Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow's last pass of 2023 was for a touchdown Thursday night and he's not quite sure how he got it to running back Joe Mixon for four yards. But as he stared at his season-ending wrist injury Friday, he does know he left the Bengals at 5-5 with a shot at the playoffs.
"Obviously whenever you go down, you have a lot of aspirations for what the season's going to look like, what the end of the season is going to look like," said the matter-of-fact Burrow, still carefully processing it all as he met the media a brief 18 hours after he fell on his wrist with the help of Ravens defensive end Jadeveon Clowney.
"We were in a good spot. We are in a good spot. It's obviously disappointing because you obviously work so hard to get to this moment. Things are starting to take a turn. You're starting to play really well and then something like this happens. Nothing you can do about it. Just have to grind it out."
Head coach Zac Taylor confirmed the worst. A torn ligament trending toward surgery. The injury, they believe, happened on the play before the touchdown, when Clowney hit Burrow as he was throwing a nine-yard pass to Mixon. That was his sixth straight completion. The touchdown was his seventh straight and Mixon had to reach for it in the flat before scoring. Before Mixon caught it, Burrow grabbed the wrist.
"That's the best guess. You just see how he landed. Clowney kind of lands on top of him and the way he caught his wrist," Taylor said. "For him to throw the way he did before that and then the next play really not be able to grab the ball. That seems to make the most sense."
It means Jake Browning makes his first NFL start in the Nov. 26 Paycor Stadium game against the Steelers as he bids to do what AJ McCarron did in his first NFL start in 2015. It's too early to clinch a playoff berth now, but McCarron, now Browning's backup on the practice squad, did it the week after Andy Dalton was injured against the Steelers.
Browning assumes the club during a week a bevy of backup quarterbacks won games, such as Josh Dobbs for the Vikings, Aidan O'Connell for the Raiders, and Tyson Bagent for the Bears.
"There are a lot of good quarterbacks out there. I feel like I'm one of those," Browning said Friday, the last time he hosts the media in front of his locker this season.
He's a podium guy now as the starter.
"There are a lot of storylines you run with, but I think my job is just to go day by day with my routine. To have the best Monday, have the best Tuesday, keep stacking those days and with every rep learning from that and every live rep in a live pocket in a game and learning from that."
The edge that Browning has over all the others is that he probably got the most training-camp snaps with the No. 1 receivers of any backup in the NFL when Burrow missed 34 days of the preseason with a strained calf.
Browning pointed to his two-yard touchdown fade to wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase with 68 seconds left Thursday night in Baltimore.
"I don't think I make that throw if I don't have all of August throwing those throws to him. A lot of timing involved," Browning said. "It allowed me to be able to hop into the game, hey, I've been going against our defense for all of August.' I would argue going against the same defense day after day, that makes you really refine your game to stay one step ahead of what they see on you.
"I jumped in against a good defense, felt comfortable, and felt like I threw the ball where I wanted to on all my throws. Obviously, you're going to have some plays you want back. How do you access that going forward and what do you fix and stuff?"
Taylor says he doesn't expect any complications and indicated that Burrow should be able to throw in conjunction with his 2024 preparation.
For now, he'll be on the sidelines during games helping Browning instead of wearing No. 9.
"Be present. Try to bring energy. I've kind of always just been a lead by example guy, but that's not really where I'm at right now," Burrow said. "I can't lead by example. So I've got to find other ways to do that, bring energy, talk to guys, try to boost morale in any way that I can. That's the the job that I have right now."
Don't look for massive changes to Taylor's offense.
Browning, 27, who played in his first two NFL games earlier this year, has been with the Bengals since the week before the 2021 Opening Day win over Minnesota, where he spent his first two seasons.
"I feel really comfortable he can do all the things we ask our guys to do in our offense. So, it doesn't take anything off the table," Taylor said. "Obviously, you want to continue to play to his strengths. You continue to change conversations from, Hey, Joe, what do you like in the plan,' to more, 'Hey, Jake, what do you feel most comfortable about in these situations?' That's the only thing that really changes within the scope of our offense. Everything stays on the table. "