Thirty-three years of agony were wiped away with one sweep of the leg.
Just two years after winning two games all season, the Cincinnati Bengals are headed to Super Bowl LVI, upsetting the Kansas City Chiefs in overtime 27-24 to win the AFC Championship Game for the first time since 1988 after rookie kicker Evan McPherson nailed a 31-yard field goal to end it.
All the more improbably, the Bengals overturned a 21-3 deficit, which is tied for the largest comeback in AFC Championship Game history — fueled by the heroics of second-year quarterback Joe Burrow, who outdueled Patrick Mahomes, and the staunch defense of a unit that didn’t allow a touchdown in the second half.
Burrow completed 23-of-38 passes for 250 yards with two scores and an interception while Tee Higgins (103 yards) and Ja’Marr Chase (54 yards, one touchdown) each had six receptions.
After scoring 21 unanswered points and taking a lead with 6:04 remaining with a 52-yard field goal by McPherson, the Bengals yielded the tying score to the Chiefs as time expired in regulation.
Despite being held scoreless in the second half in their final possession of the fourth quarter, the Chiefs stormed down deep into Bengals territory and looked poised to take the lead — but they stalled right at the doorstep. Mahomes was sacked twice — including a 15-yard loss with 39 seconds to go to make the game-tying field goal a much tougher ask for Harrison Butker. But the Kansas City kicker nailed the 44-yard attempt as time expired in regulation to force overtime.
The Chiefs won the coin toss in overtime for a second straight week in the playoffs to start with possession, but Mahomes’ third attempt of the extra period — a deep throw looking for Tyreek Hill — was deflected by Bengals safety Jessie Bates and intercepted by Vonn Bell, who returned it to the Cincinnati 45-yard-line.
A seemingly unbelievable turn of events considering the Bengals looked dead in the water at Arrowhead Stadium for the majority of the first half.
Mahomes and the Chiefs were nearly unstoppable out of the gate, finding the end zone on each of their first three drives of the afternoon to jump out to a dominating 21-3 advantage.
The wealth was spread evenly between Mahomes’ bevy of receiving weapons as Hill, Travis Kelce, and Mecole Hardman each recorded scores.
In the first half alone, Mahomes completed 18-of-21 passes for 220 yards and those three scores.
But the Bengals didn’t fold.
They answered Kansas City’s third touchdown drive with their first touchdown of the day with 1:05 to go in the second quarter — Burrow hitting Samaje Perine for a 41-yard score to cut their deficit to 11.
Kansas City nearly found a response at the end of the half, but Hill was stuffed on the 1-yard-line on a 2nd-&-Goal attempt as time expired on a screen pass from Mahomes — a peculiar decision by Chiefs head coach Andy Reid to forego the surefire points with a field goal.
After a rare exchange of three straight punts to start the second half, the Bengals drove down to the Chiefs’ 8-yard-line, but Brandon Ingram came up with a seven-yard sack of Burrow and later knocked down a screen pass, ultimately forcing them to settle for a 31-yard field goal that brought the visitors to within one possession with 3:46 to go in the third.
The Bengals’ defense stepped up on the ensuing drive to continue turning the tide. Mahomes — who was held to just 55 yards in the second half — saw a short screen pass intended for Demarcus Robinson was deflected and tipped off by Cincinnati defensive lineman BJ Hill and returned to the Chiefs’ 27-yard-line.
It was Mahomes’ first interception thrown in four AFC Championship Games.
Four plays later, the Bengals tied it up after Burrow hit Chase for a two-yard fade in the back-left corner of the end zone before a two-point conversion tied it up with 13 seconds left in the quarter.
They quickly got the ball back just a minute later after Mahomes was sacked by Hill and Trey Hendrickson to force a punt, but Burrow was picked off on the very first play of the drive by L’Jarious Sneed — who was tugging on the back of the receiver’s jersey — while looking down the right sideline for Chase.
Burrow redeemed himself to help move the Bengals in front with 6:04 remaining in the game. On a drive that featured two 3rd-&-7 conversions in which he had to dodge multiple sack attempts in the backfield before picking up the first down with his legs, the Bengals’ superstar in the making drove his side into field goal range where McPherson nailed a 52-yard attempt to put Cincinnati up three.