ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. – “See y’all in Atlanta. Y’all got tickets?”

Mike Hilton, the scrappy cornerback, wasn’t the only Cincinnati Bengals player thinking about tickets as he waved farewell to Buffalo Bills fans – and their team – during the final seconds of a convincing victory that sent the defending AFC champions back to the AFC title game.

It was all about disrespect.

Or the perception of disrespect.

The NFL sold 50,000 tickets for an AFC championship game that would have been staged at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta if it pitted the Bills against the top-seeded Kansas City Chiefs.

Oops.

In upsetting Buffalo 27-10 in an AFC divisional playoff, the Bengals laughed, needled, grumbled and crowed about the end result that flew in the face of the NFL’s contingency plan.

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Did somebody mention refunds?

“I don’t think we got respect,” said Ja’Marr Chase, the star receiver. 

Sure, the disrespect theme is one of the oldest motivational ploys on record, going back at least to the Cave Man Era. The Bengals will take it. No form of bulletin board material or extra juice can hurt right now, with the stakes in play that include the possibility of another trip to the Super Bowl.

The NFL had its reasons for selling tickets last week, which were gobbled up by season ticket holders for the Bills and Chiefs. It came up with the neutral site plan only for a Chiefs-Bills title tilt, given that the teams played an uneven number of games.

It seemed fair enough – unless you’re a Bengal.

“We weren’t really worried about the ticket sales,” Chase added. “It’s just that they didn’t think we had a chance. We’ve got this great club, we’ve turned the program around and the whole organization, they’re not giving us props.”

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Of course, disrespect is in the eye of the beholder. And if it was at least a sliver of a factor on Sunday, so be it. The Bengals (14-4, including the postseason) played their best game of the season at an opportune time – stunning a Bills squad that seemingly had them right where it wanted them, on its own turf and with Cincinnati rolling out an offensive line that was missing three starters.

Cincinnati rushed for 172 yards. Joe Burrow was typically cool, with two TD passes and zero turnovers. Lou Anarumo’s defense stuffed the run and frustrated quarterback Josh Allen. The injury-depleted O-line allowed just one sack. The signs of completeness were all over the place.

And it came wrapped with the swagger that defined the march to the Super Bowl last season and now is firmly intact as the Bengals won their 10th consecutive game.

Next up, Kansas City, where Cincinnati upended the Chiefs in the AFC title game a year ago.

“We did it once, why not do it again?” Chase told USA TODAY Sports. “Why not? That’s all I’ve got to say.”

The Chiefs are favored … but only by one point on the early line. Which is probably good for the Bengals. Go ahead, call ‘em underdogs.

“That’s media narrative,” Burrow told USA TODAY Sports, standing in the middle of a boisterous locker room that had rap music blaring and a thick aroma from the victory cigars that players smoked.

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“That’s not what we think. We know who we are. We know the guys in this room.”

The neutral site plan was just one of the NFL solutions that got under the Bengals’ skin as the league and its competition committee dealt with circumstances stemming from the cancellation of the Jan. 2 game. Another scenario had the Bengals, even as AFC North champions, perhaps playing a first-round game on the road at Baltimore (if the Ravens clinched the fifth seed). The site of the game would have been determined by a coin flip. As it turned out, no coin flip was needed. The Chargers were the fifth seed, secured after the Ravens couldn’t beat the Bengals in the regular-season finale.

Still, the possibility didn’t sit well with the Bengals.

What does that have to do with now?

Mixon, the fiery running back, chuckled at his locker on Sunday when his “faux coin flip” TD celebration was mentioned. He, too, wasn’t about to release the disrespect chip he carried on his shoulder. He thinks people are forgetting that the Bengals are defending AFC champs … and they’re baaaack.

“All of the disrespectful talk from people, that (expletive) is out the window,” Mixon told USA TODAY Sports. “We’ve got our path set up for us and we’ve got to do whatever we can to overtake whoever, regardless. We’re here.”

Or there. Just not in Atlanta. And, to use an analogy from the boxing universe, the defending AFC champs hold the belt until it is taken away.

Or, Mixon put it with classic Bengals swagger, “They’ve got to play us!”


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