The Bengals’ most glaring weakness heading into Sunday’s AFC title game against the Chiefs was no secret to anyone who watched last week’s game in Tennessee. Despite their 19-16 win over the Titans, Cincy’s offensive line allowed a staggering nine sacks on Joe Burrow, tying an NFL playoff record and forcing their star QB to become the first ever to win a postseason game after hitting the turf so many times. This was no mere aberration, as Burrow’s 51 sacks in 16 games this year led the league.
But even though the Chiefs’ defense looked to be a scary matchup for the Bengals’ pass protectors—K.C. was low in the sack rankings this year but top five in both pressures and hurries—their presence in Sunday’s box score is almost nonexistent. Burrow was hit just four times, compared to 13 in the last game, and sacked only once. Cincinnati did appear to make some conscious adjustments to keep Burrow safe, like deploying greater numbers to block or calling more short passes like the one to Samaje Perine for their first touchdown of the game. But Burrow himself displayed an uncanny slipperiness in the face of the KC pass rush, working magic under fatal-looking pressure to keep the Bengals moving down the field throughout their second-half comeback.
“We did have opportunities,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said after the game when asked about the low number of sacks. “He got out of those.”
One such opportunity came with the game still 21-10 in the middle of the third quarter. On a second-and-10, with the ball on their own side of the field, the Chiefs rush quickly overpowered the Bengals line and appeared to have Burrow trapped. Chris Jones, the All-Pro defensive tackle, even got his arms around the QB’s waist. But with a determined wiggle, Burrow got Jones off of him and ran away from the pressure to find Ja’Marr Chase for a 22-yard gain. Instead of facing something like third-and-19 around their own 37, the Bengals would go on to kick a field goal.
Burrow’s legs became even more important when the game was tied in the fourth quarter, when on two consecutive third downs he made a pair of spectacular highlights on the ground that kept the ball in orange hands. The first was the most jaw-dropping of them all, as on third-and-7 Burrow again kept Jones from getting a firm grip on him, spinning away, outrunning Jones to the sideline, and then taking the perfect angle to just barely beat Ben Niemann to the first-down line.
Burrow’s scrambling is not something that opposing defenses typically need to spend a lot of time planning for. This year, coming off a brutal knee injury, he was just 26th among QBs with 118 rushing yards, and the 25 yards he had in this AFC title game tied his season high. But he’s shown just enough playmaking ability to make him a credible two-way threat, and the Chiefs learned this the hard way. After K.C. stopped Joe Mixon for one yard and bottled up a screen for just two, Burrow again confounded the pass rush, ghosting through it and then speeding past everyone else for 11 yards and another first down. Just a few minutes later, the Bengals had their first lead of the game: an especially important one, given that they wouldn’t see the ball again in regulation.
The final passing stats for Burrow and Patrick Mahomes don’t look all that different. Mahomes threw for 25 more yards and one more touchdown, but also one additional (and critical) interception. But Mahomes, after 69 yards and a touchdown last week against Buffalo, only picked up 19 on the ground in this one while being hampered by a QB spy. Burrow meanwhile gained 25, but more than just beating Mahomes’s raw numbers, it was the situations and the way in which he earned them that spoke to the difference between the two offenses in the second half.
Mahomes is the one with the vast reputation for magic-making, for making unbelievable plays as he takes four seconds or more to search for openings while zig-zagging behind the line of scrimmage. But the Bengals’ defense denied those highlight-reel moments and instead created surprising, ugly-looking mistakes like this one:
Burrow, meanwhile, never lost his confidence in his power to win the game for his team, even with that massive early deficit and a hostile crowd breathing down his neck. There appeared to be no doubt in his mind that he could make the plays necessary to get the Bengals into the Super Bowl. When I rewatch Burrow keeping plays and drives alive with his back against the wall, I see him seeing his list of possibilities narrow but never disappear, and then boldly choosing whichever one remains. Since the end of the Tennessee game, and likely much earlier, both Burrow’s cool demeanor and unflappable on-field play have implied an unwavering belief that the Bengals were always going to arrive at this destination. And if they couldn’t always do it by air, Burrow would blaze a path over land.
“If you’d told me coming into the league when I got drafted that we’d be here this year, obviously it would have been a shock,” Burrow said after the game. “But now I’m not surprised. Playing this whole year, I felt we’d have a chance to be here.”