Bengals head coach Zac Taylor and a banged-up captain named Sam Hubbard are all in for Sunday's regular-season finale against Cleveland (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Local 12) at Paycor Stadium.
"Our No. 1 objective is to win this game by any means necessary. However that looks is however it looks," said Taylor Monday as he mapped out plans for the 8-8 Bengals against an 11-5 Browns team locked into the fifth seed. "The fans that have continued to support us and cheer for this team and put their heart and soul into supporting us, get a chance to watch us play hard in a home game and find a way to win."
It's the first game in two years that doesn't impact their bid for the playoffs or their seeding. Browns head coach Kevin Stefanski didn't say Monday who he will or won't play.
"The encouraging thing is you sit here. You're out of playoff contention, obviously," said Taylor, who sat most of his regulars in the 2021 finale in Cleveland after clinching the AFC North the week before.
"But you think through the roster, and (you go), 'OK, is there anybody that you worry about now?' We've got a roster of guys that I know are going to put their best effort forth all week in practice and in the game. So we're going to have a great plan. We're doing everything we can to win this game and end the season on a high note."
He's talking about guys like the six-year veteran Hubbard, a face of the franchise who admitted in Sunday's postgame that he needs undisclosed offseason surgery. But he's going.
"Didn't think twice about it. I came this far, I'm playing. I'm finishing the year strong. I wouldn't have it any other way," Hubbard said Monday. "I wouldn't leave my guys hanging. I love being out there. I told them today I'm going to be with them."
Hubbard is thinking back to 2019, his second season in the league when the Bengals beat the Browns in the finale at Paycor to get their first division win.
Or, others can think back to another season with a backup quarterback. Pinch-hitting for Carson Palmer, Ryan Fitzpatrick negotiated a 4-31 finish to the 2008 season that included a win in Cleveland to go 1-5 in the division before coming home to end the year with a win over Kansas City to set the table for a division sweep and the 2009 AFC North title.
They haven't gone winless in the division since the first year of the North in 2002 and a division win means something.
"We want that, too. Especially against a rival like the Browns," Hubbard said. "It's a great opportunity to finish on a high note. I know we finished 2019 with a home win against the Browns. We were 2-14 that year, but it was really good for momentum coming into the offseason."
And 9-8 is better than ….
"It's better than the alternative," Taylor said.
INJURY UPDATE: Wide receivers Ja'Marr Chase (shoulder) and Tee Higgins (hamstring) finished Sunday's game in Kansas City less than 100%. Chase said he thought he'd probably play this Sunday (he's four from 100 catches and three yards from 1,200), but Taylor had nothing definitive.
(Running back Joe Mixon, by the way, is 77 yards from his fourth 1,000-yard season.
"We're very early in the process of guys still in the training room and all of that," Taylor said. "We'll let the next 48 hours take shape and when we get to Wednesday, maybe we'll have a better idea of where guys are at with practice."
Taylor doesn't feel like there's a need to press young players into the game to see what they can do. Of the eight players in the 2023 draft class, five of them have played at least 215 snaps from scrimmage and special teams combined.
When it comes to two others, punter Brad Robbins and punt returner Charlie Jones, they've been the starters. The eighth draft pick, seventh-rounder DJ Ivey, had a combined 134 snaps before tearing his ACL two weeks ago.
"These guys have played a lot for us," Taylor said. "A lot of those guys play significant roles for us. It's not like there are a lot of guys out there who haven't done anything for us."
TREY TITLE? Heading into the finale, Trey Hendrickson is tied with the Steelers' TJ Watt for the NFL sack title with 17 as he bids to become the first Bengal to claim an official NFL sack title. In 1976, six years before sacks were an official stat, the Bengals' Coy Bacon led the league with 22. It would also be the Bengals' first NFL title since 2019, when safety Brandon Wilson led the NFL in kick returns.
"It has been a historic year. The work that he's put in to put himself in that position and the attention he can draw and still defeat a lot of those looks," Taylor said. "We've talked about this over years past. Even when he's not getting the sack, just the feel and attention he draws is critical."
Hendrickson politely declined to talk Monday. Here's a guy that is missing the playoffs for the first time in his seven NFL seasons and that clearly is bugging him more than the title. He's got at least one sack in seven straight games and at least a half in eight straight. But it's hard to impress him. He had nine straight games with at least one sack and 11 straight with at least half a sack in 2021.
GROUNDING THE FLAG: It was unanimous. Everywhere from the CBS-TV booth to the coaches' booth to the press box. The Bengals were the victims of a horrific intentional grounding call on quarterback Jake Browning on first down from their own 25 needing a field goal to tie. Browning's arm was clearly hit as he threw and Mixon was clearly in the vicinity. The drive died and the Chiefs used the field position to get another field goal.
"The guy I was yelling at the most had the least to do with the play," Taylor said. "It's on the other sideline. I've only got one guy I can talk to. He didn't call it. It's difficult."
NO BROTHERLY SHOVE: Bengals safety Dax Hill was getting ready for his own game Sunday, but he did catch snippets of what his brother was doing for the Ravens. Running back Justice Hill ended up with 46 yards on three carries and caught a 20-yard touchdown pass that tied the game at seven and ignited the rout of the Dolphins that cemented Baltimore as the top seed.
"I saw some highlights," Dax Hill said Monday. "It's hard. It's an AFC opponent, but I always root for my brother. Always root for family."
Maybe not the team, but Justice. With the Bengals out, Dax thinks the Ravens have a great chance to get to the Super Bowl. He thinks Dallas could meet them. If his brother goes, he plans to attend.