Bengal rookie Evan McPherson (Bengal file photo)

by Geoff Hobson as reported by

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – The Bengals are going to next Sunday’s AFC title game on rookie Evan McPherson’s 52-yard field goal at the gun that felled the top-seeded Titans, 19-16

After stuffing Derrick Henry on fourth-and –one, Bengals middle linebacker Logan Wilson caught cornerback Eli Apple’s deflected pass with 20 seconds left at the Bengals 47. Joe Burrow then threw a 19-yard arrow to rookie wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase to set it all up as Burrow finished with 348 yards and a 93.1 passer rating.

A killing turnover turned into Burrow’s first interception since Dec. 5 and 209 straight passes. And it shouldn’t have happened. He went play action and threw a catchable ball to running back Samaje Perine and it went right off his hands. Safety Amami Hooker made a diving catch at the Bengals 27 with 1:19 left in the third quarter.

Then the Titans took a page out of the Bengals playbook against a Cincinnati secondary that had an uncharacteristically tough night defending the long ball. On second-and-16, Tannehill threw a beauty at the right pylon to wide receiver A.J. Brown racing past cornerback Chidobe Awuzie and strong safety Vonn Bell (having a great game) and when Awuzie didn’t turn his head in time, Tannehill put it right in Brown’s stomach for a 33-yard touchdown that tied it at 16 with 15 seconds left in the third quarter.

Burrow’s offensive line responded on the first series of the second half, when they scored another touchdown to continue a season-long trend. On third-and-one, the Bengals, who seven yards rushing in the first half, went to a quick screen to wide receiver Tee Higgins, to get it. Then on third-and-five, Burrow pulled off a quarterback draw for seven yards, complete with the first down sign.

Then Mixon finally got some room. He went to the right, got hemmed in and then made a razor jump cut to the left and there was nobody there and he knew it as he high-stepped in from the 5. It was a 16-yard touchdown run and with 9:34 left in the third quarter they had that coveted two-score lead at 16-6 lead that everyone thought the Titans wouldn’t be able to erase.

But they did with 10 points in the final 95 seconds of the third quarter.

The Bengals drove to within field-goal range, but Burrow took a 16-yard loss on a sack by unblocked linebacker Harold Landry that was cleaned up by outside linebacker Bud Dupree and they had to punt.

The Bengals defense responded again from their own 35 on fourth-and-one when Wilson dethroned The King and blew up Henry for no gain.

But the Bengals could do nothing with it. After running back Joe Mixon false stared, the Titans ended the drive with 2:43 left on their ninth sack of the night, tackle Jeffery Simmons’ third and the 13th hit of the game on Burrow.

The Bengals took a 9-6 halftime lead on three McPherson field goals as the Titans’ ferocious pass rush gave Burrow no room to breathe and in the first half pummeled him for five sacks.

But the Bengals defense was even better, rumbling downhill to hold Henry to 30 yards on 10 carries and the Titans to just 129 total in ushering them off the field on four of five third downs.

They only faltered once in the half and that was when Tannehill hit wide-open wide receiver A.J. Brown for 41 yards in the half’s lone touchdown drive. But another Bengals penalty proved to be fortuitous for them. When a too-many-men-on-the-field penalty on the extra point, nudged it closer, the Titans went for two. But little-used linebacker Clay Johnston came screaming off his left edge as they tried to bang Henry on the right side. But Johnston grabbed an ankle, rookie tackle Tyler Shelvin penetrated and strong safety Vonn Bell stood him up to keep it tied at 6.

Burrow got sacked five times in the first quarter, but a delay of game flag and a timeout wiped out two of them. The Titans tortured them with basically four-man rushes, but they disguised them well and the Bengals had a tough time sorting out who was coming and who wasn’t. Burrow finished the half with a 102 passer rating on 17 of 24 for 178 yards.

When they got the ball back with 6:07 left in the half, they seemed to figure it out. After Burrow converted a a rare third-and-short (the Bengals were just four of nine in the half) over the middle to tight end C.J. Uzomah, Burrow hit two big plays over the middle of the Titans zone for a total of 35 yards. Higgins, the Tennessee native, was the Bengals leading offensive player in the half with five catches for 71 yards.

But they had the ball at the Titans 20 at the two-minute warning and went backward. Uzomah fell down on a screen to set up yet another third-and-long that was made even longer when right tackle Isaiah Prince false started. Then Burrow didn’t get rid of it and took a tough sack (his fifth of the half) snap that gave McPherson a 54-yard try in the freezing weather. He made it 9-6 with 1:30 left in the half for his third of the game and seventh field goal of the postseason, already the second most in Bengals history and two shy of Jim Breech’s club record.

The defense again came up big, force Tannehill out of the pocket on his next three passes to force the Titans’ fourth punt.

Free safety Jessie Bates III, who picked Tannehill last year at Paul Brown Stadium, did it here on the first play of the game. It looked like Tannehill saw nine men at the line and checked to a play-action pass and Bates was all over wide receiver Julio Jones in the middle of the field and the Bengals had it at the Tennessee 42.

Mixon bounced off linebacker David Long Jr, to get the majority of his yards on a 21-yard check down after Burrow took a sack when he couldn’t find anyone open. McPherson delivered a 38-yarder to start the scoring courtesy of Bates.

On the Titans’ first full series, the blitz forced a three-and-out. Strong safety Vonn Bell drilled Henry for nothing on second down and both Bell and slot cornerback Mike Hilton came on third down to sack Tannehill.

But the Bengals couldn’t protect Burrow. On first down Burrow threw an uncharacteristically poor pass when he hurried a low throw to Uzomah. Then he got drilled for a sack with Harold Landry blowing through a hole vacated by right guard Hakeem Adeniji.

A great first-down stop by nose tackle D.J. Reader led to a stop and Burrow went to a screen to offset an all-out rush that was disregarding everything but the pass. Chase got inside on old LSU buddy, cornerback Kristian Fulton, and raced 57 yards to the Titans 28.

But there was nothing available. Burrow got sacked on second down with Denico Autry getting past left tackle Jonah Williams when Burrow couldn’t unload in time and it was another unworkable third-and-long, so McPherson hit a 45-yarder with 2:11 left in the first quarter for the 6-0 lead.

It was a dominant defensive quarter for the Bengals. Reader led a surge that held Henry to 11 yards on his first five carries as the Titans scrounged for just 37 yards.

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