After securing their first postseason win since 1991, the Cincinnati Bengals head to Nashville to take on the Tennessee Titans, who stand as the final obstacle between the Bengals and their first trip to the AFC Championship in more than 30 years. A win for Tennessee, on the other hand, would return the Titans right back to the conference championship where they fell short of Kansas City just two seasons ago.
Cincinnati had made the playoffs seven times between 2005 and 2015 — including five straight years from 2011 to '15 — but lost in the Wild Card Round all seven times. The Bengals brought the franchise's 31-year drought to a long-awaited end on Saturday, however, getting past the Las Vegas Raiders in a 26-19 win at Paul Brown Stadium. Las Vegas jumped out to a 3-0 lead after a Daniel Carlson field goal, but the Bengals rebounded with 13 unanswered points en route to a 20-13 halftime lead. That seven-point edge turned out to be the difference, with both sides mustering only a pair of second-half field goals as the Bengals were able to hold on for the win.
Tennessee, meanwhile, will take the field after its bye week during the Wild Card Round, extra time that allowed for plenty of rest and recovery. Crucially, that means the return of Derrick Henry, who missed the Titans' final nine regular-season games after suffering a broken foot in Tennesse's Week 8 win over the Colts. A healthy Henry's on-field presence — let alone his contributions — will be vital for the Titans offense and quarterback Ryan Tannehill, who will certainly leverage Henry's playmaking ability in both the passing game and the rushing attack.
AFC Divisional Round: Cincinnati (10-7) at Tennessee (12-5)
Kickoff: Saturday, Jan. 22, at 4:30 p.m. ET
Spread: Titans -3.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Can Henry return to his pre-injury form?
Henry's health and readiness to get back on the field will undoubtedly be one of the key factors for any success that Tennessee can have this postseason. His pre-injury output of 937 yards and 10 touchdowns on 219 carries may have been slightly below his per-game and per-carry pace from when he led the league in 2020, but he had by far the league's numbers before the injury, to the point that he remained on top through Week 9.
After initial reports suggested that Henry might be unable to return at all this season, later insights concluded that he could possibly return to action in 10 weeks if his recovery proceeded well. Thanks to the extra week in the regular season and the Titans' first-round bye, Henry has had even more time to continue his recovery.
His recent time on the practice field seems to indicate that he's nearing a return, as his ability to wear pads and face contact in practice is a major hurdle that he's been able to clear. Even if Henry ultimately starts, look for him to be joined in the run game by D'Onta Foreman and Dontrell Hilliard, who together have combined for 916 yards and five touchdowns over nine games to do their part in making up for Henry's absence. But the pair's recent experience combined with Henry's dynamic and explosive playmaking ability will certainly make this trio one to watch on Saturday.
Running backs don't have the value they once had in this pass-happy league, but Henry is one of one. Without him, the Titans' scoring dropped from 28.4 to 24.0 ppg. And crucially, opponents didn't have to worry about the run as much and cut Ryan Tannehill's passing yards from 229.5 to 197.8. They were held to 20 points or fewer in five of the last nine games and under 200 passing yards in seven of the last nine.
2. How will Ja'Marr Chase match up with Kevin Byard and the Titans' secondary?
Chase started his rookie season on a bit of an up-and-down track, catching five of his seven targets for 101 yards and a second-quarter go-ahead touchdown in his NFL debut in Week 1. But he eclipsed the century mark just twice between Week 2 and Week 15, led by an eight-catch, 201-yard game in Week 7.
But the last month, though, has been much more consistent and productive for the Pro Bowl-bound rookie wideout. Chase followed a seven-reception, 125-yard effort in a Week 16 win over Baltimore with a monstrous game of 11 catches on 12 targets — his only game with 10-plus receptions all season — for 266 yards and three touchdowns in a 34-31 comeback win over Kansas City.
But lurking in the Titans' secondary is All-Pro safety and fellow Pro Bowler Kevin Byard, whom Pro Football Focus ranks as the highest-graded player in the NFL when in coverage against receivers. Byard has grabbed five interceptions in 2021, tied for second-most in the NFL and right behind Buffalo's Micah Hyde (six). Byard anchors the back end of a Tennessee defense that has allowed just only three teams to surpass 300 yards passing all season — and which has held four of its last seven opponents to collect fewer than 300 total yards, with three of the other four being limited to under 200 yards. That kind of stingy coverage will be crucial against a Cincinnati team that has averaged 385 yards passing over its last four games and which has lost just once this season when passing for more than 300 yards.
3. What kind of role — if any — will penalties play down the stretch?
The Chase-Byard matchup will certainly be a factor here as well. Cincinnati was called for the NFL's second-fewest penalties in the regular season, with just 72 penalties accepted. The 620 penalty yards associated with those flags were the fewest in the NFL. Tennessee, meanwhile, was called for 103 penalties for 973 yards, placing them right in the middle of the league for penalties called but 10th highest penalty yardage in the NFL.
Well over half of the Bengals' penalties for the season were against the offense, with 31 of the 72 coming up front thanks to false start and holding calls. The Bengals were called for seven penalties in the Wild Card Round win over the Raiders — well above their per-game average (4.24) for the regular season — but most were, encouragingly, only of the five-yard variety.
Tennessee has also had 30 (15 each) false start and holding penalties called against its offense, but the Titans are among the league's most penalized teams on defense, thanks to a tie for the fourth-most unnecessary roughness penalties (eight) and a tie for the third-most defensive pass interference (12) penalties in the NFL. Against a high-flying attack led by the Joe Burrow-Chase connection, the Titans will have to shore up their back-end defense in order to avoid big plays — be they receptions or penalties.
The Bengals have come out on top in three of their last four meetings with the Titans, though they haven't won in Nashville since 2011. These two franchises haven't met in the postseason since January of 1991, however, when the Bengals topped the Houston Oilers 41-14.
What's so notable about that game? Since Cincinnati fell the following week to the Los Angeles Raiders in the Divisional Round, that win had stood as the Bengals' last playoff win until just last weekend.
Now, with the opponents reversed, Cincinnati has a chance to rekindle the joy from its victory over the Raiders last weekend and clinch its first trip to the AFC championship in more than three decades. Henry and the Titans' offense, however, will be tough for the Bengals to stop after they've allowed five of their last six opponents to rush for at least 100 yards.
Prediction: Titans 31, Bengals 27
— Written by Juan Jose Rodriguez, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a 2019 graduate of the University of Notre Dame. Rodriguez was an intern for Athlon during summer 2017 and worked for a variety of media outlets on campus, including as the Editor-in-Chief of Scholastic Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @JuanJoseRG02.