The Bengals returned to work Monday after the fake bye and sounded a bit refreshed after Friday's grim news day replete with Pro Bowl quarterback Joe Burrow's season-ending torn wrist ligament.
Maybe they're getting the Virgil Carter vibes when it comes to late playoff runs with a backup quarterback. Carter, who steered the Bengals to the 1970 AFC Central title by winning the last seven games as the Bengals went from 1-6 to 8-6, went to the same Folsom High School in California that Jake Browning attended.
Browning is now the man for the 5-5 Bengals and makes his first NFL start Sunday (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Local 12) against the 6-4 Steelers at Paycor Stadium smack in the middle of a playoff run.
Much like Carter was the man 53 years ago when 1969 AFL Rookie of the Year Greg Cook couldn't answer the bell for the 1970 opener with a shoulder injury and Bengals founder Paul Brown pulled off a trade with the Bears for Carter three weeks before the season started even though Carter had just seven starts in his two NFL seasons.
Or, maybe they had been summoning The New York Times' playoff predictor. Ever resourceful Voice of the Bengals Dan Hoard has been.
Hoard discovered with wins in their remaining home games against the Steelers (quarterbacked by Kenny Pickett), the Colts (Gardner Minshew II), the Vikings (Josh Dobbs) and the Browns (Dorian Thompson-Robinson), their playoff chances are better than 50%. Add a win in Pittsburgh Dec. 23, and their chances rise to 91%, Hoard says.
"It's something this team has always done. Block out the noise and just focus on week to week," said Bengals head coach Zac Taylor. "You've seen this team go through many things over the course of this season, previous seasons. One thing you know is that they'll always respond the right way. They're made of the right stuff. That's a big part of building this team is making sure of the character you get in there. Excited to go back to work this week. I think we all feel pretty fresh coming off that weekend. Just excited to get back on the field Sunday and go play a game."
NO JOE: Taylor says Burrow won't be back at any point this season, and he expects him to go on injured reserve this week. Until he's expected to have surgery, Burrow said Friday he's going to be in the building. Offensive coordinator Brian Callahan, freshly shorn without his varying degree of beard and vowing a fresh start, said Burrow was at Monday's walkthrough. And, duly noted.
"It's a new territory for him because the last time he was really hurt he was gone," Callahan said. "Very different than the ACL injury (in 2020).
"He was there (Monday), he was listening, paying attention. Still locked in. There's not a lot of advice you're offering in a walkthrough. But he was still paying attention, standing there with the quarterbacks, and his presence is as big as anything. Just because he is the leader of the football team, of the franchise. His presence carries a lot of weight. And to have him around, I still think matters. His attitude and demeanor I think help everything, even if it's a minuscule moment in a walkthrough, just having him there, it does matter."
CALLAHAN COURT: Callahan indicated there may be two visible differences with Browning in there.
In a season running back Joe Mixon has carried 20 times or more in one game, that may change a tad.
"I'm sure he'll get maybe a handful more touches. It's week to week. It's hard to determine what that looks like," Callahan said. "It's hard to make any definitive statements one way or the other. But I do think that we've done some good things in the run game and for us to win more of these games, we'll have to do more of it."
Browning's first snap on Thursday night came under center, a formation not seen much with Burrow. But Browning has more experience with it since he broke into the league with a Minnesota offensive staff chaired by Gary Kubiak and Kevin Stefanski
"We've been doing a little bit here and there," Callahan said. "He's got a lot more comfort in some of that stuff. He spent some time in Minnesota with Gary Kubiak and that system of offense, so he's got some experience in it, too, that probably will serve him well. But he still plays in a similar mold to Joe. He plays better from the (shot) gun. He sees it. Most quarterbacks prefer it, but we'll have a good healthy mix of, that stuff."
MAC GOES BACK: AJ McCarron shook his head Monday at the football gods' playfulness. When he suits up for the first time in his second run as a Bengal to serve as Browning's backup Sunday, the Steelers are the foe.
It will be recalled in the now iconic in so many ways 2015 Wild Card Game at Paycor that McCarron rallied the Bengals with 16 straight fourth-quarter points to take a 16-15 lead over the Steelers with 1:50 left before Shakespeare took over.
"I was thinking about how it was Pittsburgh coming in," McCarron said after the Bengals' walkthrough. "Can't believe it."
That was the season McCarron became the last Bengals quarterback to win his first NFL start, a 24-14 verdict in San Franciso that clinched a playoff berth. McCarron remembers a salty 49ers' defense that hadn't allowed more than 20 points at home and how the Bengals had 21 at the half. That's because one play after Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict put McCarron at the 49ers 20 with an interception, McCarron rifled a touchdown pass to tight end Tyler Kroft with 53 seconds left in the half for a 21-0 halftime lead. He threw for only 192 yards, but he completed 71% of his 21 passes and didn't turn it over.
