go-deeper

How Hayden Hurst’s hurdle leapfrogged Bengals over favored Bills


ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — Adjacent to the parking lot of the Buffalo Bills’ stadium is Allen Street. Fans have festooned the street sign with an image of Buffalo quarterback Josh Allen hurdling the sign. Allen’s ability to launch himself over would-be tacklers has become mythological in Western New York. He started doing it as a rookie when he hurdled over Vikings linebacker Anthony Barr. It became legend when he jumped over Chiefs safety Justin Reid in a win at Kansas City earlier this season.  That’s when a fan changed the sign for well-traveled Hertel Avenue in the city of Buffalo to Hurdle Avenue. At the beginning of the postseason, the Bills’ concession stands began to sell The Hurdle Burger, paying homage to what has become Allen’s signature move.

On Sunday, though, the Bengals came to Orchard Park and leapfrogged the Bills on their way to a 27-10 win and second-straight trip to the AFC Championship Game.

The Bills were down to their fourth-string safety. Bengals tight end Hayden Hurst didn’t know that, but he knows defensive backs don’t like to hit him high. He’s 6-foot-4 and 249 pounds, so the preferred option for defenders is to go low.

That flashed through Hurts’ mind with about five minutes to play in the third quarter of the Bengals’ divisional round matchup against the Bills Sunday. It was third down with 10 yards to go from Buffalo’s 40-yard line. The Bengals were only ahead 17-10 at that point. The Bills had just taken a timeout before the play because they had too many defensive linemen on the field. They came out in a nickel defense, and a stop would have forced a slippery 58-yard field goal.

Joe Burrow, playing behind an offensive line missing three starters, dropped back into a clean pocket. He scanned downfield before zipping a pass in the flat to Hurst. Hurst caught it at the 39 and had to get to the 30-yard line for a first down. He turned upfield and saw the first-down marker. The only defender in his path was Jaquan Johnson, who had just replaced an injured Dean Marlowe, who was replacing Damar Hamlin, who had replaced Micah Hyde.

Johnson, a sixth-round pick in 2019, has long been a special teams favorite for the Bills. In this spot, he became the team’s most important defender. The 5-foot-10 safety is three inches shorter than Marlowe and six inches shorter than Hurst. As Hurst expected, he went low for the tackle. Hurst had already launched into the air for a hurdle.

“I kind of guessed,” Hurst said. “You can’t predetermine it. It’s just more of a reaction thing I guess.

“I don’t really care about my body. I’ll put it on the line for the team. That’s what I do.”

Hurst started his jump at the 33-yard line. Johnson didn’t touch him, and Hurst landed at the 30-yard line before rolling three more yards for a 13-yard gain and a first down.

“He’s just jumping over people like crazy,” Bengals receiver Ja’Marr Chase said. “He’s crazy for that!”

Hurst had done the same thing in the first meeting between the Bills and Bengals in Week 17. Before the game was stopped, Hurst made a catch on the Bengals’ opening drive and attempted to hurdle Jordan Poyer in the open field. He busted out the same move in the most crucial spot in the game.

“He’s different,” said Bengals receiver Trenton Irwin. “That man had energy all night. Hayden is a freak, man. What he brings to the team and what he brings to the table as a mentality but also what he brings as a player. He’s unbelievable. He set the tone there and then kept it going.”

Added Bengals corner Eli Apple: “Oh my god. He was playing like a mad man out there! I was going crazy when he did that, man. He’s a freak athlete and an intense-ass warrior. I love to see him go to work. Seeing him run the ball like that, making plays, converting on third down. We do that, we’re going to win it all.”

Hurst’s hurdle was the knockout punch for an already wobbly Bills defense. Hurt said, “you could feel the stadium deflate.” The Bengals finished the drive seven plays later with a 1-yard Joe Mixon touchdown to go up 24-10, and the Bills came further unglued from there.

“They weren’t stopping us at all,” Irwin said. “Our offense was moving down the field at will. Running, passing, whatever it was. We just kept doing what we do. Shoot, you give up all hope for them at that point.”

