CINCINNATI — “That was a damn playoff game out there,” said George Kittle, still fired up in his John Lennon yellow-tinted sunglasses, in the tunnel of Paul Brown Stadium on Sunday night, an hour after Niners 26, Bengals 23. Overtime.
“I mean, every game’s a playoff game these days, right?” he said.
We’re in the final month of the NFL’s 102nd season, and it feels like the game has never been closer. Or wackier. Five teams in the AFC: 7-6. Five teams in the NFC: 6-7. Twenty-four of the 32 teams in pro football have at least six wins and are legitimately still in the playoff race.
I came here to see the perfect metaphor for the 2021 NFL season. The Bengals and Niners were hot, then both slipped on banana peels last week, and both came into this game in prime playoff shape. The Bengals, through 12 games, were in the AFC playoffs and the 49ers just out of the NFC playoffs. Exiting this game, through 14 weeks, the Bengals were out and the 49ers in. It’s like the weather here. Howling winds and driving rain at 10:30 a.m. Saturday, clear and breezy by noon.
Too early to say if it’s a trend or if it’s a coincidence, this NFL egalitarianism. But it’s fun to ride the roller coaster with teams that are extremely close in talent and performance and ability.
This is what happened Sunday: The Bengals muffed two punts and a kickoff in the first half and the Niners turned them into 10 points and took a 17-6 halftime lead. It was 20-6 with 12 minutes left in the fourth quarter, and the Cincinnati quarterback turned into Machine Gun Burrow. First, a 66-yard drive ending with his favorite throw ever to Ja’Marr Chase trolling the back line of the end zone, maybe one blade of fake green grass between his foot and the boundary. Then, an 87-yard drive ending with a Chase double-move for a 32-yard TD at the right pylon. Tie ballgame. Niners frantically tried for the winning points in the final minute, and Kittle climbed the ladder for one of the great catches of his life, like he was skying for a rebound against LeBron James, and the Niners lined up Robbie Gould for the winning field goal. Wide right. Pffffft. Air out of the Niners balloon.
Overtime: Burrow was scalding hot, and Zac Taylor, once in field-goal range, called two straight Joe Mixon runs (for seven yards total), and then Burrow was sacked and Cincinnati settled for a field goal. “That’s one that’ll keep you up at night,” Taylor said, meaning he wishes he put the ball in Burrow’s hands on at least one of the runs. The Niners, with three more big throws to Kittle (Will someone please cover the guy?), and then a pylon-scraping, replay-reviewed Brandon Aiyuk catch that turned into the walkoff TD.
“Coach!” Deebo Samuel told Kyle Shanahan during the review. “It’s a touchdown! Celebrate!”
“No way,” Shahanan said. “Not celebrating till they call it a touchdown.”
Ref Craig Wrolstad did. The game was won by the scraping of a pylon. So fitting for these teams, in this season.
BRANDON AIYUK WALKS IT OFF IN OVERTIME
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) December 13, 2021
The Bengals may have won it with one more called Burrow pass in overtime. The Niners could have won it if a Gould kick floated 20 inches to the left. The Bengals would have won it if their returners could catch. Ifs, buts and so on. The Bengals, 7-6, slunk out of the stadium Sunday night. The 49ers, 7-6, levitated out of it.
On Saturday, Bengals coach Zac Taylor sat in a new conference room at Paul Brown Stadium. “First time I’ve been in here,” Taylor said, and he appreciated the history lessons that filled the room. On one wall is an image of Bengals founder Paul Brown, the NFL coach Bill Belichick most looks up to. Brown brought the NFL to Cincinnati in 1968, and every coach who guides the franchise feels his influence. As one of them, Sam Wyche, used to say, “Working in Paul Brown’s organization is like living next to a library. I’d be a fool if I didn’t check out the books.”
THE ONLY THING THAT COUNTS IS THE DEDICATION YOU GIVE, one of Brown’s sayings. It defined his ethos.
That’s the kind of ethos Taylor wants his players to have too. He can hear about it all day from Paul Brown’s son, Mike, the current owner and steward of the franchise. Last week, when the coaching staff was down after the loss to the Chargers, Mike Brown said something his dad probably would have said. Taylor recalls: “His point to us was basically, We’ve done a lot of good to put ourselves in this position. Let’s not forget about the good things we’ve done.” Taylor loved it, because it’s true. “As I’ve told the players,” Taylor said, “we’re not counting on anyone else. We’re counting on ourselves. And that’s a good position to be in.”
In this game, Taylor’s excited—but he also has some trepidation, because of the injury to quarterback Joe Burrow’s throwing-hand pinky last week. “He doesn’t give a lot of information,” Taylor said. Even to his coach. That’s how Burrow is. He won’t tell anyone anything about any sort of limitation he’d have. Interestingly, he and Taylor did agree entering this game to eliminate one challenging throw from the game plan—apparently because Burrow wouldn’t be comfortable making the throw. Other than that, Taylor plans to call plays for Burrow the same as always, unless he sees Burrow struggling to throw it.
The Bengals changed when they drafted Joe Burrow. Period. “He’s really, really good,” Kyle Shanahan told me over the weekend. “I was pretty restless after our loss at Seattle last week, so when I got home Sunday night I couldn’t sleep. I threw on the Chargers-Bengals game from that day. That definitely didn’t help me sleep. He’s so good, and those three receivers. Scary.”
