The Bengals Pull Off the Must-Win Victory but Remain in Limbo

Joe Burrow’s ongoing calf injury clouds expectations as Cincinnati faces a stretch of three beatable opponents.

There was no one like the late Harry Belafonte, but I’m quickly tiring of his classic hit, the “Limbo Song.” Because that’s how all of Bengals Nation is living right now and into the foreseeable future: in limbo.

The lead up to Monday night’s critical 19-16 victory over L.A. felt like it lasted about a month. The constant examination of Joe Burrow’s gait, his facial expressions, his ride alongs with team owner/Uber driver Mike Brown—all to determine whether his twitchy calf would allow him to take the field and lead the team in as crucial a game as can be played in September—was exhausting. The guessing finally ended a few hours before the game, and as it happens, of course, Joe gutted out the win, clearly affected by his bum wheel but able to ham-and-egg his way to 289 yards passing on 49 attempts, 141 of them to his bestie, Ja’Marr Chase. Thanks to his courageous effort, the Bengals snagged the all-important win, which wasn’t really as close as the final score would indicate.

I’ve felt the same way since that dark July day when Burrow was first injured: Unless Burrow was completely unable to move, he would—and should—be on the field. The cliche is true: Players play. Frankly, the Bengals had to play him in the pouring rain in Cleveland and Monday night as well, potential long-term consequences be damned. Could they have found a way to win with Jake Browning at quarterback? Possibly, but Joe at 55-65 percent remains the better option, especially in a quasi-must-win scenario like Monday night.

In an ideal world, they would give him a month to completely rest the leg, but after the 0-2 start that would mean essentially punting the season in September. And there remains the fact that calf injuries are sneaky, and even a month of no activity doesn’t guarantee Burrow wouldn’t tweak it again when he came back with Cincinnati at, say, 1-5. (In addition to “limbo,” I’ve grown to loathe the word “tweak” as well.)

So this situation sets up a weekly Burrow Watch that will dominate the discourse all season, unless Joe either proves it’s behind him or hurts it worse. Having your franchise quarterback constantly in “will he or won’t he” status is a tough way to get through a season; ask the Ravens the last couple of years. It will certainly cause a run on Maalox in the greater CincyTucky area, not to mention a lone household just east of Atlanta (mine). Remember, I’m the guy who had to leave the room when the Chiefs were driving at the end of the AFC title game in 2021. I can’t handle this level of anxiety.

The other issue is the Bengals are going to find it hard to beat teams who are better than the Rams, those fraudulent SB LVI “champs.” The immediate schedule is manageable in that respect. Next up is Tennessee this Sunday at Paycor South, aka Nashville’s Nissan Stadium. (There is no truth to the rumor that the Titans are seeking a new stadium because the Bengals have taken over their current one.) Arizona and Seattle follow, a pair of wild cards who ordinarily would be solid underdogs to the Bengals but for the Golden Calf. Beyond that are the league’s big boys, teams that even with Burrow at full throttle would provide a challenge.

Monday night provided one recipe for success with a gimpy Brrr. Can we have every week be a Ring of Honor game? Cincinnati is now 3-0 in games when they have celebrated its past, which of course they steadfastly refused to do until this new era. It was ironic that the greats on hand were Boomer and Ocho. Certainly with those two offensive superstars in the house, you’d like to have a classic Burrow/Uno show, but they did enough to win and not let 7 and 85 down. That’s also their sixth straight prime time home win (counting the postseason), as the Marvin/Dalton era continues to recede further in the rearview mirror.

Burrow mostly threw quickly, making the short passing game—often with Chase in the slot—a substitute for the running attack, which the Rams did all they could to eliminate. Joe Mixon continues to run with spryness, but his success rate was low, and overall Cincinnati isn’t capable currently to simply run it down an opponent’s throat. Burrow at some point will need to prove he can consistently beat defenses deep and on the perimeter in order to loosen up the run game. The fake pitch and deep out to Chase in the third quarter worked great, but it’s on tape now for opponents to study.

The coaching staff will need to find ways to create that type of space with a litany of formations and motions. Tee Higgins, who had a poor game Monday, and the other skill guys need to step up as well.

Can the defense carry the team? It has before, most notably in the run to the brink of the Lombardi Trophy in 2021. Indeed, Monday’s game was a reversal of the Super Bowl—this time it was L.A. with the injury-hit, makeshift O-line and the Bengals front that dominated, especially Trey Hendrickson (at last). He had two sacks (it should have been three but for a dubious penalty), 10 pressures, and completely caved in the left side of L.A.’s offense.

Hendrickson has had plenty of outstanding games over the years, but this might have been his best. The only one as a Bengal that compares is his effort against the Jets last season, also in Week 3 and also with the Bengals 0-2 and desperately needing a victory. Great players play their best when it’s needed the most, as the adage goes.

If Trey wasn’t the best player on the field, it was Logan Wilson, who had a couple of interceptions. Or was it Dax Hill? The second-year safety was all over the place, showing off the speed, versatility, and playmaking that made him a first-round pick and the reason why Cincinnati was willing to let Jessie Bates walk in free agency. This was the unit we have hoping to see: The new faces in the secondary figured out their communications issues and fired around the field, while the highly-paid guys in the front six earned their pay. Even Myles Murphy looked as though he’s ready to make an impact.

Everyone will have to play that well each week for the Bengals to succeed, even as Burrow guts out games. It will take a village for the Bengals to survive this period of Limbo Joe.

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. Listen to him on Mo Egger’s show on 1530AM every Thursday at 5:20 p.m.

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