SANTA CLARA, Calif. _ Bengals running back Joe Mixon, who grew up about 90 minutes away from here in Oakley, knows all about the great 49ers, especially Hall of Fame quarterback Joe Montana.
After watching his quarterback sift the modern-day 49ers on a stone-cold 88% day Joe Burrow threw 32 passes in a 31-17 power play move on the perennial NFC favorite 49ers, Mixon was told Burrow, the new Joe Cool, bore a strong resemblance to the old Joe Cool.
"Damn right he did," said Mixon, who helped him out with a season-best 87 yards on 5.4 per carry.
Across the locker room, left tackle Orlando Brown was saying the same thing.
"Yeah. He looked like himself. That's who he is," said Brown, who teamed with right tackle Jonah Williams to throw a two-hitter at Burrow's buddy Nick Bosa. "That's why I've got so much respect for him. "He keeps playing hard. He never gives in."
Williams, another Bay Area kid, mulled the numbers. He marveled at the 19 straight passes Burrow hit at the end of the first half, one shy of the 40-year-old Bengals record set by Ken Anderson, the first of Montana's four victims in Super Bowls. Plus, there was their first 100-yard rush day of the season with 134, their most since last Dec. 11.
"When he's 28-for-32, it's going to be hard to stop us when he's able to do that," Williams said. "When we're rushing for over 130 with the playmakers we have …"
Translation: The Bengals, who started 1-3 as Burrow limped through a strained right calf, are back in the middle of this thing at 4-3 with another robust road win coming out of the bye. They've done that the last two seasons as a springboard to the last two AFC title games and the last two AFC North titles.
But never when they did it have they taken apart a team as good as the 49ers.
"It is huge. It let everyone know that we are back," slot receiver Tyler Boyd, who started the scoring. "They are one of the top teams in the NFC. It's on high alert now. We are the team to beat. We will continue to be that team. It's us. Who Dey."
Certainly all the landmarks of another run are there:
_ A Trey Hendrickson sack-strip to end it.
_A 56-yard dart from Evan McPherson through a tricky Bay win to keep the 49ers a touchdown away after he missed a 50-yarder going the other way that had the legs before it got winded to the right.
_A bye-week tweak from the coaches.
This one was putting Burrow under center 18 times, according to Paul Dehner, Jr. of The Athletic. That's triple what they did in the previous six games combined. They said they kept him in shotgun largely to protect his calf, but if his calf is back, then so is the entire playbook.
They used it primarily in the first half on both touchdown drives. Burrow was five of seven for 73 yards under center, including a 15-yarder to wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase over the middle off play-action. Mixon was six for 23 rushing under center and five other runs went for seven yards.
'We were able to get some big play-action shots off of that," Burrow said. "We got some great production out of that, so that's going to continue to be part of what we do."
Or, as Jonah Williams said, "I think it helped. I think it was the variety, too. Going against a pass-rush front like that and to be able to hit a couple of big play-actions from under center … that takes a lot of pressure off the offensive line because dropping back is the hardest thing you can do as an O-line. If we can get Joe throwing 19 completions in a row, that takes some heat off us, so that's a win-win."
_Remember how last season they won seven straight games with a fourth-quarter turnover as part of their nine-game winning streak after the bye?
On Sunday, linebackers Germaine Pratt and Logan Wilson came up with their customary late-game pick, forced fumble, or fumble recovery. This time it was Pratt and Wilson with picks within 1:56 as the third quarter ended and the fourth quarter began intercepting a guy in 49ers quarterback Brock Purdy who had just one interception in his career at Levi's in his eight career home starts coming into this game.
"They deserve more national recognition," said left end Sam Hubbard, who set up Pratt's interception by blowing up a zone read. "Hopefully, as they continue to perform well, they're going to get that."
