Joe Burrow, Bengals rally to spot in Super Bowl LVI

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The Bengals last January finished a 4-11-1 season. Joe Burrow, the promising rookie quarterback, got hurt in late November, and the knee injury was so significant that it seemed unlikely he’d be ready to play by the 2021 season-opener. Zac Taylor, the head coach, was 6-25-1 in two seasons, depths not reached by a Bengal coach since David Shula. The defense stunk to high heaven. Sixteen games, 17 sacks. Seventeen sacks! All season!

Two days after the season ended, a young man from Florida, 21-year-old kicker Evan McPherson, declared he would skip his final year of eligibility with the Gators to enter the NFL draft.

No one except a couple of Cincinnati scouts and de facto GM Duke Tobin found anything encouraging in that. They’d scouted McPherson, liked him, and would scout him a lot more in the 16 weeks before the draft. On draft day, Cincinnati made McPherson the fifth pick of the fifth round. No other kicker was drafted last April.

Now, fast-forward to Sunday, in overtime, at Arrowhead Stadium. McPherson was 4-for-4 in field goals in the wild-card win over Las Vegas, 4-for-4 in the upset of top-seeded Tennessee in the divisional round, and 3-for-3 so far today, including a 52-yard bullet down the middle to give the Bengals their first lead of the day in the fourth quarter. Now it was 24-all in OT. All McPherson had to do was boot a 31-yarder in the sixth minute of overtime and the Bengals would be going to the Super Bowl.

When McPherson lined up for the kick, he got a shot of adrenaline from his holder, punter Kevin Huber. Huber looked back at one of the hottest kickers in playoff history and said, “We’re going to the Super Bowl.”

AFC Championship - Cincinnati Bengals v Kansas City Chiefs
Bengals kicker Evan McPherson (2). (Getty Images)

The 31-yard perfecto with 9:22 left in overtime lifted Cincinnati to the win. It also did not surprise McPherson in the least. The Bengals might have drafted Max Scherzer with the first pick of the 2020 draft in Burrow, but they also might have picked Mariano Rivera with the 149th pick in 2021 in McPherson. For the second straight weekend, he kicked the game-winner on the last play of the game. He also now has made 12 field goals of 50 yards or longer in his rookie year, more 50-yard-plus field goals in one season (including postseason play) than any kicker ever. Hall of Fame lock Adam Vinatieri’s high of 50-yard field goals for a season: seven.

“Being a kicker is like being a sniper,” McPherson said from Kansas City after the Cincinnati win. “You got one shot.”

There were lots of heroes in this game for Cincinnati. What had to be fun for Tobin and the scouts and coaches who put this group together is that so many of the players not named Burrow were critical in sending Cincinnati to the Super Bowl.

The receiver overshadowed by Ja’Marr Chase, Tee Higgins, had the biggest receiving day of the game—six catches for 103 yards. The Bengals drafted defensive end Sam Hubbard, traded for defensive tackle B.J. Hill, and signed edge-rusher Trey Hendrickson in free agency. Together, they combined for four sacks, six pressures and an interception against Patrick Mahomes.

I asked Hill on Sunday night what made the difference for Cincinnati’s D early and late. On his first three drives, Patrick Mahomes led three touchdown drives. On his next eight drives, he manufactured three measly points. One of his drives ended when Hill made an athletic batted-pass-turned-interception, and the turnover led to a vital Cincinnati touchdown.

The Bengals acquired Hill for a player they were done with, center Billy Price. Hill’s production all year has been stunning under the tutelage of defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo, and it was again Sunday. “When we got into the locker room at halftime,” Hill told me, “Lou told us, ‘Calm down. We’re fine.’ We just stayed with out assignments and starting playing better.”

Two big points in the last eight KC series. With nine seconds left in the first half, KC had the ball at the Cincinnati 1-yard line. Mahomes threw incomplete, and coach Andy Reid eschewed the chippy field goal and a 24-10 halftime lead to try another pass—this one out in the left flat to Tyreek Hill. It was one of those make-a-play-Tyreek calls by Reid. Except this time, Hill didn’t make a play. He got hogtied to the ground by Cincinnati corner Eli Apple. End of half.

The play reminded me of Tennessee coach Mike Vrabel passing on the certain one point PAT when Cincinnati was penalized on a conversion two weeks ago. Vrabel chose to go for two from the Cincinnati 1-yard line, and Derrick Henry got stuffed, so Tennessee got zero points. This time, Reid could have kicked the field goal and gotten three points. But if you’re Reid, and you know the chances are better than 50-50 that Mahomes can get a yard at the Bengals’ 1-yard line, it’s totally understandable he went for it. Failure makes it seem obvious the coach should have made the other call. That’s not the way football works. Sometimes you make the right call and it fails. That’s coaching.

Hill made the defensive play of the second half, batting a Mahomes pass in the air with 17 minutes left and then picking it off. The Bengals got seven points off the turnover, so Hill’s play was gigantic. It allowed the Bengals to tie the game. “We’re taught to put our hands up on a play like that,” said Hill. “I wasn’t shocked I came down with it.”

So the Bengals have clawed out wins by seven, three and three points, and they’re in the Super Bowl earlier than the nuttiest Bengals fan would have dreamed. “Nobody gave us a chance,” Hill said. “When we win, there’s always some reason why. We’re a good team, that’s why. And we’re going to the Super Bowl.”

Read more in Peter King’s Football Morning in America column