Debating the Value of a Bengals Moral Victory

A gut-punching loss to the Browns is hard to swallow, but Joe Burrow was the best quarterback on the field.

You’re surely numb to the never-ending ways in which the Bengals can snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. The players and coaches are at least getting paid enormous fortunes to take the frustration. So take a moment to pity me, your humble chronicler of these ceaseless losses and a longtime veteran of suffering through this unimaginable pain. Nah, don’t bother.

 

Sure, this past Sunday’s last-second loss to the hated Browns was harsh in the moment, especially because of the opponent. (Baker Mayfield should insist on having Bengals defenders co-star in his myriad national TV ads, because without them he’s nothing.) But overall I took the optimistic approach, as I’ve fought to do and counseled y’all to do as well all season.

Yes, winning a few games would surely be nice, and the team is so accustomed to losing that it’s become a sad habit. But in the big picture, the team is far more competitive, interesting, and watchable than it was in 2019. That, and ensuring that Joe Burrow was indeed a franchise quarterback, is all that really one could realistically expect from this season. And boy, howdy, is Burrow a franchise quarterback.

Not that Sunday’s loss wasn’t ridiculous, given the way the Burrow-led offense was unstoppable. You’ve probably seen the stat by now: In the Super Bowl era, teams that scored 33 or more points and didn’t punt were 55-0 until the Bengals on Sunday. (It’s a regular season stat; the Patriots lost 41-33 to the Eagles in Super Bowl LII without punting.) That mind-blower comes just one week after the Bengals became the first team (of 93) since 2016 to build a 21-point first half lead and lose.

Cleveland and Cincinnati combined for 136 points in their two matchups this season, the second-most in the history of the Battle of Ohio (in 2004 they combined for an amazing 157 points, mainly due to the 58-48 shootout the Bengals won that year). The way offenses are dominating the NFL thus far in 2020, high-scoring contests aren’t particularly notable except for the way the quarterbacks play.

And Burrow’s 406-yard, four-touchdown (one running) performance had a higher degree of difficulty than Mayfield’s 297 yards and five TDs. The Browns offensive line has been among the best in football this year, while Cincinnati’s hasn’t. Indeed, the most remarkable aspect of Burrow’s play on Sunday was the way he kept moving the ball even as starting linemen—including Jonah Williams, Trey Hopkins, and Bobby Hart (who was having the game of his life, natch)—left the game one by one with injuries. Even with the B- and C-teamers blocking, the Bengals cut through the Browns D with surgical precision, putting up nearly 500 yards despite a pair of turnovers.

The game was, in essence, a battle between defenses reduced to two high-quality players apiece, both tasked with leading a large cast of the mediocre and the inexperienced. Myles Garrett and Denzel Ward were better than Jessie Bates and Carl Lawson, and both Browns made game-changing plays to provide the 37-34 victory margin.

Meanwhile, the Bengals pass defense was atrocious. I actually thought the concept of the game plan was pretty good, but the execution was horrendous, especially given that Cleveland was without Nick Chubb and Odell Beckham went out on the first series (and is done for the year with a torn knee ligament). Mayfield has been woefully inaccurate for much of the season thus far, but he completed 21 passes in a row after starting the game 0-5 with a pick. Think back to how often you remember him being forced to come off his first read or maneuver due to pressure. Almost never.

Cincinnati made the game extremely comfortable for the Mayfield, a common denominator in the five times he’s beaten the Bengals in six starts. The lone loss, last season’s finale, featured a relentless Bengals pass rush (no coincidence).

The one time Mayfield should have been sacked Sunday came early on the Browns’ game-winning drive. Mackensie Alexander blitzed and had Mayfield by the leg but was unable to bring him down. Mayfield completed yet another pass instead, and at that point I bowed to the inevitable. The only question was just how painful would it be, and the game-winning toss going right through Darius Phillips’ hands ranked pretty highly. A pick there would have been perfectly symmetrical, with DP intercepting Mayfield’s first and last passes of the day. But, alas…

Naturally, defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo is under fire for the umpteenth blown save under his watch. The Bengals have led in the fourth quarter of every game this season but two—the Ravens debacle and the opener against the Chargers, when they seemed to take the lead but, well, you know. Yes, the defense has been slammed by the usual plethora of injuries to frontline players, but other teams and coordinators are in similar pickles and still find ways to make critical stops with the game on the line. I refer you to the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday night as one example.

Anarumo has been creative with his concepts and schemes but can’t get his guys to execute at a high level or win the majority of one-on-one battles. Not all of that is on him, but certainly some of it is. One dreams about what Wade Phillips, who coached on the Rams staff with Zac Taylor and is just sitting at home chillaxing on Sundays, could do with the same ingredients Anarumo has.

One at least hopes the Son of Bum would have a better relationship with Carlos Dunlap than Anarumo appears to. Sunday’s emotional loss was capped by Dunlap blowing his stack on the sideline, causing a fracas that evoked memories of a similar (if far more cutting) Bengals meltdown back in the 2015 playoffs. Clearly this marriage needs to end, and it seems it will very soon, with multiple sources reporting that the Bengals have traded Dunlap to Seattle.

Meanwhile A.J. Green, who has caught 15 balls for 178 yards over the last two games, appears to be over his frustration with his role, just in time for a contract drive.

Meanwhile, the schedule hits a valley now, as the Titans come into town fresh off a botched comeback against the hated Steelers. Pittsburgh was the recipient of good fortune as usual, a missed field goal by Titans kicker Stephen Gostkowski that would have forced overtime. Instead, the Steelers remain undefeated, while Tennessee will come in good and angry against a Bengals squad likely to be missing 4/5ths of its opening day offensive line; Joe Mixon, William Jackson, Sam Hubbard, and myriad others are also doubtful to dress out. Hopefully some of those potential difference makers will be back in time to play Pittsburgh following the bye week.

Someone needs to help out our man Burrow. He can just about beat Cleveland by himself, but he’ll need assistance these next couple of games against two of the AFC’s best squads.

Robert Weintraub heads up Bengals coverage for Cincinnati Magazine and has written for The New York Times, Grantland, Slate, Deadspin, and Football Outsiders and authored four books, including his newest, “The Divine Miss Marble” from Penguin Random House. You can follow him on Twitter at @robwein.

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