The “Big Dog” Bengals Are Back

A smackdown of the hated Steelers sends Cincinnati into a crucial part of the schedule, starting Sunday in Nashville.
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Don’t let the final score fool you. Cincinnati beat Pittsburgh 37-30 on Sunday, a one-score margin that doesn’t nearly convey the way the Bengals beat the living crap outta their most hated rival. But for a couple of fluke interceptions, some terrible third-down penalties, and a few blown coverages due to miscommunication, this could have been 40-10.

Post-game commentary mostly focused on the key pair of 90-plus-yard drives that helped the Bengals win, and they were indeed things of beauty. But I was more impressed with other elements of the win beyond the greatness of Joe Burrow, which I take for granted by now. For example, the way the much-maligned offensive line mostly dominated the Steelers’ tremendous defensive line.

The Steelers D, the highest-paid in the NFL, were highly aggressive and schemed as many one-on-one matchups up front as possible. With rare exceptions, Cincinnati handled those encounters with aplomb. The one play T.J. Watt made (and that interception was an incredible one, no question) happened because La’el Collins kept him so far from Burrow that Watt was able to absorb the velocity of the throw and not merely knock it down.

Because of the way Pittsburgh went after the line of scrimmage, it meant a lot of man coverage. Cincinnati beat it easily, even with Ja’Marr Chase watching (and tweeting) from home. Guys like Trenton “The Crocodile Hunter” Irwin, Hayden Hurst, and of course Tee Higgins lost their markers all day. Meanwhile, Joe Mixon, fresh off a five-touchdown performance, was lost early to a concussion. Samaje Perine did what he does, filling in and ensuring the team didn’t miss a beat. Scoring on three touchdown receptions was beyond expectations, but Perine making winning plays was not.

Then there was the defense. Never-happy fans and local media concentrated on the first-half mistakes that allowed the Popgun Pickett offense to score 20 points. Yes, they were bad—that’s what happens when Chido Awuzie isn’t out there and a rookie (Cameron Taylor-Britt) who didn’t have any offseason due to injury is. Cincinnati will have to live with the mistakes, but CTB had some good plays, too, mostly blocker-shedding tackles. But it should be noted that without that pair of ridiculous third down defensive holding calls, the miscommunication that led to the easy TD pass caught by George Pickens (already attaining JuJu Smith-Schuster status as a black-and-gold devil) never happens. And if CTB doesn’t trip over the turf monster, Najee Harris doesn’t score on his dash around end.

More to the point, when the game was in the balance in the second half, Cincinnati’s D did what it has pretty much all season: stuff the opposition. Four straight three-and-outs (including one deep in Bengals terrain after the Watt pick). A complete neutering of Pickens. Making Pickett look like the rookie he is. Taking the boisterous crowd hoping to explode and making them murmur disconsolately instead. It was a virtuoso performance by Lou Anarumo and his guys.

And the kicking game, at last, was good! Drue Chrisman finally took over as punter and had an excellent game, despite the difficult conditions and pressure of his first opportunity in stripes. Meanwhile, Evan MacPherson made one of the best kicks you’ll ever see, given the circumstances, the 54-yarder that made it 27-23. Whatever they call Heinz Field now has always been a graveyard for field goal kickers, with the awful playing surface and the swirling winds and icy temperatures. Throw in distance, pressure, and the fact that Money Mac has been uncharacteristically struggling this season, and the fact he split the uprights was amazing. It didn’t quite make up for his misses in the opener against the Steelers, but it came close.

At 6-4, Cincinnati is back in the playoffs were they to start today. Of course, they do not, and now we begin the difficult schedule stretch we’ve all been dreading since it was revealed. Tennessee in Nashville is up this Sunday, the first of a grind that includes Kansas City, Buffalo, New England, Tampa Bay, and division games against Baltimore and Cleveland. If Cincinnati is to make a playoff push, they will have earned it and be battle-tested.

Like the Bengals, the Titans are better than they were a year ago despite the fact they were the No. 1 seed in the AFC. They currently sit 12th in DVOA and managed to survive an injury to starting quarterback Ryan Tannehill without giving ground in the AFC South. Mike Vrabel is by universal acclaim one of the league’s top coaches, a perception he encourages by wearing a tough guy sneer at all times. Derrick Henry, as usual, leads the league in rushing yards. And the Titans defense is sound despite not having many stars beyond defensive tackle Jeffrey Simmons.

We all remember the playoff game in Tennessee last year: the nine sacks, the three interceptions, and the 52-yard game-winning kick that instantly have gone into Bengals lore. This game figures to be more wide open, and the storyline nature of sports virtually guarantees that Tannehill will be much better than he was in January, a game that forced him into a “dark place” that required therapy. The Titans aren’t a high-scoring club at the best of times, but there is no doubt they’ll try to prove that the division round showing was an aberration.

Meanwhile, as I write this column, Chase is trending toward a return to action, Mixon says he is good to go (though that’s out of his hands a bit), and the offense is averaging 31 points per game over the last five contests. The play calling and execution at last seems to be cohering, and, given the talent, that means trouble for any opponent. With everyone expecting another 19-16 result, watch 31-28 happen instead.

Overall, it’s hard not to bullish about Cincinnati’s chances going forward, despite the tough slate of games ahead. The underlying stats remain that of a top team: sixth in point differential, 10th in DVOA, first in net Drive Success Rate, fourth in net Points Per Drive, top-five in penalty numbers and yards, and first in Red Zone TD Percentage.

And as Sunday proved yet again, there is nothing like going into a game knowing you have the better quarterback—in that case, by a large margin. Future contests with the Chiefs, Bills, Bucs, and Ravens will feature more even quarterback battles, but with Joey B. we’re never outmanned at the position. That makes being a fan so much less fraught.

This is the NFL, so it won’t be easy. But Burrow says we’re the big dogs, and who am I to disagree?

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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