JACKSONVILLE, Fla. _ After he engineered one of the Bengals' biggest road wins ever, Bengals quarterback Jake Browning was asked why he made his home at center Ted Karras' house during the last two training camps.
"Because I didn't know if I was going to have a job. I didn't want to sign a lease," Browning said.
On Monday night Browning signed off on the biggest game of his career by gunning down the AFC South-leading Jaguars in overtime, 34-31, with mind-boggling precision for a man making his second NFL start and second of any kind since the 2019 Rose Bowl. At the end of a weekend Browning's Washington Huskies made the College Football Playoff, he made sure the 6-6 Bengals stayed just a game out of the thorny 2023 AFC playoff picture.
"Got us one step closer to getting a foot in the door and once we get our foot in the door, we should break it down," said wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase after showing the league an 11-catch, 149-yard warrant. "It was loud out there and (Browning) was yelling really loud and that's what we needed. He showed a lot of poise today."
Joe Burrow's understudy was as frosty as the man himself as he channeled Joey B's game. Six weeks after Burrow had racked up the Bengals' second-best completion percentage of all-time in a game with 87.5% at San Francisco against the NFC South-leading 49ers, Browning matched him throw-for-throw in regulation with 28 of 32. When he finished with 354 yards on 32 of 37 in the din of EverBank Stadium, his 86% was fifth best.
"At halftime, I had trouble remembering if he had an incompletion," said head coach Zac Taylor, when Browning was 17 of 19 after hitting his first ten.
Browning extended the Burrow Bengals December winning streak to seven games with their first walk-off win since 2021, when Burrow conjured up five on the last snap. All Evan McPherson field goals. McPherson delivered again Monday on a 48-yarder with 1:45 left in OT after Browning hit a Burrow-esque third-and-10 from the Bengals 47 when he beat the blitz with an 11-yard out to wide receiver Tee Higgins with 3:16 left.
He used Chase like Burrow did, pumping him 12 targets and being rewarded with a slew of highlights. A leaping one-handed catch against his face shield on third down to jump-start the first drive. Plucking a fourth-and-three ball off the turf to set up the 28-28 tie. The juggling-bat-it-to-himself 17-yard roll job over the middle in the last drive. Never mind the hellacious 76-yard TD GO route.
"They've shown different games to play different styles, so you had to sort through that early in the game. I mean, yeah, there is no lie," said Taylor, who emptied it all to win his first road prime-time game by going for it on fourth down twice and trying two double passes.
"Once the game gets going and he's completing balls like he is, it gives you the confidence, let's just keep dialing this thing up. He probably found a lot of completions in the run game, too. I bet he had six or seven completions on runs where he just took the RPOs (run-pass options) off that thing. So it was a good day for everybody on offense."
Ah, the run game. They told you they'd run the ball more than they did last week against the down-hill Steelers on just eight carries for 16 yards and they smashed it for season-highs with 156 yards on 31 attempts against the NFL's fourth-best run defense. Running back Joe Mixon, whose 68 yards made him the third Bengal to rush for 6,000 career yards, was all over the place with 117 scrimmage yards.
"Our physicality upfront," said Pro Bowl left tackle Orlando Brown. "We did a good job controlling the first level of the defense. The rest was taking care of itself."
Browning said the run game was a huge help. In fact, he said, it set up his one touchdown pass Monday night on the Bengals' longest pass of the season, that 76-yard pearl over Chase's shoulder beating man down the left sideline on the first series of the second half that gave them a 21-14 lead.
"I think part of the reason we had that one-on-one coverage is because we ran the ball so well," Browning said. "I think if you don't establish the run early like that, we're not going to have one-on-ones with guys like Ja'Marr and Tee on the outside. I did not see any of the throw. I threw it, got hit, and kind of just watched him run, and then I saw him turn around near the goal line and I was thinking, 'Why is he turning around?' He said it was because he was getting disrespectful."
Maybe Taylor isn't always pass-first. The man is win-first and that's how they did it when virtually no one said they could. He masterfully mixed it up Monday. He put Browning under center at times, he rolled him out, and he dropped him in shotgun at times to survey. Taylor also dialed up a host of screens and short scrimmage passes to try YAC.
And, those 31 runs.
"It certainly helps him when you get into a rhythm like that, and we converted some third downs that kept us in a roll there. I thought Jake was outstanding on third down," Taylor said. "Last week, third down was really what got us. This week I thought he knocked it out of the park and got some really good checks. One of them hit big on a screen he got to; the other one didn't. That's life.
