Bengals @ Patriots
Not many had given the Bengals much of a shot to beat the Cardinals in the first round, much less be playing in the championship game. The Bengals came into the playoffs as heavy underdogs after the team lost its starting QB 10 weeks into the season. Danial Ali was thrown into the fray and while he had some flashes of brilliance, the team overall didn’t look as in sync as they did earlier in the season. Even in the first two rounds of the playoffs, the Bengals didn’t pull off the most convincing of wins as they required overtime in both games to reach the Finals. The second of those wins against an undermanned Steelers team playing with their backup QB.
The Patriots were on the opposite end of the spectrum, as they started the season so-so, but came on strong in a latter half of the season and secured 2nd place in the last week of the season. The Patriots had the best attendance of any team during the season, and they played each team tough as evidenced by their 4 ties. The Patriots were also coming off an absolute thrashing of the Raiders in a game they didn’t allow a second half score.
With these facts, and the fact that the Bengals were without Ahsan Raza and Asad Mewawala, it would have surprised no one if the Bengals would have laid down, and taken a beating from the Patriots. The game started inauspiciously for both teams, as both QBs threw a pick on their first drive. Perhaps it was the pressure of the Finals with both QBs not wanting to make a mistake, but due to their apprehension, they did exactly that. Once that was out of the way, we finally got to watch two teams that deserved to be in the Finals. The Bengals were the first to strike, and they would do so 3 times in the first half, forcing the Patriots to switch to man-defense. The Patriots defense was ghastly in the first half, as Danial Ali routinely threw to open receivers who would have no one around 10 feet of them.
The Bengals would take a two-TD lead late in the second half, and Patriots would reply quickly to make it a one-TD game at 28-21. All of the Bengals were playing a strong game defensively, and it was the reason they had the lead late, however, it would take a drive on offense to clinch the victory in the Finals. After an incompletion, and short passes to Asghar Molu & Taha Ali, the Bengals were set-up on a 4th and one pylon past half for what could be the final offensive drive of the season. The Patriots stuck to their man defense which had done well in the second half on this final play, and it prove to be their undoing. Taha Ali ran a crossing pattern against Abuzar Abbas, beating him with pure speed in the front-left corner of the endzone and giving the Bengals a 35-21 lead. One the ensuing drive, Danial Ali clinched the game by intercepting Haroon Ali, and giving Shoaib Mamdani’s Bengals a championship in his inaugural season as a captain. The loss was especially tough for Ali Haroon & Farhan Ratansi, as they have now lost in the Finals 3 of the last 4 seasons.