The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

Sports

December 24, 2012

Hawkins savors playoff berth

PITTSBURGH — Statistically, it wasn’t the best game of Andrew Hawkins’ NFL career.

The wide receiver from Johnstown finished with three catches for 30 yards and no touchdowns.

But it’s one that the Bishop McCort High School graduate will never forget.

The Cincinnati Bengals’ 13-10 victory on Sunday at Heinz Field marked the first time that Hawkins’ team beat the Pittsburgh Steelers. More importantly, it clinched a playoff berth for the 9-6 Bengals.

“Every yard counted,” Hawkins said. “You always wish you could do more. … That’s the nature of a competitor. But the most important thing is the win. I’d take zero catches for zero yards as long as we get the ‘W’ and are going to the playoffs. That’s the situation we’re in, so it’s an awesome feeling.”

Bengals fans aren’t accustomed to that feeling. Sunday’s victory gave Cincinnati consecutive playoff berths for the first time in three decades.

The Bengals have now made the playoffs in both of Hawkins’ two seasons as a pro. To put that into perspective, the team never made the playoffs in the six seasons that Artrell Hawkins – Andrew’s older brother – played defensive back for the team. The franchise had just 10 total playoff appearances prior to clinching Sunday.

“To come here to Pittsburgh and know what was on the line – the way the game ended up, it was like a heavyweight bout to the end. It’s an incredible feeling,” Hawkins said.

The outcome was in doubt until Josh Brown kicked a 43-yard field goal with four seconds remaining to take the lead.

But Hawkins, who played in the Bengals’ 35-7 loss at Heinz Field last season, was emotional long before Brown stepped onto the field.

“Even before the game, tears were coming down my eyes,” he said. “I look up in the stands and see my mom and my dad, my brother – people that supported me from day one. I honestly would never imagine that I’d be in the position that I’m in. It’s an incredible feeling.”

Hawkins wasn’t sure how many family and friends were at the game on Sunday – he said that he doesn’t bother getting tickets through the team because the Steelers put Bengals fans in “in the last row,” but he loves being able to have his family see him play.

“It’s awesome to play in front of them,” he said. “I could see them up in the stands. I looked up at them, gave them a wave, then went and talked to them after the game.”

Hawkins also appreciates the feedback he gets from people in his hometown.

“The support I get from Johnstown – I got so many texts, so many phone calls, I got messages from other people in Johnstown that I know root for the Steelers, but me being the hometown kid, they’re pulling for me, too,” he said. “That’s an awesome feeling in itself.”

Of course, most of the 63,236 fans in attendance on Sunday were doing everything they could to make life miserable for Hawkins and the Bengals.

“You know how Pittsburgh is,” Hawkins said. “We knew that coming in – me, specifically, because I’ve been to so many games here. Steeler fans, they get after it. They’re every bit as much of the team as the guys on that field. It is a tough environment. It is hard to hear the quarterback and cadence and signals on third downs. Those guys get loud. It was a playoff atmosphere. I think it’s good practice for us going forward.”

Hawkins, who entered the game with 45 catches for 485 yards and four touchdowns – ranking third on the team in each category – didn’t get many opportunities on Sunday, despite playing against Pittsburgh’s banged up secondary.

He caught a quick pass from quarterback Andy Dalton in the first quarter, but was brought down by Troy Polamalu after just a 2-yard gain.

Dalton tried to find him again on the first play of the second half, but forced a ball into coverage and was intercepted by Cortez Allen.

Hawkins’ second catch didn’t come until the final play of the third quarter, but it was a big one, as he hauled in a 19-yard pass from Dalton on a third-and-10 play.

It’s the kind of play that Bengals coach Marvin Lewis expects Hawkins to make.

“Andrew, he’s a guy that does a great job,” Lewis said. “He does everything that’s asked of him. Nobody works harder. Every opportunity he gets, he makes plays and catches. He’s a really important guy in our third downs and our three- and four-receiver packages.”

Hawkins caught his third pass – this one for nine yards – early in the fourth quarter.

He was wide open two plays later, but Dalton overthrew Hawkins, who is generously listed at 5-foot-7.

So, yes, Hawkins’ final numbers could have been a little bit better. But, in his eyes, everything worked out just fine.

“It’s awesome,” he said. “Coming back here, I’m here in front of family and friends that are here, that are watching on TV. Growing up in western Pennsylvania, it means that much more to me. Like I said, with the stakes as big as they were, it was incredible to get the win.”

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