GO DEEPER

What went wrong and what happens next for the Bills after another early playoff exit?

Buffalo’s offense went three-and-out on the next drive. When the Bengals got the ball back, they again moved quickly down the field, not reaching a third down until they were on the Bills’ 30-yard line. On third-and-2, Burrow lofted a deep pass to Tee Higgins near the goal line. Tre’Davious White was flagged for pass interference, and then he and safety Jordan Poyer collided. Both players had to leave the game for concussion evaluations as the Bengals took over at the four-yard line.

There was still 12:54 of game time and the Bills were trailing by two touchdowns, but some fans began to head for the exits. That trickle became a steady flow when the Bills turned the ball over on downs on the next series after a Bengals field goal.

“Oh yeah, I was waving them bye,” Apple said while smoking a cigar at his locker after the game.

Buffalo’s season ended in earnest when Josh Allen threw an interception in the end zone with just over a minute to play. Bengals players were doing snow angels before Burrow kneeled out the clock.

“Man, I felt that energy we walked into the stadium with,” Bengals defensive tackle D.J. Reader said. “Life was out of there before the game started. That’s how we walked in. We walked in like it was our s—. Game was over before it started for us in our heads. They played a hell of a game. Don’t disrespect any of their players. They played a hell of a game, we were just on that. We’ve been doubted all week. Heard about it all week, We were just ready. Ready to get out there and play, any element whatever was going on.”

As Bengals players made their way off the field, they mocked the fact that the Bills were selling tickets to a potential AFC Championship Game against the Chiefs in Atlanta. The Bengals were also selling tickets to a potential AFC Championship Game against the Jaguars this week, but that fact didn’t fit Cincinnati’s underdog persona they carried into the game.

“See y’all in Atlanta!” Chase yelled heading into the locker room.

“Y’all bought those damn tickets, you better sell them shits!” Tyler Boyd shouted.

Then there was Hurst, who said, “”Refund those f—— tickets!”

“Everyone is counting us out,” Hurst added in the locker room afterward. “They’re selling tickets to a game that isn’t set. We’re -6 or whatever. It doesn’t matter. When you have that guy at quarterback, it does not matter.”

Cigar smoke wafted through the Bengals’ postgame locker room as Burrow, dressed in a pink sweatshirt and sky blue Seinfeld sweatpants, made his way around congratulating teammates. Across the hall, the Bills’ locker room was a solemn scene as players sat mostly in stunned silence. This was supposed to be the Bills’ season. They were the Super Bowl betting favorite who had overcome enough adversity to feel like the team America was rooting for. NFL Network’s Kyle Brandt was in the stadium gyrating on the big screen trying pump fans up during the game. Peyton Manning was in attendance with his son, who was wearing Allen’s jersey. Hamlin was also in attendance for his first game since collapsing on the field in Week 17.

So many elements could have made this a storybook season for Buffalo. But instead, Sean McDermott’s sixth season as head coach ended in the like his fifth, in the divisional round. The same looming questions were on McDermott’s mind: “What happened and what do we have to do to get it changed?”

Those aren’t easy questions to answer in the stinging moments that follow the franchise’s first home playoff loss since 1996. The reality for the Bills is the climb back won’t be easy. Star pass rusher Von Miller is coming off a torn ACL. Veteran safety Micah Hyde is coming off neck surgery. Jordan Poyer is going to be a free agent. All of that has been looming, and it’s why this season felt like the one for Bills fans from the start.

But it ended with a mostly empty stadium and the Bengals fans who traveled chanting, “Who Dey!” The Bills may have been the betting favorite in the AFC for most of the season, but it’s once again the Bengals and Chiefs playing at Arrowhead for a trip to the Super Bowl on the line.

“We came in here in their home field and they put up 10 f—— points,” Reader said. “We got 27. We’re going on to Kansas City next week. You can count us out. You can say the Bengals ain’t this, the Bengals ain’t that. We just keep showing up and playing on Sundays.”

(Photo: Bryan M. Bennett / Getty Images)





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