BALTIMORE _ In the split-second it took for Joe Burrow to grimace when he realized he couldn't grip the ball and yelled in hurt more than pain, everything changed. The Bengals' season went from leading the AFC North leaders by a field goal and getting back in the race for their third straight division title after a giddy here-we-are-12-play drive to making the playoffs by any means necessary.
And it may mean with a backup quarterback. The best guess is Burrow undergoes exams Friday for his sprained throwing wrist.
A tough moment. Emotion in every corner.
"I mean, feelings everywhere," said Pro Bowl wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase.
Faced with his toughest task since Burrow went down with a torn ACL during this same week of the season in 2020, Bengals head coach Zac Taylor reminded his team after Thursday night's 34-20 loss to the Ravens here at M&T Bank Stadium that four days ago they were riding high with four straight wins before the walk-off loss to the Texans.
"Not to let the guys forget we've had a nice stretch there, four games winning, we were in a good area," Taylor said. "We lost (by) a last-second field goal, and then we lost a tough game Thursday night on the road to a really good team, so don't get it twisted on what kind of team we have. We've got a chance to regroup. All the things that we really wanted to do are still in front of us."
The Bengals looked poised to engage the Ravens in a classic after Burrow's four-yard touchdown flip to running back Joe Mixon gave them a 10-7 lead with 5:49 left in the first half. Now they're 5-5, 2.5 games behind the Ravens after getting swept by them for the first time since that 2020 season, when Burrow missed one of the games.
He missed most of this one as Jake Browning made what amounted to his NFL debut in demanding circumstances. On Blackout Night against the Ravens' knockout pass rush and scoring defense that leads the NFL. He completed eight of 14 passes for 68 yards on a night Mixon ran for 69 yards on 16 carries.
"I was kind of switching roles, where I was like, 'Damn I wish I would have done this.' (Burrow) was like, I think you threw it to the right guy, and it was an accurate ball.' So, it was kind of like a reassurance," Browning said. "It was kind of like role reversal, where (Burrow) was saying, 'You're playing well, and keep moving around,' and stuff like that. It was good. It was how you would expect from him. He's pretty self-aware and tried to do everything he can to help us out. But unfortunately, we couldn't get it done."
Browning, whose one NFL pass came in the opener, was like everybody else on the team. He had no idea Burrow had a wrist injury or when he even got it.
"I had no idea. Everyone started asking about this wrist thing. I had no idea why. I thought they were talking about someone else on the team," Browning said.
It was a blood-and-guts night, showing the country why the AFC North is the NFL's demolition derby. Five minutes after Burrow went down, so did their top cover cornerback when Cam Taylor-Britt limped off with a quad injury. On the game's first drive, the Ravens lost Pro Bowl tight end Mark Andrews with what is feared to be a season-ending ankle injury.
And you could see it in the guys that were playing, never mind hurt. Bengals Pro Bowl edge Trey Hendrickson (knee) wasn't supposed to play but ended up playing 46 snaps and getting sack No. 9.5. Chase (back), not 100 percent four days before, played all but one of the Bengals' 61 snaps. He caught two balls for 12 yards and Browning's first NFL touchdown pass, but with no Tee Higgins (hamstring) and rookies Charlie Jones and Shed Jackson with one NFL catch between them getting snaps, the Ravens blanketed Chase.
And it was just flat-out AFC North hard out there. Rookie safety Jordan Battle got a battlefield promotion. Battle ended up stalking an MVP in Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson with a career-high 57 snaps and a game-high 11 tackles, tying him with ubiquitous Ravens linebacker Patrick Queen in a night Battle won't soon forget.
"The vibe was AFC North on the road, Thursday Night, good environment," Taylor said. "I know the score was a two-score game. I get that. I know what the perception would be. Our guys are fine. I didn't feel like for one second the wind was out of our sails, and guys were letting things happen. I felt like every single down, down in and down out, on defense, those guys were competing their tails off. On offense, our guys were fighting like crazy. It's a good football team. It is. [It's] disappointing that we didn't come through. But again, not discouraged in the slightest about what our guys are capable of the rest of the season now."
The vibe kept going back to Burrow. When slot receiver Tyler Boyd saw Mixon catch the touchdown, "I thought we had it.
"It hurts a lot. He's our best player," Boyd said. "But we have to move forward with Jake. It's a tough loss, a crucial loss. That's the league. Backups win games all over the place … I'm sure we'll adjust and make changes based on who's playing and not playing."
Slot cornerback Mike Hilton, a playoff vet for both the Steelers and the Bengals, knows Pittsburgh is at Paycor Stadium a week from Sunday.
"The division might be out of reach, but we still have a chance to get to the playoffs and that's our main goal," Hilton said. "I feel like if we get to the playoffs, we'll be a scary team to face."
It was a night things had to be said. Mixon did when he talked to the team after the game.
"I'm a leader in this locker room and a captain for a reason. I'm here to do whatever I can to keep this ship here going and keep everybody together. I'm going to do my best, you know, do whatever I can, make that happen and build on this performance," Mixon said. "I don't know what direction that we're going, but when it comes down to it, I mean, everybody, we did some good things today.
"Obviously, there were some negatives, you know, in terms of the outcome, but when it comes down to it, there's some positives out there. We're going to eventually figure it out, watch the tape and learn from everything. Everything that went positive, we just keep building on it and just keep everyone together."
The challenge was etched on Chase's face. in his third season, he's only known playoffs, Pro Bowls, and division titles.
"We kept fighting the whole game. That's one thing about us that showed, and I love that for us. But, you know, we don't want to finish like that. We don't want to be up finishing like that," Chase said. "It's part of the league, man. I guess. I'm not used to losing. I'm not a loser, so I love winning. So, when I lose, I don't like the feeling. So as of right now, we've got to adjust, make changes, move forward, and take it a day at a time."
New voices are rallying, too.
"Obviously, Joe's a big loss in the game. The best quarterback in the league," said Battle, a third-rounder from Alabama. "It's going to affect any team if he goes down. It shouldn't be any excuse for us to go out there and, you know, keep fighting. That should give us an extra edge as we see a guy go down of that caliber."