NFL Playoffs: 5 storylines to watch in Bengals-Titans

Credit: AJ Mast

Credit: AJ Mast

The Cincinnati Bengals are among the final eight teams remaining in the NFL playoffs and seeking a trip to the AFC Championship for the first time since they last made the Super Bowl in 1988.

Sitting between them and the final four is top-seeded Tennessee (12-5), which enjoyed a bye last week and now comes in fresh and almost fully healthy. However, the Bengals weren’t satisfied with the way their offense struggled in the second half last week and are hoping to put together a more complete game to keep their season going.

Here are five storylines to watch Saturday:

1. Battle of veteran, young quarterbacks

The Bengals believe Joe Burrow can take over a game when needed, and he’s confident to do so in pressure situations, but there also is something to be said for experience, and that’s what Tennessee quarterback Ryan Tannehill brings to the table.

Burrow was a national championship quarterback in college, leading LSU to the title just two years ago, and he’s got the weapons to pick apart even the best defenses. Tannehill is in his ninth season and is 23-10 with the Titans in the past two seasons, following a surprise run to the AFC Championship in 2019.

It’s not a flashy matchup, but both secondaries could be tested, and Tannehill notably has all of his best weapons back healthy for the first time since Week 8.

2. How much can Henry do?

Tennessee has still run the ball well without Derrick Henry the past nine games while he was recovering from foot surgery, but the offense hits another level with him on the field.

The question is how much of a workload can he handle in his first game back? Cincinnati will be ready for a full dose of Henry, but that might not be realistic.

A fully fit Henry has a tendency to wear down defenses as the game goes on and a lot of his damage comes in the fourth quarter, so if he’s not wearing down with them, the Bengals will have to figure out how to stay fresh and not let him take off on them late in the game.

“He’s obviously got one of, probably the best stiff arm in the league so you have to understand when he puts that up you have to make ways to swipe on, swipe off techniques to try and get it off you as fast as you can and try and get within him to grab him and bring him down,” Bengals linebacker Logan Wilson said.

The Titans have the fifth-best running game in the league, averaging 141.4 rushing yards per game, while the Bengals have the fifth-best run defense, allowing just 102.5 rushing yards per game.

3. Eyes on the D-line

The Bengals’ defensive line will play a major role Saturday, and fortunately it seems they will be getting two players back that began the week as big question marks.

Most notably, defensive end Trey Hendrickson cleared concussion protocols and is set to play, but tackle Josh Tupou also returned to full participation Thursday and was not listed on the game status report as someone in doubt.

Cincinnati lost starting defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi to a season-ending foot injury in the Wild Card game against the Raiders, and practice squad callup Mike Daniels injured his groin and is unavailable so the Bengals added a couple new guys, including former Cardinals’ practice squad player Zach Kerr to the active roster.

While the interior misses much with Ogunjobi out, it would have been a big blow to lose Hendrickson as well. He’s the team’s leading pass rusher with 14.0 sacks.

“Next man up,” Reader said. “We’ve got a lot of young guys in our room. We’re going to prolong guys, guys might have to move around, but you know, it’s next man up. We’ve got to go out there and get it done and do a great job with the things that Larry sees. He’s still around us, he talks to us all the time. So, taking his coaching, as another coach out there and just having a good time.”

4. Titans red-zone success

The Bengals struggled offensively in the red zone last week and didn’t score a touchdown in the second half. They’re looking to be more effective in those situations this week but the Titans are one of the better redzone defenses in the league.

Although opponents have gotten points on 52 of 58 red-zone opportunities against Tennessee, they have only managed touchdowns on 30 of those for a percentage of 51.2, which ranks seventh best in the league. The Bengals have been inside the 20-yard line on 52 possessions and scored on 45 of those, including 31 touchdowns (59.6 percent, ranked 17th).

“The key for us is getting the first first down,” Burrow said. “After we get that first first-down most of the times I think on the year our stats when we get that first first down are almost always points. So the key for us is getting that first first down and from there we can be aggressive and take our shots and all that.”

Titans safety Kevin Byard is the catalyst on defense, leading with 88 combined tackles and five interceptions. They also apply good pressure up front with Harold Landry recording 12.0 sacks, Jeffrey Simmons adding 8.5 and plugging up the run game and end Denico Autry owning 9.0 sacks.

Tennessee also has been solid in the red zone offensively, scoring touchdowns on 63.9 percent of their 61 trips inside the 20 (fifth best).

5. Ending another drought?

The Bengals ended their 31-year playoff win drought, but now they are looking for their first road victory in the playoffs. They are 0-7 on the road in the postseason and 0-9 away from home with two neutral-site Super Bowl appearances factored into the equation.

Bengals running back Joe Mixon said just like last week the team isn’t concerned about past struggles in road playoff games.

“We know what we’ve got in front of us,” Mixon said. “We know what we have to do in order to get where we want to be. We’ve got the path laid out for us. At the same time, as we’ve been saying for these past I don’t know how many weeks now, we control our own destiny and we’ve just got to keep on pushing, keep on getting better each and every week. Pay attention to the little details because things don’t matter until they matter. And we’ve got to figure out ways to play complete games. We have yet to do that. We’re definitely getting better, each side of the ball and also on special teams. But I feel like we’ve yet to play our best football and I think with these next couple of opportunities that we are able to have, I think we’re going to put it all together here shortly. Like I said, we’ll figure it out.”


Bengals at Titans, 4:30 p.m., CBS, Paramount+, 700, 1530, 102.7, 104.7

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