Let’s just go ahead and chalk up last Sunday’s clunker in New Jersey to Halloween. There really is no other coherent explanation for the Bengals losing to the Jets, 34-31. So I’m blaming the mysterious doings of that particular holiday, a date on which the Bengals habitually lose; in fact, Cincinnati is now 1-6 all-time on October 31.
Certainly the collective amnesia when it came to tackling was difficult to understand, given the Bengals’ improvement in that area this season. Guys like Logan Wilson, Jessie Bates, and Chidobe Awuzie, excellent tacklers all until this past weekend, were run through by the nondescript Jets runners and receivers over and over again.
Often, that’s simply a matter of energy and desire, and indeed the Jets played with far more urgency. In and of itself, that isn’t too surprising. Even the Jets employ professional players, and teams that get humiliated, as New York was by the Patriots the previous week, often respond with professional pride the following game. It can be argued that it is to Cincinnati’s credit that they absorbed the Jets’ strong effort and still were in apparent control, up 31-20 with half a quarter to play.
That was mainly thanks to Joe Burrow, who struggled at times with New York’s pass rush but made a series of tremendous throws. His three touchdown passes and 259 passing yards kind of undersell how good he was in the game, even if he was moved to slam his helmet in frustration at one point. His best pass may have been the ad hoc whip to the pylon that Ja’Marr Chase couldn’t catch during the goal line stand in the first quarter. Chase compensated by grabbing a similar throw later in the game for a score.
But the biggest play of the game was a pass Burrow didn’t make, the Shaq Lawson interception with Cincinnati clinging to a 31-26 lead late. It was a tremendous play by Lawson, so give him credit. But if Burrow could have just slipped the ball by him, the misdirection screen—similar to a play the Jets used ad nauseam against the Bengals—was wide open for a major gain that would have gone a long way toward clinching a victory.
As in the loss to Chicago, Burrow was denied a chance at a final drive, in this case by a horrendous penalty call on Mike Hilton, who was somehow flagged for tackling an opposing ballcarrier. If that was a penalty, then it’s impossible to ever make a tackle. The irony is it was the first time all game any Bengals defender stepped up and made a textbook tackle. The reward? Game over.
Best just to move on from Cincinnati’s third three-point loss of the season, because here comes Cleveland. The hated Browns, after a strong start, are a mess at the moment. They lost in a tractor pull to the Steelers last Sunday, 15-10, with Baker Mayfield banged up and not exactly rising above it all. The Odell Beckham Jr. experiment appears to have reached its somewhat inevitable conclusion, with the long-simmering frustration boiling over and Odell Sr. posting a video showing how the Baker-Beckham misconnection is Mayfield’s fault. Now the Browns appear set to simply make OBJ a healthy scratch each week, rather than waive him outright.
Meanwhile, right tackle Jack Conklin, an All-Pro in 2020, is out for the foreseeable future with an elbow injury, Kareem Hunt remains out, and Jarvis Landry and Nick Chubb are at less than full strength as they return from injuries of their own. It’s a reminder that the Bengals a) continue to be mostly injury-free and b) it is critical to take advantage of that scenario while it lasts, because it never does. That’s the slice of the Jets loss that hurts the most. Cincinnati went in with the A-team intact, while New York, lightly talented to begin with, had multiple injuries, starting of course with quarterback Zach Wilson (which may have been a blessing in disguise for the Jets, given the accuracy, albeit almost entirely underneath, of sub Mike White).
Nevertheless, the Browns are a dangerous opponent. They remain sixth in overall DVOA and fifth on offense despite scoring just 46 points in the last three games (Cincinnati put up 106 in the same time frame). Mayfield in particular loves seeing stripes on the other side of the line. He’s 5-1 against the Bengals with a 17-7 touchdown-interception ratio and a 111 passer rating. His last-gasp drive last season at Paul Brown Stadium to steal a win with seconds to play still stings. Much was made of the Bengals slaying the Lamar Jackson dragon two weeks ago; the Mayfield Monster needs to go as well.
And after their ugly loss to the revivified Steelers, the Browns will be the dreaded “wounded animal” opponent. We saw what happened in New York when the Bengals played a team with a purpose. They need to match that intensity and get up on top of the Browns. Scoring early would put the pressure on Mayfield and lessen the potency of Cleveland’s dinged but still potent rushing attack (they are the top-ranked team in DVOA on the ground).
Defensively, the Browns’ weakness matches up poorly with Cincinnati’s strength. Cleveland is third-best in the league at stopping the run but just 25th against the pass, despite Myles Garrett’s freak show off the edge and a wholesale retooling of the back seven in the offseason. Obviously, what the Bengals do best is put the game in Burrow’s hands and let him wing it. Burrow was sensational against the Browns as a rookie, and there is no reason to believe he won’t play well again, so long as he is protected (he was sacked seven times in the two games a year ago).
Sunday’s game at PBS is important in another way: If the Bengals lose, they suddenly enter the bye week off a two-game losing streak, and it will have been four long weeks between the Ravens game and their next chance to win one (at Las Vegas, and many of you are saving up for that road trip) on November 21. In other words, all the great feelings built up by the 5-2 start, as well as the hosannas thrown Cincinnati’s way in the wake of the win in Baltimore, will have evaporated like Ohio River mist by the time they win again.
And in the mediocre but competitive AFC, their playoff chances will really take a hit. After a huge bump by beating the Ravens, their odds plummeted a full 29 percent in the Football Outsiders simulation. Amazingly, the Steelers now have slightly better odds of making the postseason than the Bengals, who are in a virtual tie with Cleveland.
So while it’s easy to write off Sunday’s loss as “that’s life in the NFL,” down the road we all may rue the game mightily. Suddenly, the Browns game is crucial.