"I just thought that he managed that really well. The communication with him and Ted and the linemen up front was really good. He did a great job on the road. It was loud. It was maybe louder than I anticipated, but he did a good job managing that noise and getting out of the huddle quickly, and being able to communicate the checks, and I thought it was really well done."
Third down had to be the key to the game. Back in 1990, when the Bengals last won a road Monday night game, Boomer Esiason called it 'the quarterback's down." On Monday, Browning was eight of 14 on third down after going 2-for-10 in his first start.
"Against the Steelers, we were in a lot of the five-man protection, trying to help on the edges. Which makes a lot of sense with the two guys that Pittsburgh has. This week, a little bit more six- and seven-man protection and mixed it up a little bit," Browning said. "So, the difference between five- and six-man protection for a quarterback is huge, because you just send it one way. I know where my issues are. I feel like I played with better eyes because of that. I think that was my main take away from the Pittsburgh game, is I'm peeking over here to make sure I'm not hot (being blitzed) and then I am trying to go through a read and deliver it on time, and my eyes were all over the place. So, that was kind of a big thing coming into this week it was just eye discipline."
Exhibit A was the OT throw to Higgins. Maybe he had three catches for 36 yards, but everyone seemed as huge as him and he seemed to be a calming presence in his first game with Browning after missing the last three with a hamstring issue.
Third-and-10. The Jags are blitzing and seven men are protecting with his three receivers out and the back and tight end staying in. Higgins runs a terrific out for 11 yards against the beleaguered Tyson Campbell to the Jags 42. A flip to Chase on one of Taylor's creative screens got them in field-goal range.
What can you say about Chase? Just say only three other men have started their careers with three seasons of 80 catches and 1,000 yards, both secured Monday. And just say when Chase dropped the only target he didn't catch Monday inside the 5 on a short third-and-three down, 28-21, Browning went right back to him to set up his tying sneak with 9:27 left.
"The last 20 minutes was got to have it and we got it," Karras said.
He was talking about guys like Chase.
"Ja'Marr could drop like five straight passes and I would keep throwing him the ball. I'm going to have bad throws; he's going to have drops," Browning said. "I think the next play was the fourth down. We went right back to him and again, I thought he was going to score again. We've got a pretty resilient locker room, but you know who our guys are, and I'm going to continue to throw him the ball regardless of what happen."
Talk about resilient. They gave up two touchdowns in 17 seconds on excruciating mistakes. A dropped interception and a double pass intercepted on the very next play inside the 10 in what could have been a fatal third quarter. But it turned out these guys were just getting warmed up.
"There is a silver lining there," Taylor said of this Burrow-less stretch. "It puts a real spotlight on the character in the locker room. No one pointed fingers, and there is plenty of opportunity to. Offense to defense, defense to offense, whatever you wanted to do, it could've been done. Players, coaches, those guys stuck together and kept believing. Just put in their best week of work. As a head coach that gets a chance to watch that firsthand, it really made me proud, made me confident."
Browning dropped back into history. It was the first Monday night road win since another testament to the run game in '90, when Esiason threw for just 75 yards in Cleveland but handed off for 233 in a 34-13 win. That night, No. 30, running back Ickey Woods, did "The Ickey Shuffle," after scoring a touchdown. On this Monday night, No. 30, rookie running back Chase Brown, had his break-out game with 61 yards on nine carries that included the Bengals' longest run of the year for 31 yards.
"Felt good. Felt good," Brown said. "To do it in a win feels even better."
And Browning duplicated what Jeff Blake did. In Blake's second start after losing a close game at home, he went on the road to win an overtime game with the help of a 76-yard pass. Blake won the job that year. Browning is just keeping the seat warm for Burrow and appreciated he was sitting next to him on the bench Monday.
"Joe has been great. Nice to have him on the sideline. It's nice to have him travel down to Jacksonville," Browning said. "He's probably got some other things he could do and are maybe more enjoyable for him, but he's coming here and being supportive, it's awesome."
Browning admitted he has trouble with losing memorabilia. One place Monday's game ball is not going is Karras' house. He's given the Bengals a new lease on life.
"Probably my girlfriend. It's been a long road, a lot of the moving, a lot of, 'Am I going to make a team?' 'Am I going to make any money?'" Browning said. "Some of that real-life chaos and kind of what happens behind the scenes. She's been very supportive, and that's awesome to have. Somebody very calm. That's why I always date somebody smarter than me."