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Bengals Keep Playoff Hope Alive in Wild Comeback Win over Vikings

photo by Ryan Meyer - Cincinnati Bengals

Bengals score 21 in the Fourth and Win in OT on McPherson FB

CINCINNATI – December 16, 2023 (Hobson,

Jake Browning has now fully earned his stripes with a keep hope alive cardiac comeback.

After Browning had exhausted reality for five more quarters Saturday and won his third straight game in 12 days in relief of Pro Bowl quarterback Joe Burrow and he had thrown down his helmet and his gauntlet when he chided the Vikings on camera for cutting him, he arrived at his locker and saw a scribe.

“Not now,” he said. “I need a beer.”

Don’t we all?

These Last Call Bengals did it again Saturday in the din of Paycor Stadium’s 66,376. For the second time in a dozen days, the Everyman Browning was extraterrestrial with another overtime win against a division contender. Only this time they outdid themselves.

While ringing up their biggest fourth-quarter comeback in eight years when they erased a 14-point deficit for a 27-24 overtime victory over Browning’s first NFL team, they also wriggled back into the AFC playoff picture at 8-6 as the sixth seed on a day the 7-6 Steelers and Broncos lost.

Isn’t this where we came in?

Isn’t this where all this winning and believing began with head coach Zac Taylor’s improbable Taylor-Made brews of resilience and resourcefulness crafted by Burrow at just the right moment?

Since Burrow engineered his first game-winning drive here in the 2021 opener against Minnesota capped by rookie Evan McPherson’s last-play-of-overtime field goal, the week, by the way, Browning joined the Bengals practice squad after getting cut by the Vikings, the Bengals have put together seven fourth-quarter comebacks, 11 game-winning drives, and seven McPherson walk-off field goals.

That includes thrilling-tell-the-grandkids playoffs, such as the overtime win in the 2021 AFC title game when they came back from 14 down to beat the Chiefs in Kansas City. It doesn’t include a year ago this week in Tampa Bay, when Burrow outTommyed Tommy and overcame a 17-3 deficit to the Brady Bucs before the fourth quarter even began.

“We’ve been in these situations,” said slot cornerback Mike Hilton, after making another huge red-zone interception a la Tennessee in the ’21 playoffs. “We’ve got guys on both sides of the ball that make plays. When it comes to crunch time, they want to make plays. Shout out to everybody. We just have to keep fighting like we always have.”

Hilton is one of 20 Bengals who played in that 2021 opener and played the whole way Saturday. He was hurt and didn’t play last year in Tampa Bay. Neither did Pro Bowl sacker Trey Hendrickson. Their two biggest forces on defense and they still turned over Brady four straight times in the second half, which says something, too. A total of 25 Bengals playing into Saturday’s OT also played in Tampa Bay. 

It will be recalled their Pro Bowl-worthy nose tackle DJ Reader forced one of those fumbles and recovered another. But on Saturday they watched him carted off the field after their second snap on defense. They fear a season-ending torn quad.

“I can’t even describe what’s going through our mind when DJ goes down,” said left end Sam Hubbard, who immediately took a knee and took off his helmet before the cart arrived. “Can’t even describe it. Then we rallied around each other and decided we were going to do this for him because he means so much to all of us. That’s our guy, man.

“We’re just a resilient group. That’s the most adversity we faced all season. We just continue to keep fighting. Nobody ever batted an eye. You just keep going and great things will happen.”

Maybe it takes a guy who has been on the other side to sum it up.

Like left tackle Orlando Brown, playing for the Chiefs when the Bengals came into Arrowhead Stadium and broke the heart of The Kingdom.

“That’s what it’s about. That’s the character of this organization,” Brown said. “At this point, I’ve just got faith in us. Even before the game. When you’ve got guys in here with huge chips on their shoulders who want to prove something no matter what’s in their bank account. No matter what they’ve accomplished as football players, the sky’s the limit and that’s what you’re continuing to see on game day.”

Look around the locker room and a guy who made a play in a huge spot had done it before somewhere along a black-and-orange striped line that began on Sept. 12, 2021 against these Vikes:

Three-technique B.J. Hill, who shifted the 2021 AFC title game with an interception, robbed the Vikings Saturday of what would have been two killing field goals. The first one at the end of the first half with his second interception in as many weeks. The second one in overtime when he teamed with Zach Carter to push back the Vikes on fourth -and-inches at the Bengals 42.

“A lot of people gave up on us,” Hill said. “You can’t give up on a team like this. We’re hungry. We love the competitiveness and everything.”

In that second quarter the offense disappeared, it was Hilton and the defense that kept it at 7-3 at the half. Hilton, he of the red-zone blitz in Nashville in the 2021 AFC Divisional where he tipped a pass to himself for the interception, stood at the goal line and cradled a Nick Mullens’ low pass for another one.

“We know who we are as a team. We know what we’ve done over these last two years,” Hilton said. “When we play our brand of ball, we’re a hard team to beat.”

There was the guy who started all this. It was that ’21 opener in overtime where linebacker Germaine Pratt forced a fumble of Vikings running back Dalvin Cook with 1:48 left at the Bengals 38, not far from the third- and fourth-down stands he aided Saturday, a day he had 12 tackles and half a sack.

