NASHVILLE — The Cincinnati Bengals last week broke their 31-year playoff drought, and with a young, explosive offense, seemed like this year’s dark horse contender.
And now they officially are. The No. 4-seeded Bengals overcame nine sacks and six penalties to shock the top-seeded Tennessee Titans, 19-16, when rookie kicker Evan McPherson kicked his fourth and final field goal Saturday, a 52-yarder that split the uprights as time expired.
The Bengals, who had three interceptions of their own, will face the winner of the Chiefs-Bills game on Sunday, and will travel to either Kansas City or Buffalo.
“We don’t know what we don’t know,” quarterback Joe Burrow said of the team’s youthfulness, an acknowledgment that he will have less experience no matter who his team faces in the A.F.C. championship game next week, whether his counterpart is Patrick Mahomes, 26, of Kansas City or Josh Allen, 25, of Buffalo. Burrow, 25, is in just his second N.F.L. season, an experience gap that separates him from his peers.
“Tomorrow morning might be a different story, but right now, I feel great,” Burrow said.
Despite the many hits, Burrow threw for 348 yards on 28 of 37 passing with one interception. His counterpart on Saturday, Ryan Tannehill, suffered just one sack, but was doomed by three interceptions.
Statistically, the game made no sense. Burrow was fabulous when he had time to spot his fleet-footed receivers, completing 28 of 37 passes for 348 yards. The Titans blanketed Ja’Marr Chase, who still managed to haul in five passes for 109 yards. Receiver Tee Higgins and tight end C.J. Uzomah each had seven receptions.
Burrow, though, was sacked repeatedly as the Titans defense ran in, around and through the Bengals’ porous offensive line. Tennessee defensive end Jeffery Simmons led the charge with three sacks of Burrow.
“That one was really, really hard,” Burrow said of the pressure he faced throughout the game.
The Titans became the fifth team to notch nine sacks in playoff game, joining Kansas City (1994), the Browns (1987), the 49ers (1985) and Bills (1967).
It was the Bengals defense, though, that ultimately saved the day, intercepting Tannehill on the Titans’ first and last plays of the game, and once in between. The final pick was most important as it came with just 20 seconds remaining.
On a drive that began with 2:43 left in the game, Tannehill slowly marched the Titans down the field trying to get the team in field goal position. Then, on the fifth play of the series, on third-and-5 from the Titan’ 40-yard line, Tannehill’s pass was tipped by cornerback Eli Apple and hauled in by linebacker Logan Wilson.
Burrow, who had a breakout season throwing for more than 4,600 yards, got another chance to add to his résumé by stealing a second playoff win. From the Bengals’ 47-yard line, Burrow quickly hit Chase to move the ball to the Titans’ 35 and into decent field goal position.
The Bengals drained a few more seconds off the clock before McPherson connected on the game-winner.
Had Cincinnati’s offensive line been more successful, the Bengals may have won the game easily as the team held the ball for about seven minutes longer than the Titans over the course of thee night, despite the return of Tennessee’s stellar running back Derrick Henry from an absence of more than two months.
Indeed, the game got off to an auspicious start for the Bengals. On the first play from scrimmage, Cincinnati safety Jessie Bates intercepted Tannehill. With great field position, the Bengals looked poised to strike. But in a pattern that defined the game, Burrow was sacked on the first play from scrimmage. A delay-of-game penalty stalled the promising drive and the Bengals settled for a field goal, not a touchdown.
Cincinnati kicked three of them in the first half, and went into the locker room ahead, 9-6.
The Titans, meanwhile, looked rusty after a bye week. Tannehill missed receivers, was sacked, rushed throws, and Henry — who finished with 62 yards on 20 carries — didn’t seem to help much.
The Titans engineered a solid drive midway through the second quarter. Tannehill connected with his two best receivers, A.J. Brown and Julio Jones. On first-and-goal, Henry lined up in the wildcat, took the snap and scored, to the delight of the home crowd that had been calling his name.
Henry and the Titans failed to score on a 2-point attempt, however. In the end, those 2 extra points would not have mattered because the Bengals’ final field goal was just enough.