CINCINNATI — With 1:59 remaining, facing a third-and-11 and trying to end the game, the Bengals coaching staff faced one of the most critical decisions of Sunday’s showdown with Kansas City and, consequently, their season.
With the two-minute warning adding a buffer, they had three minutes and 10 seconds of real time to talk through the options.
They could run the ball to ensure the clock ticked off. Throw it short to stay safe but hope a broken tackle delivered a conversion. Or they could drop back to see if Joe Burrow and the offense could find a way to win the game and set off the victory formation.
“I changed the play call probably three times,” head coach Zac Taylor said.
Three minutes felt like three hours inside the Bengals huddle as they waited to see what would come next. Burrow entered the huddle with his three receivers unable to wait for the call.
“Me and (Tyler Boyd) are thinking he’s got to run the ball the whole time before Joe came and called the play,” Tee Higgins said. “We all three asked Joe at the same time: Run or pass?”
The answer was pass. The decision landed where it often does, specifically when given time to think about who the Bengals have been, currently are, and looked poised to become again.
Put the ball in Burrow’s hands.
“Yeah, there you go,” Taylor said. “That’s really what it comes down to.”
What came next was the latest defining moment in a trilogy that’s shifted the long-standing balance of power in the AFC.
Burrow held the ball on a deep slant to Higgins until the final tick before taking a shot from defensive end Mike Danna, then threw a dart 18 yards in the air, hanging over the middle. The ball floated over and behind safety Bryan Cook and then through blanket coverage.
“I’m not sure,” Burrow said, asked if he found the right one-on-one. “There were a lot of people in the middle of the field. I just found a window for him.”
Actually, the only place this would be called a window is in a Barbie Dreamhouse.
Higgins found a way to claw the catch through the contested rip of Joshua Williams before standing up with both hands in the air and a confident point.
Ballgame. Send in the victory formation. Bengals take the 27-24 win.
On 3rd & 11 with 1:59 left in regulation, Joe Burrow found Tee Higgins in a tight window for 14 yards and a first down, sealing a @Bengals win.
? Time to Throw: 2.70 seconds
? Burrow Under Pressure
? Target Separation: 0.5 yards#KCvsCIN | #RuleTheJungle pic.twitter.com/PWMHBWokmr
— Next Gen Stats (@NextGenStats) December 5, 2022
“I don’t know how Tee came down with it,” Taylor said. “The ball was caught further inside than I’m used to thinking. But again, Joe had to hold on to it for a while. I can’t watch that clip on tape and see how they won us that game.”
If the extra effort from Higgins or deadly accuracy from Burrow don’t happen, well, the Patrick Mahomes movie has been showing in NFL theaters for five years.
“You know the quarterback they have over there,” Burrow said. “We can’t settle for a field goal or else he goes down the field and wins the game. We had to find a way to get that conversion and Tee Higgins made a big play.”
Burrow and the Bengals found a way.
To stand in, take the hit, deliver the strike into traffic and trust a contested catch with so much on the line isn’t confidence or swagger.
It’s fearlessness. It’s quintessential Burrow. Cold-blooded.
The poise and ruthlessness of his game and these moments filter through every corner of what’s again evolved into a championship locker room.
“There’s no fear of failure in this building,” Taylor said.
It has produced massive wins covered in hustle plays and extra effort that somehow seem to find these Bengals. They did it in the stunning run to the Super Bowl last year and are doing it again. That goes from offense to defense, starters to subs, veterans to rookies.
“It’s us,” defensive tackle DJ Reader said. “We are resilient as a team. We have the ultimate confidence in our offense. We feel like it’s our job to get them the ball back. We are one battle-tested team. I feel like a lot of people lose to that (Chiefs) name, don’t put up a fight, they lose to that style of play and don’t put up a fight. We are going be in that fight every time.”
Reader set the tone. On the opening defensive drive of the game, he incredibly chased down running back Isiah Pacheco from behind as he broke free on a screen. Reader ran 16 yards to trip him up before the play potentially went to the house.
Reader lists at 335 pounds.
“Go get ’em, go get ’em,” said Reader, who would knock down a Mahomes pass directed toward a wide-open Travis Kelce on third down and force a field goal. “We are going to hunt the ball. It’s what we do.”
It was Joseph Ossai, on third down in the fourth quarter, frantically chasing down Mahomes from behind to narrowly clip his heels before he broke free on a play where it looked like the next great highlight was on the way. If he doesn’t give that extra ounce of effort, there’s a good chance the Chiefs punch in a go-ahead score instead of attempting a 55-yard field goal Harrison Butker pushed wide right.
Then there was Germaine Pratt, ripping at a ball Kelce covered with two hands while he was dragging defenders down the field. He somehow pulled it out and recovered the fumble, just as he did to turn a loss into a win in overtime of the season opener against Minnesota last year.
On the play before Ossai’s sack, Trey Hendrickson chased Mahomes sideline to sideline forcing an incompletion on yet another snap with eight deep forcing an elongated, relentless pass rush.
“In this team, all we do is hustle,” said Ossai, who played 12 snaps, the sack the biggest of his young career. “All we do is run to the ball. All we do is go for that second effort. You saw Germaine pull that ball out, that’s all hustling. That’s kind of what we preach in practice and always strive to be. You see our leader, Sam Hubbard, all he does is hustle. You see Trey sprinting to the ball trying to get Mahomes down, you kind of have to embody that and take after those guys.”
This was the play style that turned heads when an island of misfit toys put together one of the most remarkable defensive runs to the Super Bowl and beat Mahomes twice in the process. The final score and method to the madness are the same in becoming the first team to beat Mahomes three straight times.
“I think it’s just the standard,” Jessie Bates said. “You look at our defense and see a bunch of dudes playing their ass off for one another.”
The same on offense. There was Samaje Perine not only sending shoulders and stiff arms worthy of another look for Kyle Brandt’s Angry Runs scepter but willing his way to rip through tackles and dive for a third-and-7 conversion on the go-ahead touchdown drive.
It was Boyd rebounding from an uncharacteristic drop when he was wide open for a sure touchdown to bounce back and catch, dive for the line and convert a third down later in the drive. Chris Evans caught the game-winning TD on the next play.
It was Ja’Marr Chase taking a pass short of the sticks on third-and-5, bullying through defenders on the game-clinching drive and diving for the pylon cam. He made it by inches.
“It was extra effort,” Chase said. “Just makin’ that first man miss and I had to put my head down (against) the contested tackle.”
That all set up the final moment. Every scrap, every inch, every claw.
It’s a microcosm for the bigger picture of this club now entrenched among the top tier of Super Bowl contenders in the AFC. The Bengals have had to scratch and claw for every bit of respect. Whether from Justin Reid, national analysts calling 2021 a fluke or all those who doubted through the early struggles of this season.
They are here now. Burrow is here. They are winning games through effort, hustle and a quarterback with a killer instinct to take out the most dangerous quarterback in football. Three times.
“We set it in stone last year,” Boyd said. “We always find the big plays at the end of the game and find a way to secure the win. This year is nothing new. Nothing we stress about. It’s natural. We think we got the best offense and the best defense. We believe.”
(Top photo: Dylan Buell / Getty Images)