Monday night was a good reminder that it never pays to get too up or too down in the NFL. Just when it seemed the Bengals were putting things together and realizing their potential after back-to-back wins featuring 65 combined points, they hit a major ditch.
It wasn’t just the 32-13 embarrassment in Cleveland on Halloween evening. After all, the sight of the Browns uniforms are downright scary to Bengals players no matter the time of year. For whatever reason over the last few seasons, the Bengals become unraveled against the otherwise pedestrian Brownies regardless of relative strengths.
Cincinnati has played just two atrocious games since the beginning of the 2021 season, and both have come against this same opponent—even after Baker Mayfield was ushered out of town. This game was a virtual rerun of last year’s midseason butt-kicking at the hands of the Browns; the end-of-year JV-team game actually was very close. The Bengals turned the ball over early, failed to stop Cleveland’s running game, and couldn’t block Myles Garrett no matter how hard they tried.
They also allowed a touchdown in the second half for the first time all year (three, actually); scarcely attempted to run the ball (just 10 carries for a paltry 36 yards); let Jacoby Brissett feel completely relaxed and in control (278 passing yards and two touchdowns, one rushing); and generally failed to compete. The less said about this game, the better. Cincinnati is now 0-3 in the AFC North, an ugly number that will surely come back to haunt them come tiebreaker time.
Worse than the game result was the injury report, in particular the sight of top cornerback Chidobe Awuzie getting carted off with a dreaded torn ACL. After Joe Burrow, Chido is arguably Cincinnati’s most irreplaceable player. The offense will still move the ball without Ja’Marr Chase, Monday night notwithstanding. D.J. Reader is vital, but the run defense has mostly held up without him, again not counting this game.
Trey Hendrickson is very close, but he doesn’t quite bring the intangible thunder quite like Awuzie, whose lockdown ability in both man and zone coverages has been a big part of Cincinnati’s ability to confuse enemy quarterbacks with multiple, varying looks. He’s also raised up the likes of Eli Apple, Tre Flowers, and Mike Hilton with his superb play. Life without Chido is going to be much different and more difficult. And, of course, there is no guarantee he’s back at full health for the beginning of 2023.…
Awuzie going down during the Browns blowout capped a rough week. The stunning news that Chase had a hip injury bad enough to cost him at least a month of action deflated the balloon that had been soaring after the rout of the Falcons last week. Injuries to Apple and Flowers compounded matters in a beat-up secondary. Suddenly, the good karma from last year when it came to accumulated ouchies has turned with a vengeance. This was probably inevitable, but when difference makers like Uno, Chido, and D.J. go down, it’s hard not to feel aggrieved.
Then there was the trade deadline, which came and went Tuesday with no signs of life from the riverfront. Nothing was expected, necessarily, but when Baltimore acquires All-Pro linebacker Roquan Smith for a song and Pittsburgh adds a top draft pick for dumping overrated wideout Chase Claypool, it makes Cincinnati look bad. Meanwhile, other competitors took aggressive steps in the same fashion the Los Angeles Rams did a year ago, when they added just enough to eke past the Stripes in the Super Bowl.
Maybe that’s unfair, and making an actual difference-making trade at midseason is unlikely in the extreme. Still, I get the feeling last year’s amazing run and appearance in the finale was enough to sate the front office for a spell. Or at least they don’t feel the same urgency the fan base does to get back to the Super Bowl while this “cheap superstars” moment exists.
Despite these setbacks, let’s return to the concept I mentioned up top: This league turns on a dime, and just when things look bleak the sunshine can pour in. Next week’s opponent, Carolina, is a good example. The Panthers totally botched their quarterback situation, to the point that head coach Matt Ruhle, thought to be the second-coming of Lombardi not very long ago, was fired. They dealt away their best player, running back Christian McCaffery, and appeared to be in full “wait ’til next year” mode. But then they dominated Tom Brady and Tampa and came close to pulling off a miracle win in Atlanta last Sunday until their kicker missed a game-winning PAT and then a field goal in overtime. (Sound familiar? It does to Evan McPherson.…) Fortunes turned, and then turned again. It’s like a Formula 1 race out there at times.
The Panthers should be an easy mark, a far less ferocious big cat than the Bengals. Carolina is 28th in DVOA and 30th on offense, a good matchup for a team licking its wounds defensively like Cincinnati. Third-string QB P.J. Walker has added a bit of verve to the attack, but the former XFLer (he was a Houston Roughneck) isn’t striking fear in enemy secondaries. The defense is the better unit, but Carolina is second from the bottom in Adjusted Sack Rate, just above the Falcons—and we saw what Burrow did to them. Cincinnati’s O-line may struggle with elite pass rushers like Garrett, T.J. Watt, and Micah Parsons, but then so do most lines. Brian Burns, Carolina’s best pass rusher, isn’t quite of that ilk. The Bengals should be able to bounce back in that department.
In general, teams that get humiliated in the NFL one week, as Cincinnati was on Monday night, bounce back strongly the next week. That’s the essence of professional football and the league’s parity. After the Carolina game comes the bye week, and if the Bengals win they’ll be 5-4, just as they were a year ago at the bye. Cincinnati then went 5-3 against what was considered the difficult part of the schedule and clinched the AFC North title.
It won’t be as simple this year, perhaps, but there is certainly no reason to panic. This past week and a half was surely frightening, but remember: Halloween is over.