The Sky’s the Limit for These Cincinnati Bengals

After whooping Baltimore last Sunday, Cincinnati has gone from an afterthought to being the top seed in the AFC. Who would ever have thought that could happen when the season began?

After many years of analyzing losses in this space, from the narrow to the grotesque, it is quite a refreshing change to write about what probably qualifies as the biggest win for the Bengals since at least the 16-10 win in Pittsburgh on Nov. 1, 2015.

Just shy of six seasons ago. So it’s been a while.

And Sunday’s 41-17 rout of Baltimore feels more important than that one in many ways, mainly as it represents what potentially could be the breakout moment in a year where the sky, quite suddenly, is the limit.

 

You don’t need me to remind you of all the great stuff—the humongous game from Ja’Marr The Unstoppable, Joe Burrow’s unflappable pocket presence and command, C.J. Uzomah’s second game-tilting downfield presence, dominance in the trenches, consistent walloping of Lamar Jackson, excellent downfield coverage, etc etc. By now you have all probably replayed the game down by down in your head about thirty times (or I am the only loon who does that?).

After waiting patiently for Cincy to turn in a complete team performance, even after last week’s trouncing of Detroit that felt great but less than what the team was capable of, the team played tremendous football on both sides of the ball against an opponent that has given them fits for several years. As was well-documented, including by me last week, the Bengals had never beaten Lamar Jax.

Now they have.

One key was the much-maligned interior of the offensive line having an exceptionally good game, with Jackson Carman trucking Brandon Williams—one of Baltimore’s best defenders—ten yards downfield on the final touchdown an unquestioned highlight.

Another highlight was Burrow’s casual but critical ability to climb and manipulate the pocket to find throwing lanes and those all-important tenths of a second to get the ball to a receiver. The first bomb to Uzomah was a jewel of an example. His play-action boot and climb was so smooth and efficient it was quite reminiscent (dare I even utter this comparison??) of Touchdown Tom Brady.

Cincy played virtually error-free. The first and only penalty didn’t come until a false start halfway through the fourth quarter, when the game was basically settled. The lone turnover came on a “Chase catches everything, try this one!” YOLO heave into the end zone by Burrow, a mistake that the defense, as so often has happened this season, erased by stopping the Ravens (down ten points at the time) on fourth down. The first half saw some ugly drives as communication issues on the o-line got worked out, but they solidified quickly up front.

The Bengals have gone from afterthought to somehow being the number one seed in the AFC. They have gone on the road and won by 23 and 24 points the last two weeks. They are 2-0 in the division. Their overall point differential is +61, second-best in the AFC and tied for fourth (with the Rams) in the entire league.

Perhaps most importantly, the likelihood of a postseason berth spiked after beating the first place team. At Football Outsiders we track playoff odds each week, and Cincy’s jumped 20.1 percent, all the way to 73.8 percent—in other words, the Bengals have a three in four chance of “making the tournament.” They have about a 34 percent crack at winning the AFC North, and a 14 percent chance to be the conference’s top seed, which, remember, now carries with it the lone bye in the year-old playoff format.

Allow me to stop for a moment and mention that all of this has been a joy to write so far…

Naturally, the til-now-ignored Bengals are now getting much love from the national punditry. The beaten-down Bengals fan in me thinks back to other times in recent history when the team has been hot (usually before Thanksgiving) and the syrupy plaudits rolled in, and cringes a bit. Prior teams either didn’t handle expectations well, or were immediately crushed by injuries. Thankfully, Burrow seems the type who is not just supremely confident but plays better as the stakes get higher, so I’m reasonably optimistic on that front.

The injuries, however…

It has to be noted that while Baltimore was fielding an already banged-up squad that lost its right tackle mid-game, the Bengals continue to ride a hot streak of injury luck—payback for the brutal times of the last few seasons, surely. Of the opening day starters the only one who didn’t play Sunday was right guard Xavier Sua-Filo, who we all wanted to be displaced by Carman anyway. Dealing with attrition and being healthy at the right time may not be everything in the NFL, but it is pretty close. Let’s knock that wood with everything in sight in hopes the core elements of the squad stay on the field and off the IR.

On to road game #3 in a row, and am I alone in wishing Cincy was getting the Chiefs or Browns or Chargers right now, instead of the lowly Jets? For all we know, this could be the high point of the campaign, and it would be nice if the scheduling gods could have positioned a scuffling playoff challenger to get whipped instead of a bottom-feeder the Bengals could probably beat at any point in the season.

Alas, Gang Green it is, and they are indeed rancid—dead last in overall DVOA, coming off an unwatchable 54-13 beatdown by New England, and down their starting quarterback, rookie Zach Wilson, out with a bad knee ligament (we sympathize around these parts, Jets fans). Mike White, fresh off his hit HBO series “White Lotus,” gets the start…(checks notes)…hang on, different Mike White, sorry. This one played okay when pressed into duty for the first time last Sunday, with 202 yards passing to go with a touchdown and two interceptions. The Jets also traded for old pal Joe Flacco as vet insurance, though he is unlikely to be active this Sunday.

Needless to say, this is a game the Bengals should not just win but cruise. Loathe as I am to tempt fate with that sort of analysis, it is hard to see a path to victory for the J-E-T-S. They have a decent if underperforming defensive front, and C.J. Mosely is a difference maker at linebacker, if healthy (he missed the Pats game with a bad hamstring, and as his doctor I recommend he take another week off). But in most areas, they are a train wreck.

Yes, the Jets did beat the Titans for their lone win, but there were extenuating circumstances, mainly Tennessee inexplicably throwing out a stink bomb of an effort that day. These things happen in the NFL (see Cincinnati, week two in Chicago), and it’s the main thing the Bengals have to worry about as they set their sights on bigger fish to fry down the road. Ideally, the Bengals win easily enough that for the third straight game, all on the road, Joey B. and the rest of the starters can take most of the fourth quarter off, with victory well in hand.

Who would ever have thought that could happen when the season began?

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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