I’m fascinated by the pennant race in the AFC North. Baltimore and Cincinnati are tied for the top spot at 8-4. The Ravens have the tiebreaker with a win over the Bengals in Week Five; they have a rematch at Cincinnati Week 18. Their comparative schedules give the Ravens a slight edge, mostly because Cincinnati has a dangerous Monday night game against Buffalo at home in Week 17.
Baltimore: at Pittsburgh, at Cleveland, Atlanta, Pittsburgh, at Cincinnati.
Cincinnati: Cleveland, at Tampa Bay, at New England, Buffalo, Baltimore.
But the quarterback gives the Bengals a big edge:
Baltimore: Lamar Jackson suffered a knee injury that will sideline him for an undetermined amount of time. Tyler Huntley, a nice backup, will hold the fort.
Cincinnati: Joe Burrow’s last seven weeks: 6-1, NFL-best 118.1 rating, 74.7 percent accuracy.
In the last two weeks, Burrow has beaten Tennessee and Kansas City in one-score games, playing his best when the best was required. The throw that blew me away watching the highlights of this game was a throw that was next-to-impossible to execute, at a time when the stakes of the game were high.
The situation: Cincinnati led 27-24 with 1:59 left in the game and had third-and-11 at the KC 28-. Kansas City had no timeouts left. If the Bengals converted here, they could run out the clock with two or three kneeldowns. If they were stopped here, Evan McPherson would be called on to try a field goal to stretch the lead to six points. So this third-down snap was everything.
Per NFL Next Gen Stats, here are the odds Burrow faced:
Next Gen had that Chris Jones, Mike Danna and Frank Clark all crossed the line of scrimmage faster than what’s considered the league’s above-average get-off time of .75 seconds. Danna, who came across in six-tenths of a second, was bearing down on Burrow as he readied to throw in a hurry.
The receiver, Tee Higgins, running a post route, never had more than two yards of separation from Kansas City cornerback Joshua Williams. Watching the replay, Williams looked like he was velcroed to Higgins.
Burrow threw the ball a split-second before getting hit by Danna. At the time of the throw, Williams was 18 inches from Higgins. In his shirt, in other words. When the ball gets to Higgins, he is contacted immediately (and maybe a tick before the ball gets there) by Williams. Burrow got hit. Higgins caught the ball. Gain of 14. Game over.
On 3rd & 11 with 1:59 left in regulation, Joe Burrow found Tee Higgins in a tight window for 14 yards and a first down, sealing a @Bengals win.
🔸 Time to Throw: 2.70 seconds
🔸 Burrow Under Pressure
🔸 Target Separation: 0.5 yards#KCvsCIN | #RuleTheJungle pic.twitter.com/PWMHBWokmr
— Next Gen Stats (@NextGenStats) December 5, 2022
“You know the quarterback they have over there,” Burrow said. “We can’t settle for a field goal there or else [Patrick Mahomes] goes down the field and wins the game. We had to find a way to get that conversion, and Tee Higgins made a big play, just like he did in the AFC Championship.”
A few things come to mind about this Cincinnati team:
The offensive line is better. Shredded last year in the playoffs and early this year while the group was getting experience together, the five men up front are giving Burrow championship protection. In the last four games, Burrow has been sacked five times—including one each by Tennessee and KC in the last two games. Those two teams bedeviled Burrow in the playoffs last year. The leadership of free-agent center Ted Karras has been important.
They’re superb when games are tight. I attribute much of this to Burrow, who has a cool gene, the way great ones in the clutch have had. Each of their three playoff wins last January was a one-score game; Cincinnati’s last three wins have come by 7, 4 and 3 over the Steelers, Titans and Chiefs. His throw to Higgins and his clinical explanation for it illustrate why he and Mahomes might be the two quarterbacks with the best clutch play late in games right now.
The defense is not just along for the ride. In the last four weeks, defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo’s unit has allowed an average of 318 yards with opposing passers completing just 60.1 percent. Mahomes was good Sunday (223 yards, one TD) but not dominant. Anarumo’s going to be a popular head-coach interview come the post-season for teams trying to figure how to beat Kansas City; he’s 3-0 against KC since January.
Even if the Bengals have to play road games through the playoffs, I doubt it’d bother them after winning in Nashville and Kansas City last year. That Week 18 game against the Ravens could determine everything, which is why I think it has the best chance of being game 272—the Sunday night game of the last weekend. It could have the most at stake of any final game. My money’s on Burrow if that happens.
Read more in Peter King’s full Football Morning in America column