The Bengals were competitive with Andy Dalton, but did the power teams of the AFC North ever really fear the Bengals of the past decade? No. How do you fear a team that never got out of the wild-card round of the playoffs? But 17 games into the Joe Burrow Era, you’d better have a healthy respect for the Bengals. They’re coming. They’re crashing a party a year or two before anyone thought they’d be joining it.
It’s because of one draft pick, one man. In the last month, Joe Burrow has walked into Heinz Field in Pittsburgh and walked out with a 24-10 win, and he has gone into M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore and emerged with a 41-17 pantsing of the Ravens.
There’s something about Burrow, something more than his ability to be this accurate at the highest level of the game this early in his career. I actually think it’s two things beyond his football IQ and ability that set him apart today, and will in the future—assuming he doesn’t get hit so much that it’ll impact his ability to be great for a long time. To explain, I want you to read two things Burrow said to me after the game in Baltimore.
I asked him if the very loud crowd early in Baltimore affected him, and whether playing in the deafeaning stadia of the SEC got him ready for this.
Burrow: “We knew that they were gonna be jacked up for us to come in, and expecting to beat our ass. But we were ready for it. Playing in the SEC definitely, definitely helped. Gets way louder in the SEC than in any of these NFL stadiums.”
Translation: You’re nuts if you think the noise bugged me even a bit today. You’re nuts if you think it bothers me any day.
I asked him if the Ravens surprised him much on defense. This, after Justin Herbert said he’d never seen much of the stuff the Ravens D did to him after Baltimore whacked the Chargers last week.
Burrow: “No. I knew exactly what to expect from the game. You gotta play physical against them, you gotta play intense against them. Otherwise they’re gonna drown you.”
Translation: I respect ‘em, but nobody’s ever gonna shock me on defense. I might get Apollo Creeded out there for four or five series, but I’ll always find a way.
As someone who knows Burrow better than I told me Sunday night, he’s a gym-rat savant. Nobody intimidates him, no defense surprises him. In the competitive world of the NFL, those are good traits to have. And those traits in the quarterback translate to a 5-2 record and first place in the AFC North. At 24, Burrow is going to be around for awhile, and as long as he’s around, the Steelers and the Ravens (and the Browns, now) can’t treat the Bengals like a Homecoming game anymore.
On the topic of the weirdness of the first seven weeks of this season, I called my old friend Brent Musburger, now the host and managing editor of Vegas Sports and Information Network. He’s got his finger on the pulse of the lines.
“If both teams were healthy, and the game was played on a neutral field, who’d be favored—Cincinnati or Kansas City?” I asked.
Pause. “If both teams were completely healthy, Cincinnati would be favored.”
That’s a wow, considering where we were on Labor Day, with KC favored to win the AFC and Cincinnati favored to be the AFC North’s bottom-feeder. “I’m not sure what surprises me more,” Musburger said. “The rise of the Bengals or the fall of the Chiefs.”
I’d vote for the fall of Kansas City, because I didn’t see KC’s offensive zits and defensive generosity. Plus, I knew the Bengals would have some great moments this year. If half of their free-agents on defense were even good (and the haul has turned out great so far), and if Burrow could stay healthy, I thought they’d be okay. Still fourth in the North, but I thought Burrow would be the modern-day Dan Fouts, and a fearless and explosive quarterback is always going to win some big games. Now, after seven weeks, it’s clear I underestimated them. The Bengals might not beat Tampa or Arizona right now, but they’d be competitive with them.
Sunday was the perfect game to show how far the Bengals have come since they drafted Burrow. They were okay last year before Burrow tore his ACL in the 10th game of the season. This year, with Burrow healthy and off to a strong start, explosive rookie wideout Ja’Marr Chase taking the league by storm and six free-agents starting on defense, the trip to Baltimore was the acid test. Were the Bengals ready for prime time? (Not that it mattered; Cincinnati wasn’t scheduled for a prime-time game in the last 14 weeks of the season.)
In the first four series, Cincinnati went punt-FG-punt-punt, and Burrow was getting whomped. He likes to take his chances with empty backfields, figuring he can find a receiver before he gets hit. “What Baltimore does on defense,” he said from the Cincinnati locker room, “is they put you in one-on-one situations. They say their guys are better than our guys. At the beginning, they were winning those matchups and playing really well. We just kept putting our guys in positions we knew they could win, and we started making those plays. When we started making a few those plays, they got out of that zero blitz, blitzing every snap. Eventually, we got back into the normal flow of our offense.”
There was a play just before halftime that said so much. The Bengals were driving in the final seconds, and Chase was one-on-one on Marlon Humphrey. That’s a battle the Ravens need Humphrey to win—their best against the Bengals’ best. But Chase, running a medium in-cut from the left, left Humphrey in the dust, his cut sharp and perfect. The pass was spot-on, and Chase gained 26. Just as important was Humphrey’s body language. He stopped and stared at the sky, as if to say, How can I stop these guys? A field goal gave the Bengals a 13-10 lead at the half. That play was an omen—a bad one for Baltimore.
