The best part about Sunday’s 34-23 whipping of Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers wasn’t the win in and of itself, nice as that was. Nor was it the reduction of Brady to a feeble old man turning the ball over at every opportunity in the second half, incredibly nice as that was.
No, the best part was the fact that the banged-up Bengals were sloppy and uninspired for a full half and yet the Bucs nevertheless bowed to the inevitable. Despite all that happened, the 17-point deficit became a double-digit whipping that wasn’t nearly as close as the final score indicated.
That’s what championship contenders do. Even when far from their best, they still pummel other teams, even ones led by legends who are playing at home in a put-up-or-shut-up situation. The Bucs, like Pittsburgh and Cleveland earlier in this six-game win streak, emptied the kitchen sink on the Bengals, a situation that generally results in victory in the parity-driven NFL. But Cincinnati is so deep, complete, confident, and battle-tested at the moment that they can withstand multiple body blows from desperate teams and, Thanos-like, send them all flying in helpless defeat.
This is the essence of the “They gotta play us!” ethos that’s carried the Bengals through the back half of the schedule. The other guys better bring everything they have, and even then they’re more than likely to get beat by a Bengals team playing as well as any has since 2015 or 2005 or (dare I say it?) 1988. Indeed, I’d argue that this year’s team at this very moment is as good as any in franchise history, in part because of Joe Burrow’s presence and in part because the 2022 Bengals can beat you in so many different ways, which wasn’t always true of those other great Cincinnati editions.
This past Sunday proved that theory. After an ugly, stultifying first half that had Tony Romo ready to declare Tampa as NFC playoff favorites, the Bengals rolled off 34 straight points with devastating opportunism. Sure, the easy thing for the legions of Bengals doubters out there is to merely write it off to “Tampa handing them the game.” Nope. Cincinnati yanked it from the Bucs, much as Germaine Pratt yanked the ball from Travis Kelce a few weeks back. Not only did they force all those turnovers, but they took advantage of them, with Burrow throwing touchdown passes to Ja’Marr Chase, Tyler Boyd, and Tee Higgins—the first time all three have scored in the same game. Even hometown kid Mitchell Wilcox got in on the fun.
Cincinnati was like a champion boxer who waited until the later rounds to score a heavy blow. Once the team sensed an opening, they poured through it and overwhelmed Tampa and Brady.
One hidden aspect of Sunday’s game was the all-around effectiveness of the special teams, which has been unusually erratic this season. Evan McPherson made his kicks; no surprise there. But the way the coverage units pounced on Bucs returners was nice to see, and of course old friend Gio Bernard paid off on his undercover mole role in Tampa by accidentally/on purpose botching a fake punt that gave Cincinnati the ball deep in Bucs territory.
Mainly there was the solid punting of Drue Chrisman. He hasn’t produced many high-hanging things of beauty thus far, but he kicks directionally with aplomb and in general is just far more effective than the punter he displaced, Kevin Huber. Chrisman has produced 0.7 points worth of field position, which is how Football Outsiders measures the punting game. (The explanation is here.) Huber was at -7.1 points by contrast, so while Chrisman is more average than great at least the position isn’t the sinkhole it had become with the former UC fan favorite. I love Huber, too, but it’s evident that not replacing him with Chrisman from the start of training camp was an error.
Now (insert Bill Belichick press conference mumble) we’re on to New England, where it’s time to take down Brady’s longtime coach and truly end an era in the NFL. Ironically, the coming winter storm forecast for most of the country—known in meteorological circles as a “bomb cyclone” (yes, I work at the Weather Channel when not writing about football)—will ensure that Christmas Eve will be significantly colder in Cincinnati than in Foxborough, Massachusetts, where Saturday’s game will take place. It will surely be nippy in Beantown, but fortunately not Freezer Bowl-level bitter cold.
One surprise this week is that Troy Hendrickson appeared at practice and may be ready to play as soon as Saturday despite the broken wrist he suffered against Cleveland. As with Chase with his hip and Joe Mixon with his concussion, sitting Hendrickson for an extra week as a precaution seems a wise course of action, but the mere fact he’s this far along is good news.
Not so much with his opposite number at defensive end, Sam Hubbard, who went down with a calf injury early in Sunday’s game. Not having him will obviously hinder the defense in every way. Hubbard was having his best season as a pro, which is saying something. His run defense has been excellent, as always, but his increased effectiveness as a pass rusher has launched him into borderline All-Pro status.
Hubbard’s totals for sacks, QB hits, and pressures were at or close to career highs after just 13 games, and his percentages in those categories were also mostly above his normal standard of play. He and Hendrickson complement each other’s skill sets, and they play ferociously hard all the time. He will be particularly missed next Monday night against the myriad skills of Josh Allen and the Buffalo Bills.
But let’s concentrate on the Pats first. After losing in Las Vegas on the football equivalent of back-to-back Royal Flushes, New England is likely to be salty and competitive as hell. Their pass rush, led by AFC sack leader Matt Judon (and backed up by unheralded Josh Uche), will be an immense challenge for the Bengals line, while Belichick will undoubtedly have some defensive diagrams drawn up to confuse even a schematic savant like Burrow. He will no doubt have his secondary get very handsy with the Bengals receivers, a tactic the Bucs used to good effect—for a while, at least.
But Mac Jones is having a dreadful season (27th among qualifying QBs by FO’s metrics), not at all helped by an offensive coaching staff that seems determined to win games 10-9. Cincinnati is far too explosive to be held down that long, meaning Jones and the Pats will need to come out firing. Lou Anarumo will have to prepare his backup-riddled defensive unit to anticipate a more risk-taking Patriots offense than we’ve seen to date. That will hopefully open up New England for counterattack, aka sacks and turnovers and negative plays.
A victory will get the Bengals one game closer to the AFC North title, now that the Ravens seem to have run out of miracle wins. Their loss in Cleveland last week allowed the Bengals to regain its rightful place atop the standings. Baltimore tangles with Atlanta this weekend, and a QB in his second-ever start (Desmond Ridder) isn’t likely to score much on the Ravens’ stalwart defense.
Next week, the Ravens host Pittsburgh, another team allergic to points. So the likelihood remains strong that the Bengals’ regular season finale against the Ravens will decide the division. That’s fine. They gotta play us.