The Bengals Lean on Joe Burrow’s Career-Making Performance

Burrow’s 525 yards passing against Baltimore elevate him to the NFL’s top rung of quarterbacks at the moment, just in time for the best team to come calling: the Kansas City Chiefs.

Of all of Joe Burrow’s fantastic attributes and amazeballs traits, one thing I didn’t necessarily think he would accomplish as Cincinnati’s quarterback/savior was shatter yardage records. He’s much more surgeon than sledgehammer, a Montana instead of a Marino. But 525 yards!

Given the right circumstances—depleted opponent, division rival, manufactured indignation—Joey B. is clearly capable of piling up extraordinary numbers, as was proven by Sunday’s 41-21 vivisection of the hated Ravens. Cincinnati seized first place in the AFC North as a result.

Baltimore was immensely shorthanded due to injury (in the main to Lamar Jackson) and COVID. They played with an old friend at quarterback, newly signed Josh Johnson, and a bunch of just-introduced fellas in the secondary. They were ripe for the plucking. But you still gotta go out and do it, and Burrow did that and then some. He saw every coverage, every blitz, every detail from a mile down the road. He threw pinpoint lasers to closely covered receivers and YOLO moonballs to double covered ones, and they all were caught.

Adding in the October rout of Baltimore, Burrow threw for an insane 941 yards in two games against the Ravens, an NFL record for passing yards against any one opponent in a season. The first game was mostly about yards after the catch, and there was some of that in this contest, too, mainly Tyler Boyd’s easy stroll and flip into paydirt. But Sunday’s game was more about precision and aggressiveness on Burrow’s part. The result was simply incredible.

There was some talk about the Bengals running up the score and yards at the end, and perhaps that last long toss, albeit a broken play that wasn’t meant to go 50-plus yards to Joe Mixon, was a bit excessive. Burrow, wearing his Santa hat and Spongebob Squarepants T-shirt, alluded to that in the postgame presser. Ravens defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale had rather innocuously noted Burrow wasn’t quite ready for the Hall of Fame just yet. Joe, like all the great ones, took that personally. When asked if he was thinking about that toward the end of the game, he flashed a Mona Lisa smile and answered, “Maybe.” As in “Hell, yes.”

But mostly the Bengals were throwing because the game needed to be put away, and the way to that—in this game—was with Burrow passing for first downs. Baltimore trailed by only two scores for most of the second half. Just last week, they turned a two-touchdown deficit late in the game into a near-miracle victory against the Packers. The insult isn’t in throwing until the end; the insult would have been pissing this one away by mindlessly handing off with a long time to play.

The idea that the Bengals ran up the score as some sort of demented historical payback for decades of humiliation at the hands of Baltimore is likewise ridiculous. As I have pointed out many, many times, this punishment of the Ravens by air fits right in with the historical record. Chad Johnson and T.J. Houshmandzadeh had big games against the Ray Lewis/Ed Reed era Ravens, no Baltimore DB could ever cover A.J. Green, and now we are (apparently, hopefully) embarking upon an era when Tee and Uno and Boyd run wild against the Ravens, too.

So in 2021 the Bengals beat the Steelers and Ravens twice each, by a combined 89 points—an incredible feat that would have been utterly confounding if I told any of you that would be the case back in August. This is clearly the master plan come to life: Surround Burrow with advanced weaponry and let him demolish the enemy.

The future is certainly bright. Cincinnati has a 4,000 yard passer, two (almost three) 1,000 receivers, and a 1,000 yard rusher, all under the age of 25. And yet…

It sure felt like the season ended Sunday, but in the words of Judd Nelson in The Breakfast Club: Not even close, bud. Because of this dang 17th game, the Bengals didn’t wrap up the AFC North title or even a wildcard berth last weekend, though their position obviously strengthened considerably. Cincinnati can still botch this in a manner reminiscent of 1977, when the Bengals outslugged Pittsburgh 17-10 in an old fashioned slobberknocker in week 13 (of 14 games played back then), only to throw away the division title the following Sunday in Houston (against the Oilers, my young friends). It would take a pair of losses in this case to miss the playoffs—though with the right combination of other results the Bengals could still make the tournament as division champs or as a wildcard on some tiebreaker farce.

First things first. Let’s discuss the “how good are they really?” showdown with the red-hot Chiefs on Sunday. Andy Reid’s crew has left their early-season doldrums in the dust, having won eight straight, mainly due to their defense, which has allowed 17 or fewer points in all but one of those games. From a DVOA perspective, KC’s pass defense is No. 13 with a bullet, while somewhat weaker against the run (21st). Playing ball control against the Chiefs explosive offense is always an option worth exploring, so expect the Bengals to try and establish Mixon early on.

But while the Pat Mahomes/Travis Kelce/Tyreek Hill combo has had its fits and starts, they nevertheless power the fifth-ranked offense by DVOA, including the fourth-best passing attack. The Chiefs are going to score some points, rest assured, and the Bengals are going to have to keep pace, putting the onus on Burrow and the receivers. They aren’t going to duplicate their insanely great game against Baltimore, but they all surely have to make some plays.

One place Cincinnati should have an edge is in the respective pass rushes. While the Bengals continue to struggle to protect Burrow, KC hasn’t attacked the passer especially well (just 27 sacks). Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnolo is a fervent blitzer, but Burrow is lethal against most of those extra-man pressures. The chess match when Cincinnati has the ball will be interesting.

Conversely, the only opponent the Chiefs have faced with more sacks than the Bengals is Pittsburgh last week (43-41). Obviously, the Steelers mailed in their effort at Arrowhead; one hopes the Bengals can get after Mahomes with somewhat more effectiveness. They are likely to play copious amounts of zone coverage, so affecting Mahomes early in his process will be critical.

It is a fascinating game, and a momentous one. Win it, and the Bengals wrap up the AFC North title. Lose, and the following week’s encounter in Cleveland becomes larger than life. None of us wants that game to be do or die. Kansas City is the best team in the sport at the moment, but Burrow may well be the best player at the moment. With him, there is always one hell of a chance.

Robert Weintraub heads up Bengals coverage for Cincinnati Magazine and has written for The New York Times, Grantland, Slate, Deadspin, and Football Outsiders. Follow him on Twitter at @robwein.

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