The Bengals Need a Win Sunday Over San Francisco

After letting the Chargers game get away from them, Cincinnati’s playoff hopes hinge on winning the rest of their home games.

Cincinnati and Los Angeles played an odd tennis match Sunday. The teams split the first two sets at love, but then it was the Chargers who rolled in the decisive set and won 6-0, 0-6, 6-0. Uh, make that 41-22, after L.A. scored the first 24 and the last 17 points of the match, er, game.

Fittingly for a game that resembled a racquet sport, Cincinnati was undone by a slew of unforced errors. The most glaring two of those turned the game on its ear. First, Ja’Marr Chase revisited his fumble-fingered training camp by turning a sure long touchdown pass into a bobbled interception. It was an excruciating play, in retrospect made worse by the knowledge that Joe Burrow had his right pinky Bednariked on the opening drive, yet still perfectly placed a bomb into Chase’s hands. Uno reacted like he was the one with the digit bent 90 degrees and turned a potentially huge play into a crushing turnover.

It was a bizarre moment in an oddball contest. Bengals-Chargers games tend to get weird. Who can forget the wretched offensive pass interference call and missed field goal at the gun last year to spoil Burrow’s debut, or losing 44-41 on a last second field goal back in 1985, or outslugging the Bolts 38-31 despite two long punt returns by Eric Metcalf in 1997, or the two teams combining for 1,100 yards of offense on a crazy Monday night in Southern California in 1982? And, most of all, the Freezer Bowl game, arguably the greatest moment in Bengals history.

I was hoping for an inverse repeat of yet another strange matchup between the Stripes and the Bolts, the 2006 encounter, when Cincinnati blew a 21-point halftime lead to lose 49-41. It appeared for all the world that despite digging themselves a 24-0 hole the Bengals were going to run away with the game, much as the then-San Diego Chargers did behind LaDanian Tomlinson that ugly November afternoon at PBS 15 seasons ago.

But then Joe Mixon fumbled for the first time in many moons, seemingly untouched (even after frame-by-framing the play I still can’t tell if a Chargers lineman got a finger on the ball just as Mix was transferring it to his right hand), and the subsequent runback for a score completely changed the game once more. The third set was all L.A., and a second Burrow interception—this one his fault—in the end zone with eight minutes to play short-circuited any hope of another big rally.

It was an agonizing, teeth-grinding defeat, in large part due to the rash of injuries that struck. The Bengals have avoided this kind of game all season, so one was perhaps inevitable. But seeing a host of linebackers fall—plus Chido Awuzie, plus Joe’s finger, plus going in to the game down two offensive linemen—made you remember that playing short-handed stinks, especially when opposing a top passer in Justin Herbert.

Another aspect of the frustration was that Herbert seemed to benefit from a host of 50/50 balls while Burrow had such misfortune. Indeed, when you factor in his dislocated finger and the fact he was playing from behind all game, and thus exposed to a fierce pass rush, it was perhaps Joe’s best outing as a pro. He threw a series of darts to all points of the field and ran in for a score as well; you knew his hand was hurt when he told his teammates not to high five him. But he couldn’t overcome the turnovers.

Despite Burrow’s legendary icy veins, I still wonder if the knee injury has him occasionally rattled. There are moments when he scatters about in the pocket unnecessarily, and he is notably uncomfortable in play-action when he’s forced to turn his back on the defense. Remember last Sunday’s juke of Minkah Fitzpatrick for a rushing TD? After the game he said something that made my ears perk up: “My knee was feeling great all day, I was excited.”

So, it doesn’t always feel great? It was an exciting development to be feeling so healthy? Maybe I’m reading too much into things, but I do think some of the raft of turnovers this season are due to lingering effects of last season’s catastrophe. Overall, is Burrow fine? Of course. But it seems to me there’s a higher plane for him to reach yet, which will come when he feels fully comfortable and cuts down on the turnovers.

Giveaways are never good, but they stand out in stark relief in the Bengals’ losses this year. In the five L’s, they have 14 turnovers; in the seven W’s, they have just five. It isn’t just the number of giveaways—some, like on Sunday or Shaq Lawson’s pick against the Jets or the 99-yard pick-six by Denzel Ward in the Browns loss, were game-defining plays.

For what it’s worth, San Francisco, Cincinnati’s next opponent, has an even worse turnover margin (-4) than the Bengals (-2). Inconsistency has plagued the Niners every bit as much, if not more, than it has our guys, as seen in last Sunday’s 30-23 loss to the hapless Seahawks.

Nevertheless, DVOA will tell you this game is a mismatch in favor of the visitors. San Francisco is a strong seventh overall, compared to the Bengals’ 19th-place ranking. The Niners, despite being woeful at moments this season, are top 10 in both offense and defense.

Of course, we owe the 49ers a good beating, as they’ve caused no end of psychic trauma over the years. Counting the two Super Bowls, S.F. won nine in a row over the Bengals until Jeff Blake finally broke the whammy with a huge game in 1999 (during the brief, hardly beloved days of Cinergy Field). Anyone remember Zac Taylor’s first couple of games? The Bengals lost a heartbreaker in his 2019 debut in Seattle, but were so sporty in defeat that they were favored to win the following week over San Fran. Kyle Shanahan toyed with the Bengals D that day, and the Niners won 41-17 en route to the Super Bowl, while Cincinnati was destined for the No. 1 pick in the draft.

Cincinnati is again a home favorite after a tough loss. Unlike 2019, the Niners come to town off a loss, which continues an odd trend: Of the Bengals’ opponents to date, all but two (Green Bay and Baltimore) lost the week before playing Cincinnati. Given the whipsaw nature of this season leaguewide, that’s not especially surprising, but you always want to meet a team that’s fat and happy, not angry and desperate as the Niners are.

It’s a must-win game for both teams. Cincinnati’s playoff odds are still second-best in the AFC North, but the morass of conference teams clustered in the 6- to 8-win range makes every game crucial from here on out. The Niners might just be the toughest remaining foe on a slate that still features the Chiefs, Ravens, Browns, and Broncos, especially if Deebo Samuel and Fred Warner return for this game.

Cincinnati has made bouncing back from losses a hallmark trait of the season thus far. They need to do so on Sunday by keeping unforced errors out of the playbook.

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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