Evan McPherson, Bengals, AFC Championship
Evan McPherson, Cincinnati Bengals, Getty Images

The Bengals’ win vindicates the NFL’s system as a beautiful, if not harsh, compromise

The Cincinnati Bengals did the impossible on Sunday afternoon in Kansas City. Not only did they of the striped helmets knock off the twice-defending AFC champion Chiefs to cap off an improbable run to the Super Bowl (the star-crossed franchise’s first appearance since 1989) but they also provided a new, unknown feeling across an NFL environment unforgiving to amateur and professional observers alike.

Peace.

In an AFC Championship Game that required a few extra minutes to decide, both the Bengals and Chiefs were afforded a chance to touch the ball in Cincinnati’s eventual victory.

The two-week build-up and news cycle to Super Bowl LVI will thus be briefly bereft of discussion over the league’s controversial overtime format. Instead of complaining, the social media spheres instead jointly appreciated one of the finest Super Bowl matchup deciders in recent memory.

In taking over as the national pastime, American football has become a 24-hour, 365-day behemoth that never stops operating. Each week begets arguments that present no immediate answer – some have no solution at all.

Social media has afforded the aforementioned observers a soapbox no matter their status, with no gridiron topic safe from debate and discussion, be it civil or unruly.

The prior weekend’s NFL Divisional playoff quartet spoiled the conversationalists and monologuers alike. Each of the conference semifinal showdowns came down to their final possession, the finale being the Chiefs’ 42-36 escape from the Buffalo Bills that required parts of an extra period to decide.

A game billed as a clash of the passing titans lived up to its hype and then some, with Josh Allen and Patrick Mahomes going toe-to-toe on the scoreboard. It ended in predictable fashion: one of those quarterbacks taking advantage of a sterling opportunity.

The Chiefs’ victory in the session’s coin toss afforded Mahomes the right to go 75 yards in eight plays with the winning score coming in eight-yard fashion via a Travis Kelce touchdown grab. Since Buffalo failed to prevent the touchdown or even force a mere field goal, Allen and his offensive mates (including Stefon Diggs, Gabriel Davis, Dawson Knox, and Cole Beasley) were forced to become one of Arrowhead Stadium’s 73,000 spectators instead.

Appropriately, the discussion, like the contest in question, went into overtime thanks to its controversial final stages.

A good number of talking points centered around annoyance that the accomplished Allen didn’t get an opportunity to match Mahomes one last time. Many thus called for a change to the system, one that would guarantee both sides a chance with the ball.

Some of those advocates facetiously declared the most important play of the game was a toss from neither Allen nor Mahomes, but rather referee John Hussey, who flipped the coin to commence the overtime period.

Such an argument is nothing new, and it’s not even the first time a postseason game at Arrowhead ignited it. After all, the NFL world is only three years removed from the New England Patriots’ last Super Bowl appearance, one earned when Mahomes had to watch Tom Brady turn a coin toss victory into another AFC title.

Brady fatigue likely played a role in the calls for change as well, as the arguable GOAT’s victories in the infamous Tuck Rule game and Super Bowl LI came after his Patriots won the respective coin tosses.

With Cincinnati and Kansas City forced to a fifth period thanks to a 24-24 deadlock (one created after the Bengals erased a 21-3 deficit), those arguments were rendered null and void.

The overtime session between the Bengals and Chiefs began in familiar fashion: obsession over a coin that would make Eugene Krabs blush.

Many were ready to complain after the coin took a hometown flip, amped to reignite and reshare their thoughts on the supposed fifth-period fallacy. Jessie Bates and Vonn Bell united to silence them on a fateful third down, the former knocking a Mahomes deep ball intended for Tyreek Hill into the arms of his teammate. Bell’s runback to his own 45 set up a nine-play countdown to the Super Bowl, capped off by Evan McPherson’s ticket-punching triple.

The moral of the story, kids? Play defense.

The modern NFL is a league that has come to worship a deity known as fantasy football, that piety almost rendering the simple thought of playing defense a crime. When the Chiefs, down 24-21 as the regulation timer dwindled, threatened to end things early, those supporting the Bengals implored them to “let them score”.