Midway through the third quarter Cincinnati led 20-17. The Bengals were backed up at their 18, third-and-two. On the right of the formation, Chase was singled, again, with Humphrey. “I mean, he’s the best corner in the league,” Burrow said. “They can play zero blitz with him and be comfortable because he’s so good one-on-one.”
On this play, the decisive one in the game, the precocious greatness of Burrow and Chase shone through. Burrow told NFL Network’s Aditi Kinkhabwala post-game that his chemistry with his former LSU teammate wasn’t complicated. “It takes reps and reps and reps,” Burrow said. As Chase left the line, he ran right away into a joust with Humphrey, at the 20-yard line. But even as he quick-twitched to try to get off Humphrey’s jam, Burrow cocked his arm and prepared to throw.
Burrow just knew, on a vital third-and-two in crunch time, that Chase would win.
Burrow, in his 17th NFL game. Chase, in his seventh. Humphrey, in his 68th.
Chase got inside the jam of Humphrey, put his right foot in the ground and burst toward his left, right where he knew Burrow would throw it. From the 10, Burrow zipped one a foot behind Chase, who now had a step on Humphrey, at the 24. Problem: Four Ravens were in a box around Chase. He had the first down, which was great. But could he get more? Safety DeShon Elliott lunged at Chase, had an arm around this legs but couldn’t finish the job at the 28; two yards later, Humphrey turned Chase around and it looked like he’d fall, but somehow he stayed upright and headed downfield, and safety Chuck Clark and linebacker Justin Houston were in hot pursuit and . . .
“AND THERE HE GOES!” Kevin Harlan yelled on CBS. “HE HAD ‘EM IN A BLENDER AND HE’S OFF TO THE RACES! THIS WILL BE SIX!!”
One move and Ja’Marr Chase was GONE 💨
— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) October 24, 2021
Think of the hours and the routes Burrow threw with Chase to make that 82-yard touchdown happen. I’m reminded of the slick comeback routes to Chris Hogan and Malcolm Mitchell that Tom Brady threw in the biggest comeback in Super Bowl history—the routes where the receiver would sprint 18 yards downfield, suddenly put his foot in the ground and turn back three yards. Brady would throw to the 15-yard spot, even though he’d release the ball long before the receiver got there. There was a trust between Brady and the receivers. “That’s because of 111 practices we had,” Brady said. “Practices, films, meetings. Like clockwork.” Same thing here, just not quite as dramatic. Burrow threw to the spot he trusted Chase would be. It’s just part of the whole for Burrow—feeling out the opponent early, making sure you don’t make the big error early so you’ll still be in the game late, and then, when it matters, finding your most trusted receiver in the big moment.
“I knew exactly what was gonna happen coming in, where I was gonna take hits and I was gonna have to keep coming back. That’s exactly what we did. That’s exactly what I did, just stay patient and hang in. And that’s why we won the game,” Burrow told me.
Burrow and Chase live three houses apart in Cincinnati, and they’ve stayed close since being teammates at LSU in 2019. Burrow said he never felt a need to talk to Chase about his spate of drops this summer. When I asked about it, Burrow gave a derisive chuckle. “No, I never said anything to him,” Burrow said. “I knew exactly what would happen come Sunday. He’d show up and do exactly what he does. And he’s done that.” Has he ever. Chase has more yards after seven games, 754, than any receiver in NFL history.
In his own sort of aloof way, Burrow was excited an hour after the biggest win of his young career. But nothing is forever in football. He knew the wins over Pittsburgh and Baltimore, on the road, were huge building blocks. But that’s what they are. They’re points of progress on the road to being great. These Bengals have miles to go before they sleep. But at least they know they’ve got the guy to get them there.
“We know exactly what the future holds,” Burrow said. “We’re gonna have to come back and beat both these guys again, play them on our home turf. They’ll be excited to come in and try to end our season early. We’re gonna have to keep getting better each week. I know it sounds cliché but we really just gotta keep getting better.
“The one thing I know about the NFL is how good these teams are. Baltimore’s a really, really good team. They’ll come back with vengeance the next time we play them. Today was very exciting for us. It’s exciting that the preparation that we put in all offseason and this week showed up on the field. Five and two’s good, but it’s 5-2.”
Better than 2-5. Too often in Bengaldom—Boomer Esiason’s word for the wacky world of this franchise’s history—things go wrong when the pressure gets heavy. It got heavy in the first half in Baltimore, and Burrow will wake up sore because of those first four mostly fruitless and punishing drives this morning. But great players walk into loud stadiums and have hardships against very good teams, and great players find a way to beat those odds and survive and win. Burrow’s steely mentality and his right arm are putting him on the path to greatness. I wouldn’t bet against him.