The Bengals must be building something special here because the growing pains are something terrific.
On Sunday they suffered another maddening loss in the heart of the playoff race that cost them terribly, this one in overtime despite outgaining and out quarterbacking a very good 49ers team with a proven winner at quarterback in a hard-to-take 26-23 loss at Paul Brown Stadium.
So hard to take because it looks like the Bengals would share first place this morning in the AFC North with the Ravens if they could catch a punt.
But while Bengals head coach Zac Taylor second-guessed himself with his overtime play calling and Bengals veteran cornerback Mike Hilton wondered how some of his teammates couldn't come into the biggest game of the year better prepared, quarterback Joe Burrow, with the help of old friend Ja'Marr Chase, showed why his Bengals are going to be contenders for years to come in this craziest of months in this wackiest of NFL seasons.
It was one of those games where the national pundits deemed important enough to attend, among them NBC's estimable NFL reporter Peter King, and he pronounced the Bengals legit and here to stay with the wunderkind Burrow.
When King tracked down the 49ers own institution in tight end George Kittle after his Hall of Fame 13 catches for 151 yards that included a leaping 19-yard fingertip grab with 13 seconds left in regulation that really should have won it, Kittle offered that the Bengals "are pretty good at football now."
What is pretty good in this NFL?
The 49ers, in the Super Bowl just two years ago and capable of stunning offense and winning defense, are a mere 7-6. The Bengals, who won just six games in the previous two seasons, have charged back into relevancy with the same 7-6 already with four games left. Instead of celebrating one of the NFL's top turnarounds they are wondering how good it could be after losing the last two games at home with six turnovers.
Still. Still. Just a game out of first place in the AFC North.
After all this, after a month they have taken away the deep ball he re-discovered Sunday, Burrow is putting up a triple digit passer rating in 13 games. He's on pace to break the Bengals' passing yardage record with his second straight 300-yard game after hitting 348 yards for the second time this season.
And he did it on 74 percent passing. For the season he's at 68.5 percent. The only one better in Bengals history for a season is Ken Anderson's iconic 70.55 percent in 1982. Forget leading the league in those short passes. His 8.4 yards per attempt is right there for the third best Bengals season ever behind only Greg Cook's AFL Rookie of the Year 9.4 in 1969 and Boomer Esiason's NFL MVP 9.2 in 1988.
"I don't think anybody wants to play us, quite frankly," Taylor said and he's probably right after Burrow torched the 49ers for 210 yards in the final 25 minutes.
Pretty good in 2021 is this:
Any other season and any other Bengals team is left for dead with 9:20 left as Burrow is yet again being chased by the relentless 49ers pass rush on fourth down. But the Bengals leave another calling card. It wasn't the 41-17 win over the Ravens back in October or the combined 50-point wins over the Steelers.
It was Burrow's wondrous throw to Chase, dislocated throwing pinky and all, as he was stepping out-of-bounds for a 17-yard touchdown on what looked to be a nothing fourth-and-five heave that cut it to 20-13. Burrow called it his favorite TD pass to Chase and that includes their 20 letter-jacket touchdowns two years ago winning every college award imaginable at LSU.
No wonder. While Burrow was working the sideline, Chase was working the end line. If he was Houdini in Baltimore, Chase was one of the Flying Wallendas as he tightroped the line moving from his left to right looking to help out his buddy.
"I'll go with the Green Bay one," said Chase of their 70-yarder at the end of the half in another overtime heartbreaker at The Paul in October against another NFC power broker.
Burrow and Chase haven't been able to connect on that kind of deep ball very much lately. In fact, since his 82-yard-catch-and-Houdini disappearing move touchdown in Baltimore on Oct. 24, Chase's longest catch had been for 21 yards and that was back on Halloween.
Until Burrow dropped a 32-yard dime on him at the goal line for the touchdown that tied it with 79 seconds left in regulation.
"It can only get worse," Chase said of the all the defensive attention. "That's all I can say. I'm getting cloud (coverage) this whole time. I just (have to go) on the fly, adjust on the fly, play my game. Just cheer on the guys next to me like Tee (Higgins) and (Tyler Boyd) and (Joe) Mixon. Those guys eat, we all eat. I'm just being a team player, trying to provide."
Chase went over 1,000 yards Sunday to become just the third Bengals rookie to do that. But he hasn't received all his portions. He's had his problems catching the ball. His third-down drop over the middle on the first drive that would have given them a first down in field-goal range on a third-and-12 conversion was his ninth drop, sixth in the last six games and had him steaming.
"If I catch that, look what happens next," Chase said. "Just didn't look it in."
He looked to drop his fourth touchdown catch since Baltimore with five minutes left in the first half, a 37-yard go-route-over-the-shoulder ball that would have given them a 10-10 tie. It was thrown slightly ahead of him and he stretched out to make a nice catch, but he couldn't reel it in all the way and as he hit the ground the ball appeared to squirt out. He thought not.
