EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. - You don't get this in open locker rooms.
It's not ideal. Because of the NFL's COVID protocols, the rooms are closed to media and players are made available only in press conference settings. But after Sunday's bitter 34-31 loss to the New York Jets at MetLife Stadium, it did offer an intriguing moment when three of the Bengals captains appeared on the podium together and vowed unity heading into Sunday's suddenly Titanic AFC North game against Cleveland.
"Trying to take a second to really gather my thoughts because I'm trying to speak for everybody," said running back Joe Mixon. "We're together. We know what to expect next week. We know we have to play better, we have to be better and we have to do it. We're going to make it happen and we're going to do it with a vengeance."
Free safety Jessie Bates III nodded at Mixon and wide receiver Tyler Boyd.
"We gave up 34 points. I'm sure they're a little pissed off about that as they should. We have to get better," Bates said. "I think we came up here together because we've been the guys that have been here during the bad parts of the organization. We know we've got the right guys in here to do the right things. Hopefully the coaches can continue to believe in us as players to put it out there on the field. To do the things we want to do we have to win our division. Going 3-0 in the division going into a bye week would be huge."
Boyd, who had two vintage third-down catches on the Bengals' last touchdown drive to put them up 11 points with 7:29 left, agreed they came out flat but he felt the offense stepped it up after another vapid first quarter.
"That's why we came up here together," Boyd said. "We take full responsibility for how we played."
Sunday's postgame may be a preview of how team leadership wants to approach this upcoming game. You may have to go back to the 1980s to find a Bengals (5-3)-Browns (4-4) game where both were at least .500 in November.
"To me, the message with the team, we have to have better messaging," Mixon said. "We have to take initiative as leaders. No matter what, we have to have our team ready to go. Today, we just weren't ready. We came out flat. They wanted it more. That's just what it was.
"We don't have to learn (anything). At the end of the day, we know what we've got in the locker room. We know what we've got as players and as coaches," Mixon said. "We've got to respond in a way that we come through and send a message. And that message has to be strong. With the team, we just have to do whatever we can to be ready for this game coming up because it's big. No matter what, every game is big and this one just got bigger."
BURROW's UPS AND DOWNS: First things first. Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow played well enough to win. Putting up 31 points with a 102 passer rating and three touchdown passes on the road anywhere in the NFL is good enough.
And, secondly, Burrow looked to better days.
"Losing stings, but we'll be better for it," Burrow said.
He threw his 20th touchdown pass in his eighth game, one more than the Bengals had all last year and the same number Andy Dalton had as a rookie. He's on pace for 43, 10 more than Dalton's club record in 2013.
But he wasn't happy.
All the beauty and warts of the Bengals offense were on display Sunday. The Jets didn't let Bengals leading receiver Ja'Marr Chase go deep, or anywhere else for that matter, and he had a season-low three catches for 32 yards when he usually has had one catch for at least 32 yards.
But the Bengals are so deep at receiver, they didn't blink. While Tee Higgins did beat them deep with four catches for 97 yards, Boyd was huge in the final drive.
But the Bengals have trouble with big, physical fronts like Jets possess. They couldn't move them (41 yards rushing on 16 carries with Mixon managing just 33 on 14 tries) and it really showed up on goal line and the red zone, where Mixon had five runs for two yards and didn't have a run in there longer than a yard until the fourth quarter.
Even more telling, the Bengals felt they had to pass on 11 out of 16 red-zone snaps.
And when they needed to drain the clock with the run like they did in Detroit and Baltimore with 4:36 left and up 31-26, they felt like they had to start their four-minute drill with a screen to Chase and the age-old maxim that three things can happen when you pass and two of them are bad raised its head.
Somehow Jets tackle Shaq Lawson leaped, tipped it and caught it. Representative, really, how the Jets dominated up front.
"It was not really anything different for anybody to do there, he just made a good play on the ball," Burrow said. "They're really good inside. That's the strength of their team, is their defensive line and they showed it today."
Now down 34-31, the Bengals had to punt with 2:19 when they couldn't keep Burrow clean in the pocket. Before he was sacked on third down, he had two passes defensed as he got them out of his hand, one on a safety blitz. He had three passes tipped by linemen at the line and was sacked three times.
"I think we just have to come in focused every single day," Burrow said. "Like I said, we come out flat, any team in this league can beat any team. So, we just can't come out flat in any game … I think our expectations of ourselves is higher than everybody else's. My expectations were just as high last year as they are this year, of myself and of our team."
SLANTS AND SCREENS: Here are two things you have to love about Burrow.
There are quarterbacks in this league who don't shake hands with the other quarterback after they lose. Everything is dandy when they win, but not so much with an L. Burrow doesn't look like to be one of those guys. He made sure he shook Mike White's hand when he probably only recognized him with his No. 5.
"He was impressive. He played really well, and I told him that after the game," Burrow said. "Congrats to him, first start playing that way against our defense who's been really, really good all season so congrats to him. It's exciting for him and his family."
And, he's not going to throw teammates under the bus publicly. He probably already issued his thoughts to them long before post game, but as if to highlight the goal-line struggles, the Bengals had to settle for a critical field goal after they had a first down at the Jets 7 late in the first half and then threw three straight incompletions.
Still, it looked like they were going up 21-7 on the first play after the two-minute warning when Burrow whipped a third-down pass from the 3 to an open Boyd running very near tight end C.J. Uzomah. Boyd didn't turn in time, the ball whistled by and Burrow jumped up and down in anguish.
"Just miscommunication. That's all I got for you," Burrow said. Didn't execute the play the way we were supposed to."
In the middle of that final drive they had to punt, it didn't help that rookie right guard Jackson Carman was carted off with a back issue. The initial sense is he's OK. His replacement, fellow rookie Trey Hill, was called for hands to the face on that final sack.
Chase has been so good, so everyone was stunned when he dropped a touchdown pass on that four-play mishap that started from the 1. But he caught a similar ball for a two-yard touchdown later, giving him seven for the season on a pace for 15, the most by any Bengals wide receiver Carl Pickens' club-record 17 in the '90s.