The Bengals’ Season Hopes Slip Away in OT

Joe Burrow should have been allowed to win the game, and probably would have, but poor coaching let the 49ers off the hook.

Players and coaches on both sides of Sunday’s infuriating, devastating, heartbreaking 26–23 overtime loss to San Francisco compared it to a playoff game. Small wonder it felt so crushing. The Bengals were left wondering how they let it slip away, just like they have in so many playoff games down through the years.

Zac Taylor almost certainly won’t get fired after this season, but should it happen, this horrific showing will be Exhibit A in the exit interview. The main target of ire toward him was his decision to run the ball in overtime after the torrid right arm of Joe Burrow had not only tied the game with a series of epic throws, including two touchdown passes to Ja’Marr Chase, but also winged the Bengals down the field into winning range. Every run play Cincinnati called was in itself a victory for the 49ers; banged up in the secondary, they realized their best chance at stopping the Bengals was to sucker them into running by playing deep and letting their solid D-line do the job unaided. On the day, the Bengals averaged 3.3 yards per rush and 10.2 yards per pass. You do the math.

It worked until it didn’t. Burrow caught fire and lit up the Niners pass defense, despite immense pressure from Nick Bosa and company. He had Cincinnati just outside the red zone on the first possession of overtime. Under the old sudden death rules, going conservative and kicking the winning field goal was the right move. But the Bengals needed to score a touchdown to win the game, were in position to do so, and their top overall draft pick from last year, the guy tapped to put the organization on his shoulders and win games just like this, was poised to make it happen.

Instead, Taylor called for a couple of blah runs that went nowhere in particular. Then Burrow was sacked on third down. Field goal, possession to SF, and, of course, ballgame when Cincinnati couldn’t get the one defensive stop they absolutely needed.

After the game, the head coach expressed regret that he didn’t ride Burrow’s hot hand in that situation. I suppose it’s something that Taylor is humble and human enough to admit his mistakes—that’s rare in the biz. But situational football is everything in NFL coaching, beyond “culture” and “accountability” and “togetherness” and all the other buzzwords he loves to preach. You need to have a quarterback and talent around him, and then the coaching staff needs to position said talent to win in the critical moments. Too often, Taylor and his staff do not.

Remember the previous maddening loss? An early tone was set when the Chargers put the ball in the hands of their young talented quarterback, Justin Herbert, and went for it on fourth and goal from the 4 on the game’s opening drive. The defensive look stymied the original play call, but Herbert made a sensational play and found a path for six points. Burrow can do exactly the same thing—and had spent the fourth quarter and overtime doing precisely that—but for whatever reason Taylor wasn’t as confident in his franchise player as L.A. was in theirs.

Here’s another example, on third and 5 as the Niners moved to score the game winner in OT. A stop would force a field goal from Robbie Gould, who moments earlier had missed at the end of regulation. (In retrospect, things would have been much better for Taylor if Gould had simply made that kick in the first place.) At worst, the tie game continues and Burrow gets another crack at victory.

Instead, the defensive alignment didn’t double cover SF’s constant threat, tight end George Kittle, but allowed him an easy free run off the line of scrimmage for a simple slant that converted the first down. Two plays later, game over. It’s just one play, and certainly there were good calls in other places, but at the most crucial pivot points Cincinnati’s play calls on both sides of the ball are so often head-scratching.

Meanwhile, Darrin Simmons is one of the league’s great special teams coaches, but Sunday was a disaster in a relatively poor season for the unit, outside of Evan MacPherson’s long-distance range-finding—and even Money Mac missed a kick against SF. Obviously, if Darius Phillips can just catch a punt, the Bengals probably win the game. Conveniently, Phillips now has an “injured shoulder,” so someone else will likely be fielding punts for the rest of the campaign. Who thought we’d miss Alex Erickson so much?

Speaking of catching the damn ball, if Jessie Bates just holds on to that potential pick-six with seconds left in regulation, the entirety of the narrative changes—for the two teams, for Bates’ contract negotiations, for Jimmy Garrappolo, etc. He will be replaying that drop in his mind until his dying days, as will I.

There were so many talking points in the wake of the game that multiple items, such as the loss of defensive end Trey Hendrickson to back spasms at halftime, were lost to the fog of war. Hendrickson was giving superstar left tackle Trent Williams fits in the first half and extended his consecutive games with a sack streak to nine, so his absence was certainly felt in the crucial moments.

Fortunately, Hendrickson is considered likely to play in this Sunday’s all-important matchup in Denver. The extended season and the lumpen mass of mediocrity in the AFC makes every week a playoff game. Playing in the Rockies is always tough; the Bengals are just 3–13 in Colorado, though they did win the last time they played at Mile High back in 2017. Cincinnati has lost some excruciating December games at Mile High—remember the blown lead and overtime loss in 2015, when Brock Osweiler outdueled A.J. McCarron with the No. 1 seed on the line? How about Christmas Eve 2006, when a bad snap on a PAT attempt cost the Bengals a tie game with less than a minute to play, resulting in missed playoffs?

More pleasing to recall was the last time the Bengals were above .500 and won a game over another team with a winning record. That hasn’t happened since 2014, when Dre Kirkpatrick’s pick-six of Peyton Manning on Monday Night Football against the Broncos locked down a playoff bid. Can Bates redeem himself by turning in a similar play? What a story that would be…

The two teams are virtually indistinguishable by DVOA (Denver is 18th, Cincinnati 19th), and their strengths are almost exactly flipped. Denver’s offense is ranked 12th and the defense 21st, while the Bengals’ offense is 21st and the defense 12th. The Bengals’ special teams may be scuffling, but the Broncos’ units are outright bad, ranking 29th.

Denver has moved the ball well this season despite the lack of a steady downfield passing game, which makes them similar to San Francisco in that regard. The Broncs don’t have a Kittle, but up against two potent running backs in Melvin Gordon and Javonte Williams, Cincinnati’s defensive front will be stressed to stop the rush game.

Denver’s defense hasn’t been great, however, and Von Miller is now in L.A. The unit shouldn’t scare Zac Taylor from letting Burrow take over the game from the beginning.

Fast starts have been rare in BengalLand this season—only the Jets have a worse offensive DVOA in the first quarter. But letting Joe be Joe from the outset as well as when the game is on the line will go a long way toward winning this game, making the playoffs, and maybe saving Taylor’s job.

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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