While J.J. Watt questioned his team's professionalism after the Texans' 37-31 loss Sunday in Houston, the Bengals celebrated their work ethic in their second turnover-free victory in six days.
His team gave head coach Zac Taylor the biggest day of his two-year tenure. His first road victory, his first fourth-quarter comeback and his first winning streak came courtesy of a 540-yard effort without his quarterback, leading rusher, leading passer and left tackle. Six days after beating the AFC North champs with 13 passes and the zone read, they ditched the playbook and sifted one of the NFL's worst defenses completing nearly 80 percent of 37 passes with two different back-up quarterbacks.
Which might make you wonder after seeing Joe Burrow's video this weekend, how good is this offense going to be when he's tweeting from the locker room instead of rehab?
"Just tells you everything you have to know about the character and resolve of this football team," Taylor said after Burrow back-up Brandon Allen's career-high 371 yards came on a remarkable 78-percent passing on 10 yards per throw in one of their most efficient efforts ever from a quarterback.
"Like I told them, we practiced in 10-degree weather on Christmas day to come down and play a game in Houston. Not one guy, I didn't hear one guy complain about it. They all knew we had to get some work done before we had to come play this big game. Just couldn't be prouder of the work they put here in Week 16. We're out of the play-off hunt. It's easy for guys to check out right now, and we haven't had a single player do it. Just proud to coach these guys."
Backup slot receiver Alex Erickson, Wisconsin's old Small School Player of the Year as the quarterback and cornerback for Darlington High, is used to those frigid practices. But he's not used to Sunday's six balls for 88 yards, since he came in with five catches all year.
"I grew up in the cold, but it's never easy to go out there," Erickson said. "You've got about eight sweatshirts on and two hats, but guys were out there with high energy. I think it's just the trust that we have in each other and the accountability we hold each other to, knowing I've got to get my job done for the guy next to me and he has to get his job done for me. The only way to do that is through practice and getting the reps in, and whether it's Christmas and it's 10 degrees or the day before the game it all adds up and it all makes a difference."
A week after Ryan Finley threw it 13 times and ran it ten to beat the Steelers' third-ranked defense, Allen sifted Houston's No. 31 defense with ease all day. He started 5-for-5 for 65 on his first drive and never looked back. Taylor brought him here because he knew the offense blindfolded and on Sunday the Texans never saw him. He was never sacked even as the Hall-of-Fame sacker Watt leered from across the way.
The Bengals kept Watt and Houston's blitz at bay with maybe as many as 10 screens (running backs Samaje Perine and Giovani Bernard combined for 11 catches and 107 yards) as well as 31 runs by the running backs. Allen's brisk 78-percent passing that showed he knows all the nooks and crannies of Taylor's offense.
"It's really good about making certain plays look identical but it being a different play. One could be a run, and one could be a play-action pass and one's a play-action screen, and it all looks the same to the defense," Allen of Taylor's playbook. "I think there's so many things you can do with this offense. It's very quarterback friendly. If you can run it, you find completions, and the completions are going to get you moving down the field, which you kind of saw today. You don't always have to have that big shot as long as you're playing smart, and obviously the run game was on point today, and that obviously helps. Any time you can get the multiple dimensions of the offense going, you can be explosive and win a lot of games."
Here's what this offense can do.
It can take Allen and his career 6.1 yards per attempt in his seventh start and help him outduel a three-time Pro Bowler in Deshaun Watson. Here was Watson leading the NFL in yards per attempt and there Allen beating him at his own game. It was close. Allen was at 10 and Watson was at 9.8, but Watson's fumble and Allen's multiple targets were the difference on this day.
"Brandon was throwing with a ton of anticipation," Taylor said. "He was doing a great job seeing the coverages, taking his check-downs when he had to. Really impressed by how he played."
Allen, Taylor and the Bengals have all been in the same boat lately. They've been relying on their professionalism to overcome 2020.
Allen had been isolated as the forgotten COVID option until Burrow went down. Taylor has taken all the slings and arrows of criticism in a season that has thrown everything at him up to and including an act of God. Even with his offense decimated Sunday, he watched his best cover cornerback, William Jackson III, leave near halftime with a concussion.
"There's always going to be that side of things that you really try not to pay too much attention to, I guess," Allen said. "Going into this week, I think there was such a high level of confidence that we can beat any team we go play. I think we're such a connected team in that locker room, and we kind of keep all that other outside noise right where it is, outside."
Go back to three straight snaps at the end of the third quarter as the Bengals took a mere 3:19 to respond to the Texans' tying the game at 17. Allen was a surgeon and the Bengals were a tenacious scalpel when they went to work after the Bengals had just been dealt a massive blow when rookie wide receiver Tee Higgins' 31-yard catch was wiped out on tight end Drew Sample's interference penalty.
Now it was third-and-11 and Allen never hesitated drilling a stop route to wide receiver A.J. Green one-on-one with cornerback Keion Crossen. Crossen was on him like a University of Georgia blanket, but Green leaped and tore the ball away viciously in the biggest jump ball of the day for 14 yards.
On the next snap Allen then went play action to suck up inside linebacker Zach Cunningham ever so slightly and Erickson got behind him down the seam and through the middle of a cover two zone for Bengals' longest play of the game, a 42-yarder. Next snap, Higgins got behind a fellow rookie, cornerback John Reid, and Allen put the 20-yard touchdown only where Higgins could catch it.
"On the outside Tee and A.J., A.J has been doing it forever and Tee is just unbelievable for a rookie to come in and make those plays," Erickson said. "The trust that we have in him out there it makes it pretty tough. You can go either way - down the middle or either side - and we were running on all cylinders there."
No question, Allen was feeling it. He dished the praise like he did the ball.
"He's Mr. Reliable, really," Allen said of Erickson. "You can put him, I would say, anywhere on the field, and he's going to be in the right spot, run the right route, do what he needs to do, and on the big one he caught down the middle, that's a play where he has to see the coverage and know exactly what to do on his route. He did it perfectly and we were able to give him the ball."
But Allen knew it was Green's play that spurred the drive. Talk about professionalism. Green keeps grinding in a season that hasn't been kind to him stat wise in the lowest output of his career. But like his team, he's a lesson in perseverance. For the second straight week he had his longest catch of the season, 33 yards (accounting for more than half of his 64 yards), and the 14-yard killer on third down.
"That aggressive hands catch on really tight coverage and getting us the first down is what really got us going during that second half and getting those big shots down the field," Allen said. "Without him making that play, I don't think we get those big shots. We don't get a chance to."
It had been a cold week, but as the Bengals walked off the field in the 70-degree weather, they had to sensing they just may be warming up.
"There's never been a question within this team of us moving the right direction," Allen said. "I think you kind of can just see in these last two weeks that this team knows how close it can be, and we've finally been able to have two really good games and put them together and get wins. We can just take that momentum and move it forward."