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Why Not the Bengals?

Cincinnati is feeling confident after winning its first playoff game in 31 years. With Joe Burrow orchestrating a potent offense, the Bengals might be a tough out in the AFC.

AFC Wild Card Playoffs - Las Vegas Raiders v Cincinnati Bengals Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

The Bengals estimated their crowd today at 66,277 people—the largest ever at Paul Brown Stadium. It was probably the loudest, too.

When Bengals defensive end and team captain Sam Hubbard sacked Raiders quarterback Derek Carr near the goal line in the first quarter, the crowd roared with a volume befitting a team whose mascot is a tiger.

On Saturday, the Bengals beat the Raiders 26-19, and Cincinnati’s crowd was nearly as much a part of the win as any Bengals player. You could hear the fans on the NBC broadcast throughout most of the game. And you could see the Raiders players unable to hear each other from start to finish.

Vegas’s first two drives were derailed because of false start penalties on Raiders players who were unable to hear Carr. And Carr had to burn a timeout on the Raiders’ second-to-last drive because he couldn’t communicate with his offense, costing the Raiders crucial seconds and an extra chance to tie the game in the final minute. After the game, Bengals head coach Zac Taylor awarded a game ball to the city of Cincinnati.

The city deserves it. This game released three decades of pent-up energy. The Bengals won their first playoff game since January 1991—before all but four active Bengals players were born.

That includes quarterback Joe Burrow. He didn’t have an eye-popping stat line—24 completions on 34 attempts (70.5 percent completion) for 244 yards (7.2 yards per throw) and two passing touchdowns. But he made essentially zero mistakes. Burrow threaded Cincy’s first touchdown of the night into an impossibly small window to Bengals tight end C.J. Uzomah.

Burrow’s second touchdown was significantly more chaotic, both before and after the play, because of some ridiculous officiating (more on that later). Regardless, it was a fantastic play reminiscent of Joe Montana’s scramble on “The Catch.”

Burrow’s calm confidence combined with his chilly mastery of Cincinnati’s offense has transformed the Bengals franchise. The college transfer-turned-Heisman-winner-turned-no. 1 draft pick for an AFC North team wearing orange in Ohio has been everything the Cleveland Browns thought they were getting when they drafted Baker Mayfield no. 1 in 2018.

But it’s becoming hard to separate Burrow’s performance from that of his no. 1 receiver and former college teammate, Ja’Marr Chase. Like Burrow, Chase has been at his best on the biggest stages. In his first playoff game, Chase finished with nine catches for 116 yards, and the only reason he didn’t finish with more yardage was the Bengals were trying to nurse the clock toward the end of the game. He had three catches for 37 yards and three first downs on the first drive alone. In the fourth quarter, Chase caught a 19-yarder on third-and-7 to keep a drive alive, then caught an 11-yarder for another first down on the following play. The Raiders were unable to cover him. As a rookie, Chase makes plays like this look routine.

Burrow and Chase are already an elite QB-WR combo.

“I don’t think I can be stopped,” Chase told reporters after the game.

The Raiders played mostly light boxes and devoted more defenders to the passing game, but they couldn’t stop the Bengals from shredding their zone defense. As Josh DuBow of the Associated Press noted, the Raiders defense stopped working against the Bengals at halftime of their Week 11 matchup, and the Bengals picked up where they left off on Saturday.

Truthfully, the Raiders did more damage to themselves than Burrow and Chase did to them. Las Vegas committed the unholy trinity of NFL sins—turnovers, penalties, and special teams mistakes—in the first quarter alone. Every single starter on the Raiders offensive line committed a penalty. Receivers DeSean Jackson and Bryan Edwards both had brutal drops on key plays. The crowd noise left the team unable to communicate. Raiders kick returner Peyton Barber accidentally ran out of bounds at his own 2-yard line. The Raiders looked like a team whose head coach was fired midseason. On Saturday, they were done in by their own mistakes, a fitting reflection of their entire season.

But another group had even more self-inflicted mistakes than the Raiders: the referees. When the NFL announces that it will release a statement on an officiating decision minutes after the play happened, you know something has gone wrong.

The botched call in question came on Burrow’s second touchdown pass. He scrambled to his right and lofted a pass to Bengals receiver Tyler Boyd in the back of the end zone for a touchdown, but a referee blew the play dead, presumably because he thought Burrow stepped out of bounds. Except there was one problem: Burrow did not step out of bounds. The referees awarded the Bengals the touchdown, then conferred. Apparently they decided the whistle came after the play, which is not true. You can clearly hear the whistle before Boyd catches Burrow’s pass mid-play; the reactions from players on both teams seemed to indicate they thought the play had been called dead.

In fairness, it might have been an even larger injustice had the Bengals touchdown been erased because of a mistaken whistle. While the referees went outside the rule book, which is bad, fans everywhere would probably be angrier if the officials erased the Bengals touchdown due to an officiating error, especially if the Raiders ended up winning.

The Raiders can feel aggrieved that the Bengals were granted a touchdown in a game they lost by seven points, but the truth is Vegas made too many mistakes to complain about the referees. And the Raiders had their chance to tie the game at the end anyway. With less than 30 seconds left, they had three chances at the end zone from the 9-yard line (and would have had a fourth, but made the curious decision to spike the ball on first down instead of running a play). On fourth-and-goal, the Bengals intercepted Carr to end the game.

It was a huge moment for the Bengals defense, which has been the quiet key to the team’s playoff run. Cincinnati invested massively in free agency to improve its defense this past offseason, and it’s paid off. Defensive end Trey Hendrickson, signed away from the Saints, got a strip sack on the second Raiders drive, and defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi, signed away from Cleveland, recovered the fumble. Cornerback Mike Hilton, signed away from Pittsburgh, broke up two passes just in the first half and was all over the field. The Bengals defense is not elite, but their pass rush, led by Hendrickson and Hubbard, and their competency in the secondary is plenty good enough to stifle teams if the Bengals are playing with a lead.

Cincy’s biggest issue going into the divisional round is that, well, a lot of those guys just got hurt. Hendrickson, Ogunjobi, and Hilton all left Saturday’s game with injuries. The Bengals also lost defensive tackle Mike Daniels, putting them down three starters on the defensive line, not to mention both defensive tackles.

But the Bengals can worry about those things next week. They’ve gotten their first playoff win in 31 years. No matter what happens in the rest of the postseason, they’ll be hyped as much as any team in the league entering next season. Bengals fans got a taste of the future in this game. But as loud as the crowd was, the Bengals were quiet afterward. Whereas they smoked cigars and danced in the locker room after winning the AFC North two weeks ago, the Bengals players were not celebrating after beating the Raiders on Saturday. They have larger expectations.

“Why not make a run,” Uzomah asked after the game, “and win the whole thing?”