_The offense is beginning to reap the benefits of head coach Zac Taylor's and offensive coordinator Brian Callahan's tweak during the offseason. All receivers, not just Chase, are moving around and playing all the spots. On the play after Wilson's pick at the 49ers 17, Burrow wasted no time. All year the Bengals had been running bubble screen passes to wide receivers to A) get the ball in their hands and B) protect Burrow. On this play, Chase lined up inside wide receiver Tyler Boyd's hip and acted as if he were going to block for Boyd as Boyd fanned out behind him. But Chase ran straight past deer-in-the-deadlights cornerback Isaiah Oliver and Burrow put it over his shoulder in stride to make it 24-10.
"It's no secret that we like to get the ball in Ja'Marr's hands quick on little perimeter screens like that," Burrow said. "You have to have stuff to compliment that. And that was a great call by Zac."
And, of course, there is the Seamless Joe Factor. The Inspector Gadget pocket presence. That was very much there, too.
In the first three games, he lost his standing as the NFL's all-time career completion percentage leader by hitting 55.3% After Sunday's 28 of 32 effort, he is back as the most accurate passer of all time at 67.9 percent, just ahead of Drew Brees' 67.7. Only Ken Anderson's iconic 20 of 22 against The Steel Curtain in 1974 for 91% is better in Bengals annals. Make Sunday the most accurate road game ever in club history, percentage points better than Anderson's 87.1 in the 1982 regular-season finale in Houston he set the Bengals record with 20 straight completions, the record Burrow just missed with 19 straight Sunday.
The runs were big. Six of them for 43 yards. Plus, there was the puff of a genie bottle as he turned a certain sack into a scrambling third-and-nine ten-yard completion, the kind of relentless plays that soak his teammates in confidence.
"I wouldn't want to be playing against him. You see what he did today?" Hubbard asked. "Stiff arming a whole defensive line off him. That's the Joe we all know. He went through a lot of adversity, battling injuries and a lot of doubt. He never batted an eye. Hopefully this silences a lot of haters today."
But Burrow was the guy hating himself two weeks ago after he missed a few throws that are usually slam dunks for him. He admitted they stayed with him for the bye.
"It was a combination of a lot of things a couple of weeks ago," Burrow said. "When you have the bye, you're able to sit back and really deeply think about mechanics, routes, timing, footwork, all that. So, that was really what I did on my bye and it was nice to see that work pay off."
Maybe the biggest thing that shows he's back isn't the stiff-arms but the stiff throws into tight windows. A 55.3 completion percentage in the first three games? Try 72 in the last three.
"I think there's a lot of layers to that," Burrow said. "I think my mechanics have cleaned up over the last couple weeks, and then also, with my calf feeling better, I feel more comfortable extending plays instead of maybe throwing the ball way in those same situations that I had in the first couple weeks. And so I think it's a combination of a couple things."
It was one of those feel-good wins because the other team is so good. Montana was part of an alum fest on Sunday and on Saturday night Bengals offensive line coach Frank Pollack, a backup guard for the 1994 Super Bowl champion 49ers, was able to greet some old friends. Then the next day, he helped concoct a plan that allowed just three sacks against one of the best pass rushes in the league. That was the most points the Niners allowed this season and the second-most rush yards and total (400) yards.
"They were awesome," Burrow said of the offensive line. "Not just in the pass pro, but also in the run game. That was a big part of the game today. We were super efficient in the run game."
Bosa, who leads the NFL in quarterback knockdowns, had just two to go with half a sack. It looked like Brown had him much of the time, but Williams helped keep him from wrecking the game. While the Vikings chipped to help the tackles most of the time last week against the 49ers, the Bengals did it some and their tackles held up one-on-one.
"Our interior guys played great," Brown said. "They shut them down and we were able to play our game on the outside."
So was everybody else. After Chase caught a 17-yard touchdown to put the Bengals up 24-10, he did a complete and total back flip.
"I used to do gymnastics when I was younger. Maybe when I was 12," Chase said. "I haven't done one in three years."
But the Bengals look like they do every year at right about now.