Even though his sprained shoulder is "73 percent," and he says it's surreal to be out of the playoffs, three-time Pro Bowl wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase plans to play in Sunday's regular-season finale at Paycor Stadium (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Local 12) against the Browns.
"I love football. You never know when it's going to be your last game," Chase said after Thursday's practice in the IEL Indoor Facility. "At the end of the day, I just want to give thanks to the guys who have been in this locker room who might not be here next year."
It's hard to say who, but a few things appear certain.
Slot receiver Tyler Boyd heads into free agency playing his 120th Bengals game. If that's his last game here, only two Bengals Ring of Honor members (Isaac Curtis and Chad Johnson), a future ROH member (A.J. Green), and Tim McGee have played more games for the Bengals at wide receiver.
And wide receiver Tee Higgins may very well head into free agency on the inactive list for Sunday's game with a hamstring injury that kept him out of his second straight practice Thursday after he gamely played with it in the second half of last Sunday's game in Kansas City.
Now, the Bengals have given every indication they're going to do whatever they can to re-sign Higgins. Last month Boyd told Bengals.com that returning next season is 'absolutely,' an option for him.
But no matter what happens, Chase is the most dynamic receiver on what has been the NFL's most dynamic trio of wide receivers for the past three seasons in what can only be described as an anti-diva room.
At one of the league's most temperamental positions, the Bengals have had less drama than lunch. While Chase has gone to the Pro Bowls, Higgins has had a 100-yard Super Bowl, and Boyd has hauled down four 100-yard games of his own and there has been nary a word of discontent in the media. Social or otherwise.
"We're unselfish," Chase said. "We all know our jobs. We come in ready to work."
Bengals offensive coordinator Brian Callahan is working on his second decade of coaching in the NFL, so he can appreciate the non-diva factor.
"They're awesome teammates, they're awesome people," Callahan said this week. "I've always felt like if your team is full of guys where your best talent are your best workers and the guys that put in the most time and have the best practice habits, that tends to make your team a really good football team when those players step into those roles."
"And Tee and Jamar have been that as much of it as you can ever ask for from those players. So they've been fantastic. And when they're both healthy, they're really formidable challenge for teams on defense."
In the games the healthy Chase and Higgins start together, the Bengals are 24-13, 6-5 when not. Chase says he'll be 100% for next year's opener. He needs no surgery on his AC joint but says he'll take a month off and draw motivation from a season that he doesn't want to end with his first losing record on any level.
Chase is eligible for a contract extension once Sunday's game is over and he cracked a few jokes when asked if he'll wait for his college buddy and fellow perennial Pro Bowler Justin Jefferson to sign. Or if he'd take less to keep both him and Higgins.
But he seemed to be quite serious about wanting one here and that the most important part of a deal is the upfront money. But when it comes to the future and how the Bengals are going to carve up the money between him and Higgins, he shrugged.
"I'm living in the moment," Chase said.
He hopes Sunday's moment involves him getting four catches for the Bengals' third 100-catch season. No doubt he'd like to end up between T.J. Houshmandzadeh's club-record 112 and Carl Pickens' second-place 100. His goal is 114, but he doesn't see 18 catches on Sunday. However, he did have a team-record 15 earlier this year in Arizona when Higgins was out with a rib injury.
"Too much," said Chase, who wouldn't say how long he'd go once he hits 100.
But 100 yards would be big, too. It would be his sixth 100-yard game of the season (his first since Dec. 4) and tie him with Green for the club-best in a season.
It sounds like long enough so they can win. But he doesn't see it as a revenge game since the Browns are sitting their regulars. It will be recalled in the week before the opener that Chase offered a few shots at the Browns' elf logo before the Bengals lost a 24-3 game he had five catches for 39 yards.
"Not much redemption. They're going somewhere we're not going," Chase said. "I could beat them. Everybody's not playing. It's not really bragging rights."
IRON MIKE: Captain and slot cornerback Mike Hilton is confident the kids in his defensive secondary are going to get a handle on the long plays this spring after they've led the league this season in allowing explosive plays of at least 30 yards.
