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Playoff Push Keeps Moving As Jake Browning And Bengals Point The Way

QB Jake Browning during the Colts-Bengals game in Week 14 of the 2023 season on Sunday, December 10 at Paycor Stadium in Cincinnati, Ohio.
QB Jake Browning during the Colts-Bengals game in Week 14 of the 2023 season on Sunday, December 10 at Paycor Stadium in Cincinnati, Ohio.

It was kids' day in the locker room as Jake Browning showed AJ McCarron's son the crib sheet of plays the Bengals used Sunday to beat the Colts, 34-14, and stay  alive in the Rubik's Cube AFC playoff formula.

Across the way, Orlando Brown III held a Batman figure as his left tackle dad held court and was asked the inevitable.

"He might as well be Batman," Orlando Brown Jr. said of Browning, their canny and accurate quarterback who dispatched another contending villain for the second time in six days in his third NFL start.  "The way he's coming in here with all the tools and the tips and things he using, he's executing at a high level. I just like his poise. What stands out to me is his confidence and moxie."

For the second time Sunday, Browning followed running back Joe Mixon's lead. Mixon had shoved him into the end zone for a one-yard touchdown run behind Orlando Brown Jr.'s monstrous block for the 28-14 lead that symbolized the crushing diversity of head coach Zac Taylor's offense.

When someone told Browning that Mixon said, "Damn right," when asked if the Bengals were a playoff team, Browning was asked what he thought.

"Damn right," Browning offered.

Tight end Tanner Hudson, the very picture of resilience Sunday when he scored his first career NFL touchdown in his 41st game in his fifth season for his fourth team, had been asked about the pundits declaring the Bengals  done two weeks ago.

"We ain't dead yet," said Hudson, whose two catches broke a 14-14 tie and kept the drive alive that made it 28-14.

They are one of six AFC teams at 7-6, but not yet in the seven-team playoff picture because of those dizzying tiebreakers. But what is more than certain is they're alive for a second straight short week when the Vikings come to Paycor for a Saturday 1 p.m. game because Taylor is using all of a roster with stunning depth and emptying his prodigious playbook.

If someone had told you back in May that the Bengals had just won a game to stay in the race in December against a playoff contender  without Joe Burrow, with Ja'Marr Chase and Tee Higgins combining for five catches, with their leading receiver a rookie running back, with their two biggest plays screen passes, with their big play tight end a practice squadder in September, and surviving a pick-six, how quickly would you have moved on?

These two-time AFC finalists are smelling the playoffs for a third straight season after reinventing themselves because they know they can win a game so many different ways.

"In 2021, I remember we were sitting here around this time. Maybe it was a little before," said right tackle Jonah Williams. "But we were like, 'All right boys, we have to win out to make the playoffs,' and it looked like an uphill battle at the time. But we did it and got all the way to the Super Bowl. We're in a good position right now, and we just have to keep stacking these wins."

Just the range of the game balls showed you that much needed December depth. Hudson not only scored his first NFL touchdown, but so did that rookie running back Chase Brown with that home-run speed they targeted in the fifth round.

But also getting a game ball was one of their playoff heroes, defensive tackle B.J. Hill with his first NFL regular-season interception that was one of the Colts' two fourth-quarter turnovers. Two years ago it was a Hill pick that turned the tide of the AFC title game and he had the same feeling of a run as he talked about Browning.

"I love seeing him coming out there and balling each week," Hill said. "We believe in him. We believe in the  whole offense. You see it each and every week. He's getting more comfortable, making big plays for us. I love him. Great kid. I heard great things about him when I first got here from a guy I know in Minnesota. He's selling out for us."

Two years ago, Taylor engineered a Super Bowl run in just his third year. Last year he came within seconds of going back with a ten-game winning streak. But we may be watching his best coaching job as he navigates this stretch without Burrow.

Six days after Pro Bowl wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase carried them with 10 more ridiculous catches, Mixon and Chase Brown carried them as Browning hit a crafty 75% percent of his 24 passes, most of them under the Colts'  stubborn Cover Three. It made him the most accurate passer in the last 73 years when it comes to anyone's first three starts, according to Elias Sports Bureau.

"He's a stud. So calm, collected. Overseeing everything so well," Hudson said. "He's just been balling. No other way to put it."

Taylor is not only coaching the most accurate passer in history in Burrow, but also the league's most accurate start to a career in Browning. And on Sunday his offensive staff buried the Colts in their multiplicity, moving easily in and out of its signature shotgun look to under center and then back again.  A team known for its three-receiver sets, picked up Hudson's huge third-and-seven conversion when they kept tight Drew Sample in the backfield to pass block, a recent wrinkle that has paid dividends.

An offense that has controlled games with a quick, possession passing game churned out 32 runs by Mixon and Brown and converted a fourth-and-one with both of them in there as Mixon bulled from the fullback spot. As Burrow observed his 27th birthday, he watched his offense grow even more.

Chase Brown had three catches for 80 yards, 54 for that first touchdown on a screen that was the longest pass play by a Bengals' back in six years. Mixon added his longest play in two years on a 46-yard screen to go along with his 79 yards on 21 carries. That is 242 total yards for Mixon in six days and for the first time since the Super Bowl run of 2021 (Nov. 21-28 in the wins over the Raiders and Steelers), the Bengals ran it more than 30 times in back-to-back games.

"There's sort of different elements of talent that we have," Jonah Williams said. "Mixon is a huge, physical back. one of the most physical backs in the league. And then we've got some of the speediest receivers in the league, and then there's Chase Brown, who hits 22 miles-per-hour. It's like we're super variable on how we can attack people. And like I said, Zac's been calling great games with tons of variety. We're keeping teams on their heels, and it helps us look good and to score points."

After putting up a 122.7 passer rating six days after putting up a 115, Browning talked about the two-way trust with Taylor.

"I don't think there is much put into the game plan that's just, 'Hey, let's just protect this guy,'" Browning said. "I think it's, 'We're calling what gives us the best chance to win.' I think that's how it should be, and that's kind of been my communication throughout the whole thing. There are certain things that I like. More maybe than some things that (Burrow) doesn't. That's just personal preference. I think that gets taken into account when we're putting together the game plan."

After scoring 68 points within a week for the first time since late '21, there is a familiar confidence brewing. Under Burrow and Browning, they've won eight straight in December.

Tee Higgins, who did make an acrobatic 46-yard catch Sunday when he made a remarkable recovery on a deep ball, called Browning, 'QB1 material." Center Ted Karras was able to needle his quarterback for cramping. "Drink some water at home, bud," but also did say, "Jake is in a unique position. He had the confidence of this team as a backup when with the run he had in training camp. But to come in and rattle off these two wins is huge."  Slot cornerback Mike Hilton, who has been to the playoffs with two AFC North teams, likes where they are.

"We ain't dead yet," Hudson said. "That's just our mentality."