After yet another gritty, impressive victory, a Cincinnati Bengals playoff appearance is all but locked up. Before the year, as the Bengals were facing a daunting first-place schedule, many fans and analysts believed that 10 wins were going to be the goal for the reigning AFC Champions. With three games to go, Cincinnati has already done it.
Thanks to a Cleveland Browns win over the Baltimore Ravens, the 10-4 Bengals sit atop the AFC North all by themselves, still controlling their own destiny in the division with that Week 18 matchup vs the Ravens looming.
A Cincinnati Bengals Playoff Berth is all Wrapped up and Under the Tree
A Passing of the Torch
Much has been said already about how poor Joe Burrow‘s play was at the beginning of the season. He was taking too many sacks (again), he was turning it over (still), and just was not playing his best. However, since that 0-2 start, Joe Burrow has been as good as any quarterback in the NFL and is actively pushing Jalen Hurts and company for the MVP.
Seasons with 30+ passing TDs by a Bengals QB
Joe Burrow 2
Every other Bengals QB 2 pic.twitter.com/4UQXf4uT6b
— CBS Sports (@CBSSports) December 19, 2022
His day started off rough with yet another tipped-pass interception, his first against a non-AFC North squad. All in all, Burrow’s stats don’t jump off the page, for the most part. He went 27/39 for 200 yards and four touchdowns. Those 200 yards are the second-fewest from Burrow on the year (199 vs Dallas in Week 2). Now, not all stats are created equal; Burrow started four consecutive drives in Buccaneers territory, including two in the Red Zone thanks to the Bengals defense. This was the first time that each of the Three Amigos (Ja’Marr Chase, Tee Higgins, Tyler Boyd) each scored in the same game.
Despite falling into a 17-0 hole to Tom Brady, Burrow never flinched and never wavered. Statistically, Brady out-played Burrow. Fortunately for the Bengals and Burrow, games are not played on stat sheets and Brady was not quite good enough on this day to secure the win.
It’s apparent that the GOAT is on the downswing of his career but any victory over someone with his accolades is always sweet. There have been plenty of comparisons of Burrow to Brady over the last few years, for better or worse. Seven Super Bowls in 10 tries would be welcome in Cincinnati. Even one or two more Super Bowls would just add to Burrow’s already-stacked resume.
A Seriously Battered Defense
Injuries are just another part of the game. Sometimes, teams get fantastic injury luck. Other times, practice squad players like Allen George have to step up in crucial situations. If a list was drafted ranking the most important Bengals defenders, D.J. Reader, Chidobe Awuzie, Trey Hendrickson, and Sam Hubbard would be towards the top. Each has (or will) missed time this year with Hubbard joining the group.
Awuzie has been lost to a torn ACL for a few weeks now, opening the door for more big-time play for Eli Apple and second-round rookie, Cam Taylor-Britt. Apple is still Apple: decent play with the occasional massive blunder. Taylor-Britt has been quite solid all around. He’s given up his fair share of plays as a rookie, but he’s not afraid to hit anyone and was in on a number of plays on Sunday. Add his name to the list of banged-up players, though he will play in Week 16.
Bengals "2nd half defense" –
TDs allowed: 11, 2nd in the NFL
Yards/play: 4.97, 6th
Yards/carry: 3.8, 4th
Yards/attempt: 6.1, 12th
QB rating: 75.8, 3rd
1st downs: 110, t-5th
TDs: 15, 12th
Y/play: 5.8, 24th
Y/c: 4.6, 19th
Y/a: 7, 20th
QBrt: 87.7, 13th
1sts: 129, 21st
— Jake Liscow (@JakeLiscow) December 19, 2022
Of late, Logan Wilson has been on a tear. In the last two games, Wilson has accounted for 32 tackles, 1.5 sacks, and three QB hits. The third-year linebacker has only gotten better with each passing game and has been one of the best defenders. His play has been massive for both this and last year’s Bengals playoff pushes. His partner in crime has also been playing out of his mind in a contract year. Germaine Pratt is having a career year and will earn that second contract. Already, Pratt has career-bests in tackles, TFLs, sacks, and interceptions.
In front of them has been the most underrated defensive tackle in the NFL, D.J. Reader. Reader has been a massive force in the run defense. When he was off the field, there was a noticeable step back. On Sunday, he only posted three tackles, but he affects the game in ways that don’t show up on the stat sheet which includes being in the right place to recover the Leonard Fournette fumble. Moving forward, Reader is going to be massive in the Bengals playoff run to get back to the Super Bowl.
The Road Ahead
The second half of the Bengals schedule was viewed as significantly more difficult than the first. And yet, Cincinnati has rattled off six straight wins, good for the second-longest active streak (49ers, seven). At 10-4, a Bengals playoff appearance is all but secured with three games to go.
In Week 16, Cincinnati travels to New England on Christmas Eve for their final road game of the regular season. The Patriots are coming off of an inexplicable loss to the Las Vegas Raiders and are a bit of a mess, a rarity from a Bill Belichick team. New England is sitting at 7-7 and in the hunt for the playoffs themselves. They’ve lost three of their last four in what is an objectively difficult stretch facing the Jets, Vikings, Bills, Cardinals, Raiders, Bengals, Dolphins, and Bills again.
Following that, Cincinnati is back home on Monday Night against the current one-seed, Buffalo Bills. The Bills have looked like the cream of the crop of the AFC all year and will be a bit more difficult to beat. Josh Allen continues to play at a high level and will even show up on some MVP ballots. Stefon Diggs will be a massive test for Apple or Taylor-Britt. Defensively, the Bills are at least better than average and, objectively, better than the Bengals over the course of the year.
Finally, Week 18. Baltimore Ravens at Paycor Stadium in Cincinnati. More than likely, this game will decide the AFC North as Cincinnati would have to win the next two and Baltimore would also have to lose once to either Atlanta or Pittsburgh. They’ve faltered a bit due to the injury to Lamar Jackson but, hopefully for the Ravens, he will be good to go by then. Baltimore can clinch a playoff spot in Week 16 with a win, a Jets loss, and a Patriots loss, so there will be a little cognitive dissonance in Baltimore.
Last year, the Bengals were 8-6 at this point in the year and needed two more weeks to clinch a playoff spot and a divisional title. This year, not so much.
At 10-4, Cincinnati is in full control of its destiny for the division and is a Kansas City loss away from controlling its path to the top seed. Despite being counted out early with memes and trolls, the Bengals are doing their best to dispell the Super Bowl loser hangover that has plagued NFL franchises for decades.
The clinching scenario for the Bengals is:
New York Jets loss (to the Jaguars on Thursday Night)
No matter which scenario occurs, there is a very real possibility that Bengals fans get to wake up on Christmas morning knowing their team is heading back to the playoffs. No one-hit wonder here, the Cincinnati Bengals playoff journey is just beginning. Cincinnati got to five straight with Andy Dalton, imagine what they could do with Burrow.