"A person in my role, with the young guys we have, the experience they had this year will be big for them next year, I expect everybody to make a jump," Hilton said this week.
Hilton turns 30 in March and he stands to be the oldest and the most experienced player in the back end when they return for 2024. He says they believe in the two first-year starting safeties Dax Hill and Jordan Battle, as well as rookie cornerbacks D.J. Turner II and D.J. Ivey, and has high hopes for their development. He also underlines where the improvement needs to come.
"Our communication has to be a lot better," Hilton said. "Obviously, we brought in two new safeties. Just throughout the whole year, you could just tell there was something missing. That chemistry was missing. There's been a learning curve for them and we expect those guys having a year together back there, it will be good. Next year we really expect them to take a jump and play a lot better."
Hilton isn't talking out of school. Defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo said the same thing this week. Without savvy veteran safeties Jessie Bates III (the guys in the locker room were thrilled he was named to the Pro Bowl with the Falcons) and Vonn Bell, Anarumo didn't think it was too complicated for the young guys. But he does think they just need more game reps to take what they show on the practice field.
Some of the plays he pointed to last week in Kansas City were of the basic variety. Patrick Mahomes' lob-and-run 67-yarder to wide receiver Rashee Rice came on a call "We've run 400 times," but Hill went the wrong way in the cloud and wasn't there to help cornerback Cam Taylor-Britt. Turner gave up a 41-yarder on a sail route he had just smoothly defended in the same game.
"We're functioning, we're talking the right levels. But when push comes to shove and it's Patrick Mahomes over there, all of a sudden we short-circuit for some reason," Anarumo said. "And those are the things, we'll have to figure out in the offseason exactly what our guys do well and we've been, trust me, we're trying to do that as the season progressed. It's not like I'm trying to fit a square peg in a round hole.
"Some of the things unfold during the game that don't unfold during the week of practice. So it's hard to fix if it's not fixable during the week. Those are the things that we have to correct and figure out as we move forward."
Hilton, finishing his seventh season, believes like everyone else the biggest improvement comes in year two of a career. He says that's about the time a player is able to combine what the coaches are teaching him in the pros along with the talents they used to get here.
"At some point you let instincts take over. Be who you are, do what got you here, but also do what the coaches tell you. It's a little mixture of both," Hilton said. "You have time to think. It's read and react. You take that half a second thinking, that's all the offense needs to make a big play. That's kind of what it's been this year.
"I know Lou will have them ready to go next year."
SLANTS AND SCREENS: Center Ted Karras, leading all 32 of the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year nominees in the charity challenge fan vote that ends Monday , went right to the top and asked the rarely tweeting Joe Burrow to tweet his vote.
(You can do it, too, at #WPMOYChallenge Ted Karras).
It made for a bit of an awkward yet laughable moment. Burrow gave him his phone and said Karras had to construct the tweet and he'd push the button. Burrow also wanted the moment filmed.
"To show the weirdness of it," Karras said. "But it was great. We got a ton of engagement."
The winner gets $35,000 for his charity and Karras knows what that would mean for the Village of Merici in his hometown of Indianapolis as they look to expand independent living for adults with intellectual disabilities: "We've already doubled the Village's footprint." He's also vowing new and big things next year in both Indy and Cincinnati …
Last year Karras received the Media Cooperation Award from the Cincinnati chapter of the Pro Football Writers of America. On Thursday it went to Chase and when he saw Karras' name on the plaque, he brightened. 'There's Ted. Hey, I'm on there with some of the greats." …
Karras probably has the line of the week when it comes to why he'll play hard Sunday.
"I'm not good enough not to play full throttle," Karras said. "I notice there are guys in this league that are. But I'm not, unfortunately, blessed with that talent. This league has the biggest, baddest guys in the world, so whenever you go out there, you have to be ready to go." …
Boyd's 120 games as a Bengal are the 15th most since Paycor Stadium opened in 2000. He'll pass Ring of Honor member Willie Anderson, who played 119 of his 181 games after the move from Riverfront Stadium …
How about this? Boyd is looking for his first touchdown pass from Jake Browning. But he's already got a TD pass from Browns starter Jeff Driskel in 2018 …