“It’s all because of our culture. Zac started a culture here that’s unbreakable,” Pratt said. “Everybody is looking each other in our eyes, and they are ready to go. Next man stands up, next man steps up. There’s no drop-off. You just have to step up and make plays.”

There was running back Joe Mixon, who loves overtime, whether it’s running them to the Super Bowl with five carries in the conference title game, or finishing off a 117-yard scrimmage game in Jacksonville two weeks ago.

On Saturday, he got it to overtime when, on fourth-and-one from the goal line he got blown up by Vikings rookie linebacker Ivan Pace Jr., the Cincinnati native who crushed him in the backfield. But Mixon somehow bounced off him, drove through Danielle Hunter, and got it tied at 17 with 7:46 left.

“Joe Mixon’s like a battering ram. I just feel like the more touches he gets, the more he kind of is our tone setter on offense. It starts with the O-line, but when he’s able to (do),” Browning said. “When they put 11 guys on the line of scrimmage and in the box, and we’re still able to run the ball … There’s going to be one that’s going to be unblocked, and you just have to run him over. He’s really good at that; he’s a battering ram. Then also, to be able to hand off an inside zone and all the sudden he’s bouncing and running around everybody. To have a running back that can do both is huge.”

And what could be said of the wide receivers?

There was Ja’Marr Chase, who brought the 2021 AFC North title in the Paycor finale with 266 rookie-record yards to set up the walkoff of the Chiefs, converting a third-and-21 with a 24-yarder over the middle on the drive that tied it at 17 on a play he hurt his shoulder.

“Ja’Marr is one of best players and has been for a couple of years, but sometimes that’s just going to happen,” Browning said. “It’s a physical game; stuff happens. He made an incredible catch.”

There was Tyler Boyd, who broke open the 15-10 must-have tractor-pull game in Denver this week in 2021 with a 56-yard touchdown. That began the nine-game December winning streak he extended Saturday when he helped Browning pull off what looked to be an impossible third-and-nine in overtime when he disappeared into a scrum in overtime and re-appeared with a 44-yard catch-and-run to set up McPherson.

“I just had to find the open void and find some separation from the defense,” Boyd said. “It was kind of crazy because as I was going, I saw Tee (Higgins) reacting. I’m going that way, he was reacting the other way because the middle of the field is open. So, he was thinking that the ball was going to him, and I was kind of tense up thinking we were going to collide. So, I’m like, ‘Look, I just have to go ahead and make this catch. Which one of us going to catch it? We have to catch it.'”

Higgins laughed. He thought he saved the day making sure Boyd didn’t go out of bounds. Yes, he thought it was coming to him. Why not? Everything else did in the fourth quarter after he had no catches in the first three quarters. His 13-yard touchdown catch came on the first play of the fourth. His time capsule 21-yard touchdown catch with 39 seconds left came on their last play of the fourth and sent it to OT.

Of course, that sentence doesn’t do Higgins justice. It ranks as one of the great plays in Bengals history. Browning, chased out of the pocket, back-pedaling, flinging it off his back foot to Higgins at the front right pylon. Higgins, all 6-4 of him, launching himself above cornerback Akayleb Evans at the 1, refusing to go down and, as he is, doing a reverse pivot and sweeping the ball over the pylon with his right hand.

“I happen to know where I was on the field and at the same time I was right there on the sideline, so I had to stay in bounds and then I knew I caught it around the one,” said Higgins, who had 61 yards but took over this game like his 128-yarder last year in Foxboro on Christmas Eve. “So, I just took a wild guess and reached back and looked up at the ref and he had his arms up with a touchdown.”

Browning could only shake his head. When in doubt, throw it up to the man Paycor calls “Tee—eeeee-eeeee!!!” after every catch.

“I always feel good just throwing the ball up to Tee. There were a couple of times this game where I just threw it up to him, and good things seemed to happen,” Browning said. “We were really close on it a couple of times, and I’ll just continue to keep throwing the ball up to him when those opportunities present themselves because he’s very good at it.”

Of course, Browning is the new man in this cast of characters. Everyman, admitting in the middle of his postgame just how tired he was. How good has he been in his first four NFL starts? His 75.9 completion percentage is the second best all-time for a four-game starter. He’s got two fourth-quarter comebacks and game-winning drives. His 324 yards Saturday put him over 300 a second time. He threw up 27 points on a Vikings defense that posted a shutout the week before, had allowed a touchdown in the 11 quarters before Saturday’s three in the fourth, and just 13 points per game the last month.

“We know Jake. He’s confident. All he has to do is keep getting the ball to those weapons, ” Hilton said. “He’s a true Bengal.”

Browning was the face of resilience. He bounced back from his interception to lead three straight touchdown drives to end regulation. He bounced back from intentional grounding on the next snap to find Chase on third-and-21.

Just like he bounced back from the Vikings cut.

“Guys like Jake Browning stepping up in huge moments,” said Orlando Brown, going through the litany. “Older vets like Tyler Boyd stepping up in huge moments. Tee Higgins, in a contract year, gets hurt, comes back, gets hurt again, and comes back to make plays like that. Trey Hendrickson. The list goes on.”

So do the good times.

“I need a beer,” Browning said again a few minutes later.

He’ll never have to buy one in this town.

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