"My hand was underneath the ball if you ask me," Chase said.
But no one questions his football acumen and he broke it down pretty well Sunday on how the type of cloud coverage the 49ers played Sunday darkens his routes.
"The safety isn't supposed to let anyone past him. "That's why they're playing in quarters," Chase said. "The corners usually bounce the receiver and try to make him slow down on the route. Lose balance, fall, something like that. It slows down the ball, slows the quarterback and makes the quarterback look the opposite way. It's all about timing. We just played a team with a great D-line, so we have to be able to handle that too. You've got to be able to get the ball out faster and you don't have a lot of time when they bring pressure."
You're going to see a lot of stats this week about something called "a light box," and they're going to confirm what even football dilettantes saw Sunday. The Bengals' inexplicable inability to free up a three-time 1,000-yard runner (Mixon reached the milestone Sunday) against a cover two zone defense that Burrow says dared them to run.
They did and Mixon could get just 58 yards on 18 carries at barely three yards per against what Burrow figured was two-high safeties on every snap but one.
"They had a good play; they did," Burrow said. "They were able to maintain their two-high shells and put a guy in the box to defend the run. And in that second half, we began to figure it out a little bit and were able to throw the ball all second half. We weren't able to pull it out."
The 49ers were also able to put plenty of heat on Burrow, led by their elite sacker and Burrow Buckeye buddy Nick Bosa. Bosa could seemingly line up over the Titanic and bring pressure because he lines up anywhere and everywhere. On Sunday, he made it hard on both tackles, including another old Ohio State buddy, backup right tackle Isaiah Prince playing for the injured Riley Reiff, in racking up two more sacks for 14 on the season.
But it was Burrow's 29-yard throw to slot receiver Tyler Boyd on the snap before the tying touchdown that was pure chilled ice water. With 49ers D-lineman Arden Key working a stunt on the edge, he came within a whisker of impaling himself on Burrow's helmet as Burrow hung in and sifted it to Boyd down the left sideline.
Leave it to another Buckeye buddy to sum it up.
"That's Joe," said Bengals left end Sam Hubbard. "That's who he's always been and we have the utmost confidence in him. I love being on his team and having him as my quarterback. He's still a young player and I'm excited to be on the team with him for a very long time and win a lot of football games. I'm just proud of the way he battles. He never bats an eye and he's just an incredible leader and a teammate."
Go back to Burrow's favorite Chase connection. Fourth-and-five from the 17 and Burrow is running for his life out of the pocket, reversing field, heading to the sideline.
But always looking down field.
"It was a scramble drill. I was running to the left — and while I was still running left, he threw it to the right," Chase said. I wasn't sure why he did that, but then he said it was because of the way the defender would have to turn his hips in order to get to the ball. And I thought, 'That's kind of smart.'" That was a really good play by him."
Burrow: "That was such a great play by him. I started to throw out left and so he, being Ja'Marr, he loves catching touchdowns and is great in the scrambler drill. So I started rolling out left and then reversed field and he did a great job of adjusting to the to the ball in the air. That was one of my favorite touchdowns that we've thrown together. That's one you really have to be on the same page almost immediately, and it worked.
"When I threw it he was still running left and he did a great job. We were just on the same page. I knew exactly what he was seeing and he knew exactly what I was seeing. He's running left and I threw it right he put his foot in the ground and went and got it."
Check out some of the best images from the Bengals vs. 49ers in Week 14 of the 2021 NFL season.
Chase confirmed Burrow told him that was his favorite. But it was the next touchdown, the one that tied it on the 32-yarder, that gave Chase the Bengals rookie record with ten touchdown catches. Doing in 13 games what the great Isaac Curtis did in 14 games in 1973.
Even though it was cover two, Chase beat it because the safety didn't get over the top on his double move.
"We called that same play back to back but we called it on the other side of the 50," Chase said. "They just bit the third time on it. Convert and let it play out. Great call by the offense. Had to take advantage of a route."
Burrow knew it was literally go time with 79 seconds left.
"They played quarters. They were clouding the boundary the whole game, so we started taking advantage of a few throws a little bit," Burrow said, "and Ja'Marr made a great route and got the cornerback to bite, so I threw to that side."
Burrow had to field questions about why Taylor didn't let him keep sifting once they reached the San Fran 26 in overtime. But if Burrow didn't take the bait on the 49ers cover two, he wasn't taking that one, either.
"Whatever play call is called," Burrow said, "we're going to execute to the best of our ability. We made a good drive there, we just weren't able to open up."
But the Bengals seem open for business if they can string together four quarters in the last four games.
"We're still right there," Burrow said. "We've got to find ways to win these games down the stretch and stop beating ourselves, but we're right there"