The Bengals Slay Their Boogeymen and Face the GOAT

After finally beating the Cleveland Browns, Cincinnati directs its playoff march to Tampa and a date with Tom Brady.
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These, as Charles Dickens or Styx would say, are the Best of Times. Our Bengals have put past inconsistencies and flaws behind them and have now won five in a row, seven of eight, and nine of 11. They’re a powerful, deep, balanced, smart, and hungry squad with no obvious weaknesses and plenty of potencies, led by a quarterback who’s already as good or better than anyone who has played that position in Cincinnati. Enjoy it while it lasts, because it seldom does…

The Bengals are hardly perfect. Their plodding 23-10 win on Sunday over the Cleveland Browns (at last!) was no thing of beauty. There were injuries, penalties, missed assignments, and even some wayward throws from Joe Burrow. Despite that, Cincinnati pulled to a 20-3 lead and cruised home over a team that’s given them fits over the last few years. For once, the Bengals tackled Nick Chubb! Buried him, basically, holding the back who averages nearly 100 yards per start against the Bengals to 34 yards on 14 carries, including just six in the second half. Myles Garrett, the other annual bete noire in brown, had a good effort, but he didn’t wreck the game by forcing turnovers or coming up with key sacks. Jonah Williams gets credit for a gritty game against the terrifying Browns end.

The fact Cincinnati won in that fashion without an early score and total control of the game script, and did it without Tee Higgins (who tweaked a hamstring in pregame warmups and couldn’t go) or Tyler Boyd (who injured a finger on the first series, never to return) or Hayden Hurst (out for a while with a bad calf), is even more impressive. A common shorthand to determine NFL winners is which team had a higher combination of rushing attempts plus completed passes. The Browns won that category, 51-46, and still Cincinnati won the game fairly easily.

That’s because the Bengals’ defense takes away whatever the opponent does best, making them “win lefthanded” as the saying goes (lefty Boomer Esiason did just fine…), while Burrow does whatever it takes to get enough points on the board. On Sunday, that meant delivering eye-of-the-needle throws to the only starting receiver left standing, Ja’Marr Chase. Each was better than the last, culminating in an insane slant throw for a touchdown that was delivered with such heat and anticipation that Chase realized the ball was on him only when it nearly impaled his navel. The pass caught him, not the other way around. You won’t see many throws better than that one.

The playcalling has been timely as well, none more so than catching the Browns’ secondary selling out to stop the run and hitting them with a flea-flicker to a wide open Trenton “The Crocodile Hunter” Irwin. It was that kind of day: Of Burrow’s 18 completions, 10 were to Chase and the other eight were spread over six different receivers. “Next man up” is an odious phrase that’s come to represent the utter disposability of NFL players rather than the intended meaning that depth is critical, but in this case you’re seeing the coaching and player development side of the staff pay dividends. Unlike in previous years, no second-stringer has walked onto the field this season looking overmatched. Many, including tight end Mitchell Wilcox and of course my main man, cornerback Cameron Taylor-Britt, have been very good to excellent.

The most outstanding player Sunday, and pretty much every game he plays, was D.J. Reader. The nose tackle has been even more dominant this season than ever, which is saying something. Against the Browns he demolished double-teams all day, not only freeing the linebackers to seek and destroy Cleveland’s backs (Logan Wilson had 17 tackles!) but also having five himself (plus a QB hit). The rushing-yards-allowed splits when he’s been in the lineup versus the month or so he missed with a knee injury are stark. He allows the Bengals to stop the run with light boxes. As I said when he was hurt earlier this year, Reader is arguably Cincinnati’s most indispensable player after Burrow.

Reader and the backups now hit the road for an encounter with the GOAT, Tom Brady, and his Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Tampa is having a disastrous season by its standard since Brady came to town, just 6-7, though that remains good enough for first place in the downtrodden NFC South. We picked a good year to play them in the interdivisional cycle. Brady has required miracle comebacks against the Saints and the Rams to even get to six wins. He is still Brady, at least by advanced metrics, ranking just behind Burrow in DYAR—although his QBR, which heavily factors in running, his far lower (23rd). But the team has looked so grim many have questioned Brady’s decision to return for his 23rd season after telling everyone he was retiring.

The Bucs are far from healthy as well. Two of their biggest players, literally—tackle Tristan Wirfs and nose man Vita Vea—look doubtful for this week. They haven’t been able to run the ball all season, ranking 30th in the league in DVOA; outside of Mike Evans, their receivers have underwhelmed; and special teams are a disaster. The Bucs are still solid defensively, but they wilt when facing a strong, balanced attack, as they did Sunday against the 49ers, losing 35-7 in a contest that wasn’t even that close.

The Bucs will be dangerous, though. Brady may not relish facing “Mr. Irrelevant” Brock Purdy, but you know he wants to show “The Next Brady,” Joey B., that he isn’t ready to cede that mantle just yet. Tampa has been much better at home this season, with a 10th/26th DVOA split. And every game is critical for them, given the division.

The Bengals’ current five-game win streak is their longest since those magical two months to open 2015, when Cincinnati started 8-0. For the streak to reach six straight, it will behoove the Bengals to jump on Tampa from the kickoff, send a crowd itching to go Christmas shopping packing early, and not let Brady sniff a chance to steal the game late. These are two teams passing in the night, but with Touchdown Tommy on the field, a mid-ocean collision is still possible.

Here’s hoping that Burrow and the Boys keep their eyes just past the bow, even with colossal games against Buffalo and Baltimore on the horizon.

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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