And that's his advice to Browning.
"Jake's a smart dude. Take care of the football. All the basic things," McCarron said. "Put your team in position to win at the end. Especially playing at home. I think he'll do great. He's a vet and being in this offense for a couple of years definitely helps. I think he'll be fine."
McCarron pulled off his near-win of the ages with none of the experience Browning has. McCarron was basically in his first season after his rookie year got swallowed by a shoulder injury until November. After 2015 training camp, he only ran the scout team until Andy Dalton broke his throwing thumb.
Meanwhile, Browning is in his fifth year in the NFL and has gotten a raft of first-team snaps in the last two training camps because of Burrow's extended absences.
"Just go out and have fun," McCarron advises. "Don't overthink it."
Four turnovers, like the Bengals defense generated that day by the bay, would be nice, too.
WINNING BATTLE: The Bengals rookies had the last of their Rookie Success meetings that are held every Monday to guide them on the journey to becoming a pro. Class dismissed because at least one rookie is growing up fast in a playoff push.
Taylor offered no updates on two starters who have missed the last two games (wide receiver Tee Higgins and left end Sam, Hubbard), but don't be surprised if rookie safety Jordan Battle joins with Browning in making his first NFL start against the Steelers.
After Battle played a season-high 57 snaps from scrimmage in Baltimore Thursday (compared to starter Nick Scott's 11), Taylor gave him an endorsement from the top.
"I thought he made the most of his opportunities. So we're going to continue to rely on everybody moving forward. But Jordan did a great job. You saw him play a lot of the snaps in this game. That's going to continue as we go forward," Taylor said. "It's all about grabbing the opportunity that's in front of you and I think Jordan's done a good job of that. He has to continue to be consistent going forward."
Battle, a third-round pick out of Alabama, has been a favorite of the coaches even before they drafted him and after his legendary 18-minute interview at the NFL scouting combine.
"When he walked out of the room, I think everyone felt the same way," Bengals safeties coach Robert Livingston told Bengals.com back in May. "He's different, he understands the game."
According to Pro Football Focus, Battle had Cincinnati's second highest defensive grade Thursday and on a night the Bengals missed 10 tackles, Battle had no missed tackles while gathering a game-high 11.
Battle says he knew coming out of Alabama that he had to be a better tackler and he pointed to one play Thursday where he dragged down the always elusive Lamar Jackson.
"I knew I needed to be better, surer tackle in the open field," Battle said. "On one play, a quarterback draw with Lamar, I read and react, and beat him to the spot. Come up full speed and break down, that shows you what you have to be to be a sure tackler.
"I felt like it was an OK game for me. I had small mental errors on two plays where I could have communicated better," Battle said. "The more you play, the more settled you get. It felt great to be out there talking to the guys, trying to know what play is coming and what can I do to make a play on this play."
You have to figure the Steelers are going to turn to running back Jaylen Warren extensively Sunday after he scored their only touchdown in the 13-10 loss in Cleveland on a 74-yard run and head coach Mike Tomlin spends the week fielding questions from the Pittsburgh sporting press on why he carried just nine times in a 129-yard effort.
And, according to PFF, all but six of Warren's yards came after contact in a game the Browns missed 13 tackles.
"Whenever you can make open-field tackles in a game, it builds confidence as a player," Battle said. "That would show good improvement for me making those open-field tackles."
JAKE-JONAH II: If anyone knows what Browning brings to the table, it is Bengals right tackle Jonah Williams. Long before Carter became the first Folsom alum to make it out of Sacramento and into the NFL, Browning and Williams were teammates on Folsom's once-in-a-lifetime state championship team.
"Fourteen and oh, 14 running clocks in the second half," Williams said. "Winning the state championship, 68-7, over a really good Oceanside team at the time … As a player, outrageously good accuracy. He'd hit the crossbar of the goal posts ten times in a row, no problem. Just ridiculous, his ability the way he was in high school.
"Mentally, really hard worker. Even-keel. He's not going to be overwhelmed by the atmosphere or anything like that … He's built for this."
Browning is a California schoolboy legend with 91 touchdown passes in his senior year for a national record. Someone asked Williams if any play stood out. He thought a minute and offered "Yeah (91) of them."
But he's thinking about Browning's first NFL touchdown pass Thursday night in Baltimore.
"Tough spot to come in, but he played well, he led a great touchdown drive at the end of the game. If we can put together a lot of drives like that, I think we'll win a bunch of games."