Don't look now but as they head into their bye week at the halfway point of the season and look at a remaining schedule of four teams without winning records, the Bengals may quietly emerge next week as one of those classic young on-the-come teams the NFL approaches warily.
Certainly they sent a memo with Sunday's 31-20 takedown of AFC South leaders Tennessee on an offense looking almost effortless despite the loss of running back Joe Mixon and a revamped offensive line. Rookie quarterback Joe Burrow coolly engineered 30 points for the fourth time in his eight NFL games with some make-believe scrambles behind a makeshift offensive line that paved the way for Zac Taylor's biggest victory in his season and a half as the Bengals head coach.
After enough social media drama to fuel a Netflix series, the Bengals played like they were all A.J. Green and shut down their apps. Instead of a bye-week demise, it looks to be a half-season revival.
"I don't think a lot of people expected us to win today," said free safety Jessie Bates III, his end-zone pick on the Titans' first drive against the fastidious Ryan Tannehill as big as it gets. "This locker room knows that, and we don't really care, honestly. It's all about us, and we're going to continue what we're building here. And this foundation, it's all about us. Excited for the future."
For a team that had let four fourth-quarter leads slip away, there was talk of making a run. After spending the week hearing Taylor tell them how close they had become to heading into the bye maybe as good as 7-1, the Bengals played a full and confident game. It was a game featuring Taylor's two gutsy I-believe-in-you calls, one on fourth-and-five in the second quarter and one on third-and-eight as the two-minute warning beckoned.
"We know we were talking about it all week in practice," Burrow said. "We don't feel like a 1-5 football team. One or two plays go our ways over the last couple weeks and we're 6-2 or 7-1, but we know that we didn't make those plays until today and it feels good to make them."
On a day center Billy Price referred to him as Houdini after he escaped more jams than the late Sean Connery channeling James Bond, Burrow conjured up the Who Dey lore of old.
He's on pace to break the Bengals' season passing yardage record in a year that could give them two 1,000-yard receivers. In the last three games, they're 59 percent on third down. In the last two games they've steamed into the red zone 12 times for eight touchdowns. A week after Burrow saw to it that the Bengals had six receivers with at least 50 yards receiving for the first time in history, three more had at least 65.
"That's what our offense does," Burrow said after making sure the Bengals didn't turn it over against the NFL's leading turnover margin team. "We have a lot of great players who understand how to get open, so I'm going to throw it to the open guy when it calls for that. I'm never going to zero in on any one guy. Anyone can get the ball at any time."
On Sunday that meant 78 yards for ubiquitous rookie wide receiver Tee Higgins. It meant 67 yards for slot receiver Tyler Boyd, keeping him on pace for his third straight 1,000-yard season, 47 of those yards coming in Boydian fashion in the final 15 and a half minutes with two third-down conversions and a third-down red zone touchdown. It meant 65 yards for a lanky 6-5 first-down yard marker named Auden Tate.
Like on the play that sealed it.
Start there. Third-and-eight with 2:08 left from the Bengals 32. Bengals up 11. Burrow had just thrown an interception negated by pass interference. A nice little handoff, a punt and ….
Nope. This is the Burrow Decade. Back shoulder to Tate on the sidelines for 15 and Taylor could start handing out game balls. That's how much faith they have in this guy.
"All of our receivers we trust to make those plays. It was Auden's moment right there," Taylor said. "In terms of throwing it and not running it, there was (2:08) left, if I'm not mistaken. There were some clock management things we were talking through, and we felt comfortable throwing the ball there, and not really hurting ourselves."
Go back to that fourth-and-five from the Titans 43 with 2:36 left in the first half in a game they led, 10-7. Deadly if they don't get it for a defense that allowed 200 yards in the half. But there was Burrow behind his scrappy line keeping him clean, allowing him to bounce and bounce and bounce in the pocket until he found Higgins breaking off a route for 22 yards. Seconds later they're up 10 instead of down four and that was the difference Sunday.
Bates has to shake his head when it comes to his man. Burrow is one of these guys coming up to you in the locker room, always telling you they're going to score.
"A lot of guys don't really talk to Joe, honestly, because that's how it is. Quarterbacks are kind of like in their own little circle, in their own little world," Bates said. "It's pretty cool when you got a young quarterback that has that swagger like I said. That knows he's going to make a play. Crazy stuff. I can't really explain it right now. But like I said, he's going to be the face of this franchise for a long time."
It has reached the point where not only are his teammates talking about him, but foes are now talking to him during games offering growing, grudging respect. The Titans were doing that after he made some sacks disappear with a crafty welterweight champion's ability to bounce off the ropes.
"Most of that came after those plays I extended that they didn't think I'd be able to do," Burrow said. "That's something that has kind of happened throughout my career. People don't think of me as a guy that can wiggle in and out and extend plays and be an athletic guy, but that's a big part of my game."
The other franchise face, the 37-year-old Taylor, has based his offense, indeed his management of the entire team, on the daily grinding of the new age details. If the route has to be stopped at 12 yards, it can't be 11 or 13. If the NFL Covid protocols have changed, the daily schedule must be reviewed and synced up with locker room monitors and player iPads.
So Taylor is not usually big into big-picture pronouncements. But he saw exactly what Sunday meant.
"It validates everything these guys our working toward. It doesn't surprise any of us, but you do need to see it right in front of your face that you've done it, " Taylor said. "Now we have to go do it again in the next game, and the next game. There is something to be said for that. This does mean a lot. It's going to do great things for us this season. We needed this win going into the bye, and it verifies everything these guys are working for and believing in. Now they have it in their memory —'We've done this.' And we can do it again. That's tremendous."
Quietly, under the radar of the omnipresent 21st century chatter and in a locker room shuttered to the media, veterans like running back Giovani Bernard have been pushing Taylor's message. They didn't post until Sunday.
"We know that we're right there. We just have to continue, well one, finish the game and we were able to do that," Bernard said. "That's the biggest thing in the NFL. I think teams get hot at the right time. What opportunity to do we have now to be able to do that. We have this bye, (can) get our bodies fresh, get guys back, having an opportunity to start learning some things. For some guys, start actually learning the offense. It should be fun. I'm excited to be a part of this, man. It's obviously something where with the type of year that we had, to get this type of win against a team like that, it's huge."