Patrick Mahomes had the Cincinnati Bengals defense on its heels early in Sunday's AFC Championship Game, as the Chiefs raced out to a 21-3 lead and moved the ball at will. Then the halftime bell rang, and the Bengals D shifted into shutdown mode.
After giving up 21 points and 292 total yards in the first half, Cincy held K.C. to a measly three points and 83 yards on seven drives in the second half and overtime, intercepting Mahomes twice as the Bengals won the AFC title, 27-24.
The performance might have been a surprise to some onlookers, but not to Bengals defenders who have been stalwart for much of the late-season run.
"Just settling in, getting all the jitters out and playing our brand of football," safety Vonn Bell said. "They're going to make plays. They're here for a reason. They've been in Super Bowls, they've been in big games, they know how to win, they're going to find their guys and they're going to make plays. But we're going to make plays, too. When you have the opportunity to go out there and make them and seize the moment, just calm down, make the plays that come to you and everything else will unfold how it's supposed to unfold. We just stuck to it, never batted an eye, never had a doubt, leaned on one another and just went out there and had fun playing with each other."
On many plays in the second half, the Cincinnati secondary was lights-out, smothering Chiefs pass-catchers and forcing Mahomes to hold the ball in the pocket.
"We just had to change our looks, change our disguises," Bell said of the turnaround. "Just playing our brand of football, just calming down, playing with great eyes and great technique. They gave us some unscouted looks at the beginning, and we just had to hone in on our technique and trust in it, go out and believe in it. Go out there and think, 'When the ball is in the air, it's our ball.' Getting off the field on third down. We can't give up seven, hold them to three. With our backs against the wall, that's when we fight the best. Guys bowed up, made big-time plays, big-time stops. We have a resilient group, and we really showed that today in all five quarters. We never batted an eye, we believed in it for sure."
In the second half, the Bengals played heavy coverage despite trailing. In the first two quarters, Cincy dropped eight or more players into coverage on 24 percent of pass plays. In the second half and OT, that figure nearly doubled to 45 percent, per Next Gen Stats. The maneuver paid off, as Mahomes went 7-of-13 passing for 59 yards, an INT and two sacks versus eight-plus men in coverage (-14.4 pass EPA, a career-low).
The Chiefs' lone second-half possession with more than one first down came on the final drive of regulation. But after K.C. drove to the 4-yard-line with 1:30 left, the coverage locked down, and Sam Hubbard sacked Mahomes on back-to-back plays to force a game-tying field goal.
"I don't think I ever had sacks on back-to-back plays to send us to the Super Bowl," Hubbard said after the win. "I guess that's what happens when you keep getting after it and stay the course. To be able to deliver that for my teammates, for the city, it's hard to believe."
When the Chiefs won the coin toss to open OT, the prevailing thought was that Mahomes would do what he did in the Divisional Round and propel K.C. to the opening-drive touchdown, not allowing Joe Burrow to touch the ball. Of course, the Bengals D had other thoughts.
"My thoughts were that we have a resilient group of guys," Bell said when asked about losing the OT coin flip. "We're made for this moment. We were stacking up (third) downs, we were stopping them and building the momentum. We said, 'Why not us? Let's go out there and make the play.'
"Hats off to the guys -- we have a resilient group, like I said. Just knowing the guys and who they're going to go to -- who (Mahomes) is going to go to -- it's (Hill) and (Travis Kelce). It's knowing situations. That's when (Mahomes) tried to go to (Hill) at the end of the game. Jessie broke it up and I just finished it off, running to the ball. We never quit, we never quit fighting and we never back down from the challenge. We just played our brand of football and that's what we showed up with. It goes to the wire and we're a resilient group."
Burrow, Ja'Marr Chase and Cincinnati's explosive offense will rightfully garner most of the attention ahead of Super Bowl LVI, but if, as they say, defense wins championships, the Bengals proved Sunday that they have a D worthy of hoisting a Lombardi Trophy.