People around the league, many of them, view the Bengals as a mysterious, non-progressive franchise sometimes. Hard to trade with, inflexible with their beliefs in merging coaches with the scouting process. But not long after Robert Kraft bought the Patriots, he had dinner one night with Mike Brown and asked him what were the biggest keys to building a winning franchise. The quarterback and the coach, Brown told him.
The Bengals have had their share of good passers. Kenny Anderson, Boomer Esiason, Carson Palmer, plus Andy Dalton had much regular-season success. When they sat with the first overall pick in 2020, there was no question they’d take Burrow. Last week, I asked Brown about the rumors that Miami either offered five first-round picks or would have done so to get Burrow. Brown told me: “It would not have mattered what the price someone offered was. We were sure about him, and we weren’t trading the pick.”
Said Brown: “He has an intense focus. He grasps all the material quickly. He is always poised. He is never scared. No one here—no one—thinks of challenging him when he’s got a conviction. We really like him.”
Sunday was a perfect example of what Burrow means to this franchise. He is the rising tide that lifts all boats. He is the reason the Bengals have more than a puncher’s chance to be a playoff team. Five minutes into the fourth quarter, this game looked lost. There was 9:29 left in the fourth quarter, Cincinnati was down 20-6, and the Bengals had fourth-and-five at the Niners’ 17-yard line. Burrow got some heavy pressure, and he circled back to the right—scramble drill—and while Chase trolled the back of the end zone, running left, Burrow threw it behind him—to the right.
“While I was still running left, he threw to the right, and I wasn’t sure why he would do that,” Chase said. “But he said it was because of the way the defender would have to turn his hips to get to the ball. I thought, ‘That’s kind of smart.’ “
Burrow said, “He did a great of adjusting to the ball in the air. I know exactly what he was seeing and he knew exactly what I was seeing. He put his foot in the ground and went and got it.”
Chase got another one to tie the game late. Although Burrow was under siege for much of the game—his old friend from Ohio State, Nick Bosa, sacked him twice and pressured him four more times—he hung in and hung in like great quarterbacks do. Burrow will be special, and for a long time. The fourth quarter, over and over, proved that. As Shanahan told me post-game, “We didn’t want Burrow to have the ball at the end of the fourth quarter, or at the end of overtime. He’s just too dangerous.”
“The Bengals,” said Kittle, “are pretty good at football now.”
But the 49ers had a hot quarterback of their own. Who thought San Francisco would be on a 4-1 run this late in the season, and the quarterback leading the Niners to scoring 29 points a game in this hot run would be the embattled Garoppolo? He’s kept young phenom Trey Lance on the bench for 63 days—that’s how long it’s been since Lance threw a pass—and Garoppolo showed why in the overtime period Sunday. He was six for six for 73 yards and the decisive Brandon Aiyuk touchdown.
I’m told the Niners have not made up their minds, at all, about how to handle their quarterback situation in 2022 and beyond. They shouldn’t be. How do you know how Garoppolo will play down the stretch, and into a playoff run if that’s the fate of this season? I’m also told the Niners have been impressed, with Garoppolo’s career on the line, with how he’s handled this weird year, with Lance being the third pick in the draft and with Garoppolo expected to just handle things like a pro. He has.
“Jimmy’s one of my favorite people that I’ve ever coached,” Shanahan said. “He’s a hell of a dude. He’s not trying to hide anything. I also don’t want to downplay it and say this whole situation is just not a big deal. It’s a huge deal. Really hard on him. But he came in with the right mindset all the way back in OTAs. He hasn’t gotten sideways at all through any of it. No matter what he hears, he’s been the exact same guy I’ve known the four years prior, and that’s given us a chance to fight through this year. It’s given us the chance to be at where we’re at right now.”
If you do a balance sheet of both teams, they’re pretty close. The Cincinnati special teams killed them Sunday, the way the Niners’ kicking game killed them last week on the fake-punt run for a touchdown in Seattle. The Bengals have a deep defensive front (assuming Trey Hendrickson’s back injury is fleeting, as it seemed Sunday night), but the Niners have the resurgent Bosa on a deep front too. Both secondaries are suspect. Both lines can be penetrated. As for the skill positions, give me Burrow over Garoppolo, give me Joe Mixon over the Niners’ backfield (though I do love Elijah Mitchell, due back next week if his concussion symptoms abate), and give me the Cincinnati receivers—though Deebo Samuel and Aiyuk are legitimate explosive players. The Bengals are just deeper.
Maybe that leaves Kittle over the underrated C.J. Uzomah. Kittle (last two games: 22 catches, 332 yards, three TDs) has a big edge there, as he showed Sunday. One catch that went unnoticed was particularly impressive, I thought. On third-and-five from the Cincinnati 21-yard line late in OT, Kittle and Samuel ran twin incuts designed to get the first down. Garoppolo looked at Kittle instantly, and Kittle got into a defensive, almost-fetal position against the Bengals DB, and Garoppolo hit him for a first down. “Jimmy gave me a perfect ball where I could slide, and avoid the big hit from the safety,” Kittle said.
Then Aiyuk scored and the Niners could breathe. Looking at each team’s fate down the stretch:
- San Francisco has Atlanta and Houston at home, Tennessee and the Rams on the road. The Niners are very likely in if they go 3-1, and on the edge of a cliff if they go 2-2.
- Cincinnati has the more challenging slate: at Denver, Baltimore, Kansas City, at Cleveland.
No one knows, which is good for the game. You don’t want to know who’s winning every game when you wake up Sunday morning, do you?
“It’s way more fun,” Kittle said, “when you’re playing playoff games in December. Don’t you love it? The game’s more fun, right?”