Jessie Bates III was nearly a hero. In mid-December, the Bengals battled back from a fourth-quarter deficit against San Francisco and tied the score. With 21 seconds left in regulation, he stepped in front of a Jimmy Garoppolo pass and had only open turf between himself and the end zone.
With visions of a pick-six in his head, Bates saw the ball hit him in the hands … and bounce away. The game went to overtime and the Bengals lost by three.
“I took that one hard on myself,” Bates said at this week’s Super Bowl media day.
Fortunes have changed significantly for Bates and his Bengals. The former Wake Forest defensive back has been the hero on that side of the ball in Cincinnati’s run to the NFL’s title game. Bates had three pass defenses in the wild card win over the Raiders, just missing an interception on at least two of them. Then he picked off Ryan Tannehill’s first pass to set up a field goal in the Divisional Round win over Tennessee.
In the AFC championship game, Bates tipped a ball on a deep pass in overtime that was caught by teammate Vonn Bell to set up the field goal that sent the Bengals to the Super Bowl for the first time since 1989.
“The 49ers game was kind of like that breaking point,” Bates said, “getting out of that funk. I’ve started to stack some plays, good plays. I’m starting to play well. There have been more opportunities for me to make plays in the last couple games. …Like we always say, they come in bunches.”
Bates is hoping to win a Super Bowl ring, but regardless of the result of Sunday’s game, a former Demon Deacon will get to experience that high. Former Wake quarterback John Wolford is on the Los Angeles Rams, the backup to starting quarterback Matt Stafford. Wolford earned headlines last year when injuries and COVID issues gave him an unlikely start for the Rams. This year, he’s appeared in three games, completing one of four passes. Wolford is the only member of the Rams roster, injured reserve or practice squad whose career started or came through North Carolina.
Wake Forest is one of a handful of teams with multiple players on the active roster for this year’s Super Bowl. Only 10 teams (Florida, LSU, Washington, Georgia, Ohio State, Clemson, Oklahoma, A&M, Alabama and Purdue) have more.
Joining Wake with two players in the big game is NC State. The Wolfpack produced Bengals defensive tackle BJ Hill, an Oakboro native. Like Bates, Hill is far from just along for the ride, producing an interception in the AFC championship game to set up a game-tying touchdown.
Hill is joined on the Bengals D by linebacker Germaine Pratt, who had 85 tackles and 51 solo stops this year, both one off his career highs. He had eight tackles in the AFC title game to help send Cincinnati to Los Angeles.
The Cincinnati defense seems to be the reunion spot for players hailing from North Carolina. In addition to Bates, Hill and Pratt, the Bengals have been led by Greensboro native and Grimsley High alum DJ Reader. The defensive tackle had five tackles and two tackles for loss to help shut down Derrick Henry in the playoff win over the Titans.
Cincinnati also features linebacker Clay Johnston, who started this season with the Carolina Panthers, the same team he played for as a rookie last year. He was claimed off waivers by the Bengals in early November. He hasn’t appeared in a playoff game yet, but he had 12 tackles in the final regular season game against the Browns.
The Bengals’ lone offensive player with connections to the state is guard D’Ante Smith, a rookie out of East Carolina who has appeared in two games this year, starting one.
Not in uniform for the Bengals on Sunday will be five other contributors. Linebacker Akeem Davis-Gaither, of Appalachian State, is on injured reserve, as is Charlotte defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi. Thaddeus Moss, a Charlotte native who started his college career at NC State, is on the practice squad injured reserve for the Bengals. John Brannon, a cornerback out of Charlotte’s West Mecklenburg High and Western Carolina, is on the Bengals practice squad, as is another former Demon Deacon, Scotty Washington.
Both coaching staffs have connections to the state, and, like the roster of players, the Bengals have a much higher representation.
Rams offensive line coach Kevin Carberry had a stint on the Panthers practice squad in 2006.
Three Bengals assistants came through the state. Receivers coach Tory Walters spent the 2012 season in the same position with NC State. Defensive line coach Marion Hobby spent 2008-10 with Duke, coaching the defensive line and serving as defensive coordinator. Hobby’s daughter Camille plays on the NC State women’s basketball team.
North Carolina will clearly be well represented on sports’ biggest stage on Sunday, and, as Bates has shown over the past few weeks, the chance to make a big play is just a moment away.