Cincinnati Bengals surge into AFC Championship Game after statement win vs. Tennessee Titans

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- The Cincinnati Bengals wanted to send a message after their dramatic playoff win Saturday over the Titans. They're not underdogs anymore.

Cincinnati emphatically delivered that message with a 19-16 victory against the top-seeded Titans. Rookie Evan McPherson's 52-yard field goal as time expired sent the Bengals to their first AFC Championship Game since 1988.

Throughout the team's best postseason run in more than 30 years, the theme of "Why not us?" has been a common refrain for this season's Bengals team. Cincinnati wants that retired. Immediately.

"I'm tired of the underdog narrative," Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow said after the game. "We're a really, really good team. We're here to make noise."

The Bengals delivered that statement with an improbable finish that produced the first playoff road win in franchise history. After the Titans scored 10 straight points in the second half to tie the score at 16, Tennessee was driving down the field in the final minute before Cincinnati reversed the course of the game.

Bengals linebacker Logan Wilson intercepted a pass from Tennessee quarterback Ryan Tannehill that was batted into the air by Cincinnati cornerback Eli Apple with 20 seconds left at the Cincinnati 47. A few plays later, McPherson booted his fourth field goal of the game and sealed a trip to the title game to face the winner of the AFC divisional contest Sunday between the Kansas City Chiefs and Buffalo Bills.

"He [McPherson] gave a little warmup swing and he said, 'Ahh, looks like we're going to the AFC championship,'" Burrow said after the game.

That confidence is a distillation of the message Cincinnati's captains delivered in the team meeting the night before the game. That was when Burrow and the other captains made it clear that the underdog narrative that surrounded one of the NFL's most unsuccessful franchises was not one they wanted associated with the team anymore.

"That's just kind of what he preached to everyone," Wilson said. "He's our leader, so everyone's going to believe anything he says. He's our ride or die."

The Bengals won in spite of history Cincinnati wasn't looking to create. Burrow was sacked nine times, which tied the most in a playoff game in the Super Bowl era. Cincinnati's offensive struggles were offset by three interceptions, including the one recorded by Wilson that ultimately set up the game winner.

"This is the expectation for this team," Bengals coach Zac Taylor said. "This is not too big for these guys. I know we haven't been here before, but it sure feels like we have. You just see the attitude of this team and the confidence of this team that we're going to find a way to win."

Bengals defensive tackle D.J. Reader said it felt as if Cincinnati was getting disrespected by pundits the entire season, including questions about the team's ability to stop Titans running back Derrick Henry on Saturday. In his first game since missing the final nine games of the season with a foot injury, Henry had 20 carries for just 62 yards.

Those numbers exclude a failed 2-point conversion after Tennessee's first touchdown of the game.

"As a journalist, do you want somebody to doubt your ability to do your job?" Reader said after the game. "No. It's disrespectful. You gotta go out there and get it and take it. You gotta earn respect, though."

Before Reader met with reporters following the win, he popped his head through the door as Wilson wrapped up his own news conference.

With the team's "Why not us?" tag now finished, Wilson asked Reader what the new motto will be. Reader wasted no time with a response: "It is us."

Said Reader, a few minutes later: "We're confident in us. We feel like we [are] them. We're the people. We're going out there every game, feeling like we're confident, we're the ones that need to get beat."