The Bengals Fly High Against Atlanta

Now comes a tricky trip to Cleveland for Monday Night Football and a chance to bury the Browns’ season.
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Sunday’s 35-17 evisceration of the Atlanta Falcons at Paycor Stadium was a payoff for all us fans who were patient through the season’s first six weeks, waiting for the offense to display the promise of its personnel. The Joe Burrow-led attack had been frustrating, displaying the brilliance we expect at times but at others, particularly on first and 10, being stuck in a ditch. The NFL is seldom easy, but given the talent in Stripes it shouldn’t have been like pulling teeth, as it was too often.

Against Atlanta, however, everything clicked. It helped that the Birds were beat up in the secondary, as they were four years ago in Mercedes-Benz Stadium when Andy Dalton lit them up for 37 points, a classic I often flashed back to on Sunday. (I was there that day in 2018, of course.) But Burrow was so attuned to his wideouts, his passes so perfect, the blocking so crisp, Joe Mixon’s cut and thrusts so sharp, that even the 1985 Bears defense would have had trouble stopping Cincinnati.

Burrow threw for 481 yards, and they ran the ball 10 times on the epic, clock-killing drive that ended the rout. Had Burrow and Zac Taylor truly desired to break (at last) Norm Van Brocklin’s 1951 record of 554 yards in one game, they could have, much like last year’s game against Baltimore when Joe threw for 525 yards. Ja’Marr Chase had the most targets, as usual, with 11, but Burrow spread it around just fine. Tyler Boyd had nine, Hayden Hurst eight, Tee Higgins seven. Of those 35 targets, Burrow completed 27, for 426 yards and three scores (and Tee was across the plain on his goal line catch, but the Bengals didn’t review it; Burrow snuck in on the next play). That’s pretty savage stuff.

Exceptional play from Joey Franchise is hardly new, and the Bengals having Sundays when they can throw it at will isn’t either. Atlanta, as noted, was a perfect matchup defensively, even before AJ Terrell limped off early in the game. Still, you have to take advantage of those mismatches, and Cincinnati did just that.

In so doing, the Bengals maintained a first-place tie in the AFC North at 4-3, although technically the Ravens are ahead due to the head-to-head win. Cincinnati’s playoff odds received a boost as well, up now to almost two in three, and a cursory glance around the AFC reveals a far less potent group than was assumed before the season. Yes, Buffalo and Kansas City are strong clubs. But the South is a wasteland. The rest of the East isn’t particularly threatening, with Cincinnati already having taken out Miami and New York. And the West, thought by some to be the greatest division ever assembled, looks once more like Mahomes and the Mediocrities.

Cincinnati had been far better in the underlying stats than its record, and the two are starting to conflate. The team has shot up to sixth in DVOA. Only the Bills, Chiefs, and Eagles have a better point differential. The Bengals are third in the NFL in net points and yards per drive and lead the league in net Drive Success Rate, which measures the percentage of drives resulting in a first down or a touchdown (achieved or prevented). Interestingly, Cincinnati also leads the league in time of possession per drive, which goes against their image as a quick strike or three-and-out squad (that 8:44 of TOP at the end of Sunday’s game helped).

Burrow was magical Sunday and deserves the AFC Offensive Player of the Week Award he was given, but a hidden key was game script. Getting ahead of a run-laden team like the Falcons was critical and put the field on a slope. Yes, there was the end of the first half breakdown in coverage and special teams, which briefly led to some unneeded tsuris. But there was very little belief in Atlanta’s ability to complete a comeback of that nature, due to their limited passing game (despite Marcus Mariota, a former No. 1 overall pick, at QB and two top 10 receiving picks in Kyle Pitts and Drake London). Atlanta depends on getting up on teams and working the body until resistance collapses. Cincinnati’s defense was able to dictate the terms of the engagement thanks to being ahead by double-digits for most of the game.

Now comes the tricky part. The Browns have been a spooky sight for the Bengals the last few seasons, so it’s apt they will tangle on Halloween night in Cleveland. The Browns have won seven of eight and four straight against Our Heroes. A large part of that success was due to, of all people, Baker Mayfield. The would-be Lake Erie version of Burrow is on the verge of being out of the league, but he had tremendous success against Cincinnati while with the Browns.

Instead, the Bengals will have to deal with Jacoby Brissett, Cleveland’s interim QB before Deshaun Watson is allowed to show his face in public. Flying in the face of conventional wisdom, Brissett hasn’t been terrible this season, just mediocre. He ranks as the 16th QB overall by DYAR and 19th by DVOA. Mainly, he’s been effective enough to keep the ship from capsizing completely, except in one critical area—late turnovers. Brissett has cost the Browns a couple of contests with untimely plays.

While Cleveland’s rushing attack remains top-notch (a key will be the availability of outstanding guard Wyatt Teller, who missed last week’s game with a calf injury), their defense has nose-dived. Despite the presence of players like Myles Garrett, Denzel Ward, and Jadaveon Clowney, the Browns rank 28th in DVOA. Weirdly, they’re dead last in the second quarter and top five in the third, but overall it’s been a disappointing unit. Nevertheless, all of us can easily conjure prior images of Garrett abusing our O-line, and Ward’s 99-yard pick six from last season still haunts. The unit was opportunistic against Baltimore last weekend and won’t cave in as easily as the Falcons did, especially at home on Monday Night Football.

It’s tempting to think this is the jumping off point for a sustained Cincinnati run, especially if the offense has found its stride, as Burrow maintains. They’re in the midst of a run of winnable games before the bye, and Cleveland counts as such, even if it’s hardly automatic. We glimpsed what the team is capable of doing. Now we hope there’s another gear still.

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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