The local kid became the hero of his hometown during a play. All Sam Hubbard had to do was run 98 meters without getting caught.
“Just go to the end zone,” Hubbard said after the Bengals defeated the Ravens, 24-17, to advance to the AFC Divisional Round. “We know these playoff games are never pretty. By all means, make it happen.”
Hubbard did. Fifteen seconds after the snap, Hubbard was in the end zone with six points and a game that will be remembered forever.
The Cincinnati Bengals defensive end played his high school ball to Archbishop Moeller in Cincinnati. He went to Ohio State and was selected by the Bengals in the third round of the 2018 NFL Draft. For someone who has spent his entire life playing ball in Ohio, he has now the game of a lifetime under his belt.
He wouldn’t have found himself in this position if not for teammate Logan Wilson, who fended off the ball from Baltimore Ravens quarterback Tyler Huntley on the opposite goal line with a game tied at 17 in the fourth quarter.
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Hubbard’s first thank you should be to Huntley for serving the ball off a board towards the goal line. According to NextGen Stats (and the apparent chip inside the ball), the ball was 0.6 yards from the end zone. Wilson met the ball there with both hands and pushed it out of Huntley’s reach.
“I’m going to think about it all offseason,” Huntley said, “just how we play, they won the game.”
As the ball floated to the ground, running back Gus Edwards couldn’t react in time to catch it. But Hubbard, 6-foot-5 and 265 pounds, caught him with both hands.
Ahead of him was nothing but green grass. The race was on.
Joe Burrow, on the sidelines, thought:
“‘Come on! Run faster!'” the Bengals quarterback told NBC’s Melissa Stark. “High-profile play. That won us the game.”
Hubbard had a few perks working for him. The Ravens, in their jumbo goal-line forfeit, lacked their fastest players on the field. Since Hubbard’s responsibility on the play was to rush and contain on the edge, he was untouched across the line.
Its main antagonist turned out to be Mark Andrews. The Ravens tight end emerged from the scrum in a fierce chase for the ball. He passed Edwards and was within six yards of the ball almost immediately. By then, the Bengals defenders were running with him, almost protecting him.
“He’s coming,” thought Hubbard. “‘Someone’s blocking it. Please, please don’t get caught.’ That’s all I was thinking.”
Andrews made his final effort, a dive, 30 yards from the end zone. It came empty. Hubbard kept running and didn’t stop until he saw his smiling teammates on the sidelines. He reached a top speed of 17.43 mph, while Andrews ran the fastest speed of his career (20.72 mph) on the chase.
Huntley argued that the balloon had passed through the aircraft. Replay quickly showed that was not the case. After the match, coach John Harbaugh said the plan was for Huntley to sneak out.
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In the process of Hubbard’s 98 yards of glory, Cincinnati’s probability of winning rose from 46% to 88%, according to Next Gen Stats. It was the longest breakaway return in playoff history. Hubbard has rushed for 123.6 yards on the play, the most distance by a running back on a touchdown this season. The oxygen mask he wore was necessary.
After the game, Bengals communications staff revealed that Hubbard was carrying a microphone. The audio clips will likely feature some heavy breathing and are worth the wait.
For now, an addition to the Momentum Swing Hall of Fame will do for Hubbard and the Bengals.
“You can’t even dream that one up,” Hubbard said. “It’s quite special.”
Follow Chris Bumbaca on Twitter @BOOMbaca.