Wiedmer: Bengals' win almost as hard on Mark Mariakis as when he was coaching Vonn Bell

AP photo by Paul Sancya / Cincinnati Bengals safety Vonn Bell intercepts a pass intended for Kansas City Chiefs wide receiver Tyreek Hill, center, as Bengals free safety Jessie Bates defends during overtime of Sunday's AFC title game.

Never let it be said there's no danger involved in watching your favorite pro football team win its way to the Super Bowl while sitting in your den.

Just ask recently retired Chattanooga Christian School football coach Mark Mariakis to recall his Sunday evening reaction as Cincinnati Bengals safety Vonn Bell - his former star player during his coaching days at Georgia's Ridgeland High School - made the overtime interception against the host Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC title game to set up Cincy's first Super Bowl trip since the 1988 season. The Bengals will face the Los Angeles Rams, 20-17 winners over the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC title game, in Super Bowl LVI on Feb. 13 SoFi Stadium, where the Rams play their home games.

"I think I pulled a hamstring jumping up and down," Mariakis said with a chuckle regarding the pick that led to Bengals rookie and Fort Payne, Alabama, native Evan McPherson's winning kick in the 27-24 overtime triumph. "I'd been a nervous wreck the whole game. My heart was racing. I was about to throw up. It was just like when I'm coaching a football game."

It was indeed some game. And products of Tennessee Valley high schools probably haven't had this much impact in getting a team to the NFL's big game since former Howard and University of Tennessee star Reggie White helped lead the Green Bay Packers to victory in Super Bowl XXXI.

This time around it was Bell and "Money" McPherson making their hometowns proud. McPherson has now booted winning field goals in two straight playoff games, and Bell led a defense that held the most dangerous offense in the NFL without a touchdown for the entire second half as the Bengals rallied from a 21-3 deficit midway through the second quarter.

And just for the record, the only other team to rally from an 18-point hole in a conference title game was the Indianapolis Colts, who rebounded from the same deficit in a 2006 victory over the New England Patriots thanks to some quarterback by the name of Peyton Manning.

"We're made for moments like this," Bell during a postgame press conference at Arrowhead Stadium. "We've been saying all season: 'Why not us?' We just had to go out there and make plays."

This may have been one of the biggest plays Bell has made during his six seasons in the NFL, but it's the kind of play Mariakis watched him make with regularity while at Ridgeland.

"Vonn's always had a knack for being around the ball with the game on the line," he said. "His ball instincts, his reads are incredible."

photo Staff file photo by Matt Hamilton / Chattanooga Christian School football coach Mark Mariakis talks to his players before a home game against Baylor.

Bell was quick to share the praise for this interception with teammate Jessie Bates, who knocked away the pass intended for Chiefs star wideout Tyreek Hill.

"Jessie broke it up, I just finished it off," Bell said. "We're a resilient group. We just played our brand of football."

The fourth-seeded Bengals' brand of football wasn't supposed to be anywhere near good enough to stop the explosive Chiefs on their own field. But after that 21-3 hole, the Cincy defense stiffened, especially after halftiime.

"We just had to change our looks, our disguises," Bell said. "We knew they were going to make plays. They've been to Super Bowls. But we knew we were going to make plays, too."

They've been making plays all season, coming from behind, shocking the oddsmakers time and again, especially the past two weeks as they stunned the top-seeded Tennessee Titans in Nashville before shocking second-seeded KC on Sunday.

"Our guys never stop fighting," Bell said. "We really lean on each other. We're a family. We've pretty much been this way since training camp. We just have fun playing for one another."

Now the fun will last for at least two more weeks.

Of course, that also means Mariakis and his family will have one more game to cheer for Bell and McPherson and the rest of the Bengals, including quarterback "January Joe" Burrow, who said of the significance of Bell's interception as he was being interviewed by CBS: "Usually when you lose a coin flip to those guys, you're going home."

Bell's interception and McPherson's 31-yard field goal made sure that didn't happen.

"My phone was blowing up," Mariakis said Sunday evening. "I texted Vonn and his mom and dad as soon as it ended. Just so proud of him and happy for them. I can promise you I'll have my Bengals hat and Bengals hoodie on during the Super Bowl, just like today."

And if he's lucky, they won't make him nervous enough that he'll need to stock up on anti-nausea medicine prior to the opening kickoff.

photo Mark Wiedmer

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @TFPWeeds.