If there is ever a game where Bengals head coach Zac Taylor's culture club needs a victory, it is Sunday (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 12) against the 1-5 Jets at Met Life Stadium.
The Bengals are coming off their biggest win in the 39-game Taylor era, own the top seed in the AFC playoff chase and are suddenly the darlings of the national media that has taken pot shots at them since the Jeremy Hill fumble six years ago.
Meanwhile, the Jets are coming off a 54-13 loss to the Patriots, quarterback Mike White is making his first NFL start and the last thing the Bengals can do is look past this Sunday to the Nov. 7 AFC North game at Paul Brown Stadium against Cleveland.
That's where Taylor's locker room culture comes in. Not only did free agency in the last two years give them excellent players, it stocked them with players accustomed to negotiating such moments on the way to the playoffs.
In addition to tight end C.J. Uzomah, punter Kevin Huber and long snapper Clark Harris, the lone Bengals left from their last postseason game, the Bengals have a dozen players acquired in 2020 and 2021 who have played in at least one playoff game. Two others, guard Xavier Su'a-Filo and cornerback Trae Waynes, are on injured reserve.
"They bring a lot of resilience," said quarterback Joe Burrow before Wednesday's practice. "They understand what it takes to get to that point and go beyond that point. We got guys that have been there and done that. That'll help us."
But Taylor doesn't restrict it to the vets. He's also looking at guys making their first NFL postseason runs that they've drafted in the last two years. Guys like Burrow, wide receivers Tee Higgins and Ja'Marr Chase and right guard Jackson Carman who have big time college big game pedigrees.
"We've got a lot of guys that have played in college national championship games and they understand it in a different way," Taylor said this week. "They've won a lot of games and they understand what it takes to be consistent and how you're going to get everybody's best shot each week."
It really is a nice mix. Over here is Larry Ogunjobi, the Bengals sterling three technique who came over from the Browns after living through both an 0-16 season and a Wild Card berth in Cleveland.
"Once you break through and start winning these big games you start to build that momentum, that's all it takes," Ogunjobi said. "(We've) got the right culture, you got the right players, you got the right team chemistry and that's when it starts to build and blossom into something special. Right now it's about keeping the main thing the main thing and just taking it one week at a time.
"The biggest thing is staying focused. A lot of times the noise starts happening but it can flip just like that. The biggest thing is staying focused, handling our business and take it one week at a time."
And then over there is Burrow, author of one of the greatest seasons in college football history two brief years ago at LSU, where every game was a deafening legacy moment in the SEC.
"It's different just because it's college," Burrow said. "NFL, it's different. But we've got a lot of the same guys in there. We got four or five from that team, so we're just going to keep focused on getting better every day.
"We were always chasing the perfect game. And that's not really realistic to achieve. But, you're always chasing that. And we're talking about it in there right now. We still haven't played our best game, we're 5-2, we're in a great spot, but we're not satisfied."
Which is exactly the mentality Taylor needs in a classic trap game in New Jersey on Sunday.
BURROW-CHASE PART II: There were many reasons the Bengals opted for the wide receiver over the left tackle with the fifth pick in the draft. One of the big ones is that Chase would be in his third season with Burrow, not his first, and they were banking on the chemistry still bubbling.
They got that more than right and never was it more on display than Sunday in Baltimore, where Ravens cornerback Marlon Humphrey took away the long ball. Chase still bobbed and weaved for 201 yards on a slant that went for 82 yards, a comeback route for nine yards on fourth-and-one and a couple of almost mystical back-shoulder throws. The back-shoulder throws require reps and reps of practice because both the quarterback and the receiver have to know exactly when the ball is going to be underthrown so the receiver can break off his route.
This is how Burrow explained it Wednesday:
"It's all about number of reps, communication, it's all a timing thing," Burrow said. "If they don't get their eyes around by a certain yard line, you won't be able to make that throw because it's such a timing throw. So you always have to be ready for it. But you don't expect it at the same time. And so, if a DB is playing high, you want to get your eyes around by 10 or 12 yards so you can make that back shoulder box. If he's not looking, it's just going to look like I threw the ball way out of bounds and then he has to do a great job of adjusting to it and not expecting the ball. So it just takes a lot of reps.
"You can't just walk in one day with the receiver and start throwing back shoulder fades. That's not the way it works, it takes a lot of reps to accumulate and feel comfortable throwing it. Just because we've done it so many times. It's not a thing that you do expect, at the same time. It's just a look that the defense gives you that you have to be ready for."
How about this? Chase leads the world in everything, but is tied for fourth place on Pro Football Focus' grades for pass routes. He's tied with the man he replaced, former Bengal-turned-Cardinal A.J. Green. Both are giving their teams what they needed. With those 754 yards, Chase is well past Green's 2020 total of 523. With 406 yards in Arizona, Green is going to go well past last year's numbers and has a shot at his first 1,000-yard season in four years.
LARRY O: Ogunjobi has been an immense pickup up front, as they all have been. He's one of the four Bengals defensive tackles all graded in the NFL top 73 by Pro Football Focus, led by nose tackle D.J. Reader at No. 4. Even after Ogunjobi had 11 sacks at mainly his natural spot at the three technique in 2018-19, the Browns kept moving him around and put him pretty much at nose tackle last year, where he had 2.5 sacks. Now back at his old spot, he's already got 2.5.
"Playing (my) natural position, the 3-technique fits my role, my body-type, my skillset a lot better," Ogunjobi said. "But (also) just the guys, the coaches, the atmosphere, the energy, I feel like this is just a great team to be around, very unselfish team. Guys just playing for each other. I think that's really important. Allows everybody to play really fast and really well. So, we feed off each other's energy and that's the most important thing. My success is through my teammates, and vice versa."
His last sack was a huge one, the first of five against Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson, and it set the tone ending Baltimore's first drive. Off a three-man rush, no less.
"He likes to make plays with this feet, be able to stay active in the pocket," Ogunjobi said. "We were just trying to have enough awareness to know where he's at and where he's trying to go. You know the guys, me, Trey (Hendrickson), Sam (Hubbard), working together with the rush, trying to find a way to get him down."
Here's another area where Ogunjobi's experience comes in. He knows the division and went through two tough losses to the Ravens last year, one in a blowout and one by five points. He knows exactly what Sunday's win means.
"Especially to get a win on the road in their stadium. I think it just helps with momentum of the team and kind of a testament with what we're trying to build here and the culture we're trying to establish," Ogunjobi said. "Just to get a win in their stadium, a win like that is paramount. We're going to continue to build, continue to move forward. Now we're onto the Jets. That's the main focus but it was going to get that win in the bank."
SLANTS AND SCREENS: Backup running back Chis Evans (hamstring) didn't work, but Taylor said he'll ease him through the week and it sounds like he'll play.
Taylor also sounded like they'd be able to activate second-year defensive Khalid Kareem (shoulder) from injured reserve at the end of the week. He hasn't played since having a good preseason and Taylor isn't quite sure where he'd be in the edge rotation, where rookie Cam Sample and Wyatt Ray are the backups behind Hubbard and Hendrickson.
"He was one of the depth pieces there. He was having a good training camp, he was doing some good things in the game," Taylor said. "Works out we can get him back in the fold and sometimes you don't know until you can get him back in the mix and see what he can do.
"We will give him three more days here to practice then make a decision at the end of the week if we are going to play him on Sunday but he is trending in the right direction. I'm optimistic about him."