyst to their postseason run. That rang true again Sunday in the AFC Championship, and now the Bengals are headed to the Super Bowl for the first time since 1988.

B.J. Hill had a momentum-swinging interception in the second half, Vonn Bell picked off Patrick Mahomes on the opening drive of overtime, and the defensive line accounted for four sacks, as the Bengals defense paved the way for a 27-24 overtime win against the Kansas City Chiefs in the conference final at Arrowhead Stadium.

Bell’s interception gave the Bengals a sudden-death opportunity to win the game on Evan McPherson’s 31-yard field goal.

“It’s something we have stressed for so long now (takeaways), and you never know when it’s going to start paying off and they’ve come in bunches for us,” Taylor said. “… When you are playing great teams like we are at this stretch, you’ve got to have more possession than they do … and I don’t think that was any secret today.”

The Chiefs managed just three points in the second half, a 44-yard field goal by Harrison Butker as time expired in regulation, in a déjà vu type of performance from a Week 17 loss in Cincinnati when the Bengals rallied from down 14 points three times to clinch the AFC North.

Sam Hubbard had back-to-back sacks on second and third downs after Kansas City got to the 4-yard line with 1:26 left, forcing the Chiefs to settle for the field goal instead of a game-winning touchdown.

When Cincinnati lost the coin toss to determine who would receive the first possession, all Kansas City needed was a touchdown to win the game. The Bengals bowed up on defense once again, and one play after Eli Apple just missed a chance at an interception, Bell swiped a pass tipped by Jessie Bates to give Cincinnati a chance to win it with a field goal.

“It’s fitting they made a play on the ball like that,” Taylor said. “I can’t wait to see it. I didn’t have great vision on the play. Proud of those guys. They’ve mastered the takeaway, and those are the types of plays we needed to get to the Super Bowl.”

Cincinnati has been thriving on takeaways late in games this postseason. The Bengals also won their Wild Card game against the Raiders when Germaine Pratt picked off Derek Carr in the red zone on the final defensive play to protect a 26-19 lead, and Logan Wilson’s interception on the final defensive play last week at Tennessee set up McPherson for the game-winning field goal.

Hill’s interception of Mahomes late in the third quarter sparked the comeback Sunday after the Bengals made it an eight-point game after trailing 21-10 at halftime and by as much as 18 points in the second quarter. The offense took advantage of the first turnover of the game to score a touchdown on a Joe Burrow pass to Ja’Marr Chase, tying it on a two-point conversion with 14 points left in the third quarter.

“We always say, ‘Tips and overthrows, got to get to them,’” Taylor said. “Huge play by B.J. He’s really stepped in and been a huge part of what we’ve done.”

Mahomes was almost perfect in the first half and wasn’t sacked once, while leading the Chiefs to as much as a 21-3 lead in the second quarter, but Bell said after the game, the team showed its resiliency in the second half.

After Hill got his interception, he recorded the first sack on the next drive along with Trey Hendrickson, and Hendrickson got to Mahomes on the next possession. Both sacks were on third down to force punts, as the Bengals prevented touchdowns on eight straight drives to end the game.

“We were getting there the first half, he’s just got the best pocket presence of anybody in the league and we kept telling ourselves to keep chopping wood, keep rushing, keep rushing, and we kept being disciplined in our rush lanes and finally towards the end it paid off,” Hubbard said. “It takes four, we were rushing three at times, and to sack him, it’s a collective effort of everybody just relentlessly pursuing him, and that’s all we did. We just kept grinding the whole way and it finally paid off in the end.”

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