With five games to go, the Cincinnati Bengals playoff hopes hinge on beating a handful of solid teams. With recent performances against the Steelers, Raiders, and Chargers, there have been plenty of reasons for the Bengals faithful to be optimistic. At the same time, there are a few reasons to be concerned.
On Sunday, the Bengals dropped a crucial match against fellow playoff-hopeful Los Angeles Chargers. Thanks to a bit of chaos elsewhere, Cincinnati’s seeding dropped from five to six, still in the driver’s seat to make the postseason
Cincinnati Bengals Playoff Hopes Riding High Despite Loss
The ceiling for the 2021 edition of the Bengals is as high as any. At the same time, the floor is just as low as any. With games against the 49ers, Broncos, Ravens, Chiefs, and Browns, Cincinnati can just as feasibly win all five as they can lose all five. Let’s look at a pair of reasons for the black and orange to believe they can have higher aspirations to start, then focus on the negatives.
The Bengals trio of Tee Higgins, Tyler Boyd, and Ja’Marr Chase is among the best in the NFL. The beginning of the season saw Chase get off to a ridiculous start. He has since cooled off, mostly due to opponents focusing on stopping the rookie. Boyd has proven to be one of the best slot receivers in the league, so the proper respect has not been given to Higgins.
In the last two games, Higgins has reeled in 15 receptions off of 22 targets for 252 yards and two touchdowns. The respect defenses have for Chase’s hot start has paved the way for Higgins. Of of the fastest-rising personalities within Bengals fandom, Mike (Sans) Santagata, perfectly articulated just what happened during Higgins’ career day against the Chargers.
In passing situations, defenses tend to shadow Chase’s side of the field, so this opens up opportunities for Higgins to get open. This was obvious with Higgins’ touchdown. Cincinnati loves to use the 989 route concept; that is to say, the three receivers run a go, post, and go route, respectively. In this instance, if the safety had not cheated the way of Chase, he would have been in a great position to at the very least defend the pass. Instead, Burrow put the ball where only Higgins’ 6’4″ frame could go up and get it.
Moving forward, Higgins and the Bengals offense will face off against the third, 10th, 24th, 30th, and seventh-ranked pass defenses in that order. Plenty of opportunities for the Bengals to eat up yardage and make plays. It should also be noted that the Ravens (24th-ranked) are going to be without Marlon Humphries moving forward. He didn’t help them in the first matchup of these two so that 41-17 win could just be the beginning.
Defense is back
The Cincinnati Bengals playoff hopes may not fully hinge on the play of its defense, but it has certainly been helping. To date, Cincinnati had allowed over 400 yards of offense three times. If one solely looks at box scores, the 41 points given up to the Chargers would be raising eyebrows. There’s more to that story.
To start, one of the touchdowns given up was a scoop-and-score. So, now the defensive total given up is 34. 34-22 isn’t as bad. It’s not great, but it’s better.
Now, let’s talk about the offense putting the defense behind the eight-ball. The Chargers had a total of 13 drives on the day. Seven drives started inside the Chargers 40, six drives were short fields via turnovers or special teams.
On those seven drives, the Chargers scored seven points. Three drives ended with punts, two were fumbled away, one resulted in a ridiculous Chidobe Awuzie interception, and one touchdown. That one touchdown was off of that Burrow-to-Chase should-have-been-touchdown that bounced inexplicably off Chase’s hands in right into the trailing corner. That play and subsequent drive was a massive 14-point swing because if Chase secures the pass, he’s in the endzone untouched.
On those six short-field drives, the Chargers scored 27 points. Five of those drives resulted in points via three touchdowns and two field goals. Only one punt was forced. Of course, as the saying goes, “if ifs and buts were candies and nuts, we’d all have a Merry Christmas.” The game is won and lost on the field, but the defense is not totally to blame.
This week, it’s possible that the Bengals get Trae Waynes back from IR, possibly to replace Awuzie who injured himself on that interception where the officials let the play ride out. Unfortunately, Logan Wilson will be lost for at least a few weeks to heal from a dislocated shoulder.
What may be flying under the radar is the fact that since the bye, the Bengals have forced eight turnovers. This defense has kept the Bengals in all three games and will likely be the reason Cincinnati is battling for not only a playoff berth, but the whole AFC North division.
Reasons for concern
Not everything is peachy in Cincinnati, of course. The aforementioned injury to Wilson is massive. The only reason he got injured was that he was taking Marcus Bailey’s position on special teams due to his own injury. Center Trey Hopkins and right tackle Riley Reiff missed the Chargers game and are still banged up. Awuzie left the game, as mentioned above. Finally, Burrow dislocated his pinkie finger on the fifth play of the game on a strip-sack.
Another cause for concern is the offensive turnovers. Burrow threw two interceptions on Sunday – of course, only one of those was truly his fault. Regardless, Joe Mixon‘s uncharacteristic fumble that turned into a Chargers defensive score killed any and all momentum they were building. At the time, Cincinnati was down only two and, considering how the offense was playing to that point, would have resulted in at least a field goal attempt.
There are no excuses. The Bengals made way too many mistakes and Burrow’s finger was an obvious hindrance.
Five games remain. The 7-5 Cincinnati Bengals playoff lives hang in the balance. The AFC and the AFC North are wide open. Earn three wins from the final five games and the Bengals are going to find themselves playing well into January.
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