In some cases, the intentional six-point surrender has merit, like when timeouts are dwindling and the team in question is dealing with a tie or a one or two-point lead that can instantly be erased by a field goal.

Not only was that argument instantly countered when the Bengals allowed only a field goal thanks to consecutive takedowns of Mahomes, but it revealed an uncomfortable truth that fans, and even some of the teams they support, are downright afraid of playing defense. A new staple of close games often asks if a team that just took the lead “left too much time” for the opposing quarterback.

The NFL, or any other self-respecting football organization, would never admit that they prefer one side of the ball to the other, but their actions, ones that create point and yardage outputs that rival those seen on the old Arena Football circuit, speak louder than words.

Roughing the passer penalties are at an all-time high (this season saw 154 such flags throw, far besting the 136 from 2019) and spot-of-the-foul defensive pass interference calls aren’t far behind (seven flags and 64 yards short of the records set last season). Part of that is done in the legitimate name of player safety, but some 15 yards are earned easier than others.

To cap it all off, one of the most popular innovations in not only football, but the entire sports world, has been NFL RedZone, which downright promises to showcase “every touchdown from every game” during traditional Sunday action. A near-duplicate imitator has surfaced on DirecTV, with a radio version airing on SiriusXM. A collegiate edition was run by ESPN for a decade before ceasing in 2020.

In short… the NFL coddles the offense enough. The current overtime format is downright refreshing in its relative mercilessness.

It was the Bills’ defense, rather than Hussey’s coin, that decided their fate in the classic Divisional duel. Powerful as the Chiefs’ turn-of-the-decade offense has been, it’s never a good idea to let any team score on four consecutive possessions and six of their final seven.

Buffalo even had a chance to end the game in regulation when Allen found Davis for their fourth and final scoring connection with 13 seconds to go. After an ill-advised lack of a squib on the ensuing kickoff, they allowed 44 yards on the next couple of plays (aided by two lingering Kansas City timeouts) to quickly situate themselves in Harrison Butker’s reliable range.

Frankly, Allen shouldn’t have touched the ball as it was. The Bills’ top-ranked defense should’ve made a stop that’d allow Highmark Stadium to print AFC title game tickets.

Alas, they were dealt a painful reminder that defense still wins championships.

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Had Buffalo made a stop in regulation or even forced another Butker boot, they’d have more than enough of an opportunity to retie or walk it off entirely.

The Bengals, on the other hand, left nothing to chance with their timely takeaway. Championship teams know when to come through in the clutch. The Cincinnati defense was hit or miss most of the year (ranking midpack in turnovers forced and 18th overall) but knew exactly when to rise to the occasion. They continued to play the game in an environment where “letting them score” automatically ends things.

Therein lies the beauty of the ongoing system: it’s a compromise that should realistically satisfy fans of both the original sudden death format and those clamoring for both teams to touch the ball. Perhaps the detractors forget that “defense wins championships”.

Paul Bryant’s axiom often quoted by those partaking in their first NFL viewing action is becoming more of a relic than Bucco Bruce gear in this day and age. Occasionally, however, there’s a high-profile defensive struggle that proves “Bear” correct. MetLife Stadium hosted one such showing, when the Seattle Seahawks’ Legion of Boom (aided by current resident Robert Saleh) shut down Peyton Manning’s record-setting group from Denver to the tune of a 43-8 demolition. New England’s aforementioned semifinal win over Kansas City begot a 13-3 slugfest win over the Los Angeles Rams.

Though the NFL tries to thrive on individual matchups (look no further than the countless declarations of Allen v. Mahomes being the new Brady v. Manning), team-based endeavors still rule the day.

Sure it may be fun for fans to absolve their team and go for the supposedly common enemy of officiating, but the reality is that football is still a three-phase sport (these playoffs have begged us not to forget special teams) reliant on every corner of the de facto triangle.

In this case, the only adjustments necessary linger in the playbook… not the rule book.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

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Geoff Magliocchetti is a veteran football writer with years of credentialed experience with the Jets and Giants. Email: geoffmags90@gmail.com
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