‘We know he’s special:’ With Burrow leading the way, the Bengals believe

Joe Burrow guided the Cincinnati Bengals to an upset win over the Tennessee Titans last season. While this weekend’s divisional round matchup looks much different than the Week 8 meeting in 2020, one thing won’t change: With a confident leader like Burrow, the Bengals believe they can do just about anything.

That mindset will be put to the test Saturday when the Bengals hit the road to play the top-seeded Titans (12-5) at Nissan Stadium in Nashville for a spot in the AFC Championship next weekend.

Cincinnati (11-7) earned its first playoff win since 1991 in the Wild Card round last week and now seeks the franchise’s first road playoff win. Even the two Super Bowl teams didn’t play away from home until that final game, but with Burrow on the field, the belief runs deep that this team can continue its run.

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“(He makes us) super confident,” Bengals defensive tackle D.J. Reader said of Burrow. “You always want to put the ball in his hand. Our job on defense is to get him back the ball. We see him on the sideline, we see him at practice. We know he’s special. We got all the faith in him. So that’s all we think about. We think about just getting him that ball back so he can go do his thing with that offense and those weapons they got over there. ... We know he’s special, and he’s going to get us out of tough situations.”

Last season, the Bengals went into the Tennessee game with a 1-5-1 record, facing an opponent with just one loss, and stunned the Titans 31-20. Burrow threw for 249 yards and two touchdowns with no interceptions or sacks, and the running game produced two touchdowns while the defense did enough to keep Ryan Tannehill and Derrick Henry from mounting a comeback.

Cincinnati is more well-rounded team now, and Burrow said Tennessee is different on defense from that November 2020 game, but the Titans are still a “really good,” well-coached team. For him, it’s just the next challenge, no different from the one 14 months ago in Cincinnati.

“Staying level-headed (is key),” Burrow said. “We could feel the intensity and energy in the locker room for the playoff game (last week) and I was trying to remain calm and get everyone else to remain calm as well and we hadn’t been in that situation for a long time. But the key to performing in those kinds of situations is treating it like every other week. If you go out in warm ups and are super intense and wear yourself out you’re not gonna be able to sustain that into the fourth quarter of these high-intensity games. At least that’s the way I think about it. I know some guys treat game days a little different, but if I go out there in warmups and I’m ‘rah rah’ yelling, trying to get the fan fired up, I know I’m gonna burn out in the fourth quarter so I try to stay even keel.”

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This week Burrow faces the challenge of having to work in a hostile environment where the noise will be a bigger impact when he has the ball, but the Bengals have managed that well this season, going 5-2 on the road when Burrow starts.

The Titans have the sixth-best scoring defense, allowing just 20.8 points per game, and the second-best run defense, allowing 84.6 rushing yards per game. That means the Bengals could need another big game from Burrow. The Titans allow 245.2 yards passing per game.

Burrow said the Titans’ defensive line is “explosive and aggressive” and the Bengals will have their “work cut out” for them. Edge rusher Harold Landry leads the Titans with 12.0 sacks, defensive tackle Jeffery Simmons has 8.5 sacks, and in the back end of the defense, safety Kevin Byard has five interceptions.

Tennessee also has one of the best rushing offenses in the league, so any rhythm Burrow finds on offense could be interrupted by lengthy drives with the defense on the field. The Titans tend to grind out games and lead the league with 32.4 carries per game. Henry hasn’t played since Week 8 due to a foot injury and subsequent surgery, but was activated from injured reserve prior to the regular-season finale and is back at practice this week. Henry has rushed for 937 yards and 10 TDs in eight games.

SATURDAY’S GAME

Bengals at Titans, 4:30 p.m., CBS, 700, 1530, 102.7, 104.7

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