Bengals Earn Their Stripes Finding Another Way To Win In Victory Over Bills

Tanner Hudson 110523
TE Tanner Hudson celebrates during Sunday Night Football against the Buffalo Bills at Paycor Stadium in Week 9 of the 2023 season.

The Bengals, who have won their last six in November and have won all five of Pro Bowl quarterback Joe Burrow's Paycor Stadium prime-time games, are feeling it again.

The team that won ten straight last year to win another AFC North and reach a second straight AFC title game, won their fourth straight Sunday night, 24-18, with another win over a Buffalo team that is supposed to be in the AFC iron.

"Damn right," said cornerback Cam Taylor-Britt, when asked if the Bengals are currently the AFC's best team. "Just like that, I'm going to say it every time. We've got more games to come and we get to prove ourselves every time."

One way to tell they really are making a move is they beat a perennial AFC playoff team in the completely opposite way they beat a perennial NFC playoff team the week before in San Francisco in front of 66,965 alternating stripes, the second largest Paycor crowd ever.

Well, almost, because, like last week, they got a huge red-zone turnover in the second half from linebacker Germaine Pratt and a mistake-free game from quarterback Joe Burrow.

But on Sunday night they got such a big game out of their under-the radar tight ends room that position coach James Casey got a game ball. The last Bengals tight end to score a touchdown before Sunday was Hayden Hurst against these Bills in last year's AFC Divisional.

That ended Sunday when Irv Smith Jr. started the scoring with his first Bengals' touchdown and blocking specialist Drew Sample scored the second touchdown of his five-year career. And Tanner Hudson, promoted from the practice squad this week, had four catches for 45 yards while Pro Bowl wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase had four catches or 41 yards.

It will be recalled that last week against the 49ers, it was their three-headed hydra at wide receiver that did the damage with Chase grabbing 100 yards while finishing off a Bengals-record 50 catches in five weeks. Coming into Sunday, the tight ends had 20 catches for 132 yards and no touchdowns. On Sunday it was 10 for 101 yards and two touchdowns. Almost exactly what Chase did last week: 10-100 with a touchdown.

"That's where the ball went. Buffalo did a great job; they don't make it easy on you," said head coach Zac Taylor. "Their defense played really well and made things difficult, we had to earn everything. I thought our tight ends responded the right way. That's why we gave the game ball to James Casey. He gets those guys ready; they know every single detail of this offense. They're always prepared. We make a lot of in-game adjustments with the tight ends that they have to be able to handle. There are a lot of things they did, not even when the ball came their way, to help us be successful."

Some fans were apparently saying naughty things about the tight ends after Smith fumbled in the red zone last week. The play sparked a frenzied call for a trade deadline move that would banish all the current ones to the XFL.

"I don't pay attention to that stuff," Smith said. "We take one week at a time. Every day at practice we put the work in. I'm confident in my abilities and the coaches are. As a tight end group, we're confident."

Instead, the Bengals did a deal with their own practice squad and promoted Hudson. They were rewarded with a third-and-two-conversion that kept the first touchdown drive alive and an ice-cold third-and-one conversion for 17 yards that kept the clock rolling in the fourth quarter.

"Those guys were awesome today. They really stepped up," Burrow said. "They all made big plays for us, so we're going to need more of it."

Sample bailed the Bengals out of a third-and-7 from the Bills 22 late in the second quarter. He lined up in the back field to the right of Burrow with running back Trayveon Williams lined up to Burrow's left. With the Bills showing blitz, Sampe stayed in to block. When only four rushed at the last instant, Sample alertly leaked into the flat and was wide open until his old Washington Huskies teammate, Bills safety Tyler Rapp, met him at the 5.

Not for long. Sample stepped through his tackle with 1:37 left in the it half for a rather stunning touchdown that made it, 21-7.

"I hated to do that to one of my Dogs," Sample said. "It looked like they kind of dropped (the blitz). Maybe not. But I was just able to get out there and Joe was able to find me. If no one is blitzing, I go out for a checkdown (pass) .

"They were bringing a decent amount of pressure there at the end, trying to bluff us."

Usually, they use the pass to salt away a win. Like last week when Burrow delivered a 17-yard dagger to Chase to make it a 31-17 final.

But on third-and-three Sunday on the first play after the two-minute warning, running back Joe Mixon ended it when he ran to the edge, saw the great linebacker Von Miller, and ran right past him for five yards. Mixon stared down the Hall of Famer and beat him in space.

The rest was one long knee by Burrow.

"The big thing is we were executing. The most important thing right there is the football," Mixon said. "I saw him crashing down, so I froze him a little bit."

Mixon made Miller miss by showing him a little leg and then jetting away for the first. He had a hand in igniting the crowd early when he walked in for a two-yard touchdown that made it 14-7 as he leaped into the first row of end-zone seats.

"It was electric like always," Mixon said. "It's always a great feeling jumping up there and seeing those guys."

Pratt knows all about that. He had all of Paycor on its knees when his interception of Derek Carr at the goal line with 12 seconds left won the AFC Wild Card Game and he hasn't stopped making plays.

On Sunday, this one came with 13:18 left in the game and the Bengals holding a 21-10 lead and the Bills driving. Safety Nick Scott undercut rookie Dalton Kincaid's leap at the Bengals 13 while running with the ball, giving Pratt enough time to punch the ball out.

It conjured up memories of last year's ten-game winning streak, seven of which included games they had at least one fourth-quarter turnover.

"I knew I was going for the ball. I had told people I was going for the ball. I was going for a turnover," Pratt said. "That's my mindset, going after the ball. It's huge in such situations. I knew I had to tackle the ball in that situation."

Scott hasn't seen anything quite like it.

"He's the best linebacker in the league at finding the ball and getting it off people," Scott said. "It's something special when he's out there. When he gets around guys, it's almost like they start moving in slow motion and he's just so accurate with his hands."

Someone asked Pratt if the second-half turnovers were more important than the rest.

"The next one means more," Pratt said, "because I'm getting one next week."

Another week in November the Bengals hope to make it seven straight in the playoff picture.

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