The Bengals Will Inch Closer to a Division Title by Beating Baltimore

It’s hard to believe after two gut-wrenching home losses, but Cincinnati jumped into first place in the AFC North by winning in Denver.

I wrote last week that the Broncos game was a virtual playoff affair and the loser would likely be eliminated from postseason contention. So it says something about this particular Bengals squad that they went out and won a tight, tense thrilling road affair, making just enough plays to keep the season alive.

Not just alive, but they’re in first place in the AFC North! Thanks to the 15-10 win over Denver and some fortuitous results elsewhere, Cincinnati heads into Christmas with its nose in front in the race for the division crown. For all of the ups and downs in 2021, if I told you before the season that the team would be in this spot with three games to play, you’d have committed me to the nearest asylum and gone happily about your day.

We will get to those remaining games in a bit, but let’s briefly recap the win, a rare one at altitude for the Bengals, who were 3-13 in the Mile High City before last weekend. The thin air couldn’t have hurt the efforts of Evan “10x Future All-Pro” McPherson, who kicked a franchise record 58-yarder to go with another 50-plus-yard field goal to give him nine from that distance on the season, just one shy of the NFL record (the only one he missed was the 57-yarder late in regulation against Green Bay that clanged two-thirds of the way up the upright). Drafting a kicker in the fifth round—any round—pretty much required that the guy become a special specialist, so to speak. McPherson has surely proven he’s just that.

Of course, Joe Burrow is pretty special, too, and some of the plays he made against a sticky and tough defense were phenomenal. I go back to the Houdini act he pulled to escape the rush, scramble right, and complete a bomb to Ja’Marr Chase. It got called back for holding, but that play—and some other runs and pocket magic—convinced me, perhaps for the first time this season, that Burrow is all the way back from the knee injury. Or at least it was out of his head for this particular afternoon.

His bullet to Tyler Boyd on third and long in the dying moments was another thing of beauty. Indeed, Boyd made several big plays, taking his turn in Cincinnati’s “we can beat you with any of half a dozen players taking the lead” rotation. With Denver keying on the run game and able to cover Chase and Tee Higgins consistently, it made sense that Boyd would be the guy to step up and win his matchups. From the Bengals’ lone touchdown to the catch late in the first half that set up the long McPherson field goal to that third down play that helped clinch the game, the icy veteran receiver was clutch every time his number was called.

The thought before the game was that the contest would be decided in the trench warfare between Denver’s run blocking and Cincinnati’s run stuffing. Score one for our Big Uglies! Javonte Williams and Melvin Gordon had some moments for the Broncos, but in the big picture the Bengals controlled them and made Denver’s middling quarterbacks (including Drew Lock when Teddy Bridgewater went out of the game with a frightening concussion) have to beat them—which they proved unable to do. And of course end Khalid Kareem made the game’s biggest play, stripping Lock in the red zone to preserve the lead late. Zac Taylor was correct in giving game balls to the four defensive tackles who saw action Sunday, as their contribution was the key to victory.

And we don’t talk much about linebacker Germaine Pratt, but with the rest of the unit down to injury, he’s stepped up big, not just in his play (he had 15 tackles Sunday) but in calling the signals in the huddle and before the snap. He isn’t Reggie Williams out there, but Pratt has played well when needed the most.

Ideally, Logan Wilson would be back from injury to combat Baltimore in the latest crucial game coming up this Sunday. That seemingly won’t happen, but it isn’t a slam dunk the Bengals will have to chase Lamar Jackson around either, as he’s still questionable with the ankle injury he sustained against the Browns. Surprisingly, the Bengals might be hoping for Lamar to return and play, especially if he is compromised. Tyler Huntley has been pretty damn good in Jackson’s stead, almost pulling out the Browns and Packers games with big comebacks only to be let down by failed two-point conversions. Backup quarterbacks and the Bengals have a rough history, as we all know.

Baltimore’s pass defense, now also down cornerback Marlon Humphrey since we last saw them, has been atrocious this season, ranking 28th in DVOA. As the Bengals proved when they played back in October, teams with good downfield attacks can make hay on the Ravens. Every game is its own novel, and vengeance for the earlier rout will surely be on Baltimore’s agenda. And of course they’re highly dangerous on offense, especially with the white hot Mark Andrews at tight end. The question is whether or not they’re just too beat up at the moment to get their desired payback.

Cincinnati in general has played better on the road this season; for whatever reason, they’ve found ways to lose heartbreaking games at PBS, including the last two (the Bengals are 5-2 on the road compared to 3-4 at home). Right now the pattern of win-two-lose-two would call for a win on Sunday, followed by losing to Kansas City and the Browns, which would throw everything into chaos and be perfectly fitting for this whack-a-mole season.

First things first. Beating Baltimore won’t be easy no matter who is wearing purple and is active on Sunday. It’s an occasion once more, however, for Joe Burrow to be Joe Burrow, put all the ramifications of the afternoon aside, and do whatever it takes to win. He did that in the last critical game a few days ago. There are nothing but critical games remaining.

Joe Burrow—and all of us in BengalLand—wouldn’t have it any other way.

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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