You can't really call them "Must Games," but pretty close.
Maybe Back-to-the-Wall games and the Bengals of the last two seasons have been terrific in those. Call them 7-1 (2-0 this year) and it looks like one of those games Monday night (8:15-Cincinnati's Channel 9 and ESPN) in Cleveland.
Forget prime time. This is crunch time and the Bengals have Cap'n Crunch in Joe Lee Burrow.
"Absolutely," says Bengals slot cornerback Mike Hilton, a member of three AFC North champions after Cincinnati prevailed last season. "Time to get our first AFC North win. It's about that time where teams start to separate and pull away from the pack for the playoff push. We like where we're at, but we still have a lot of stuff we need to do."
Like avoid 0-3 in the division. The Bengals have won the AFC North five times in the last 17 seasons, but only once did they win it at 3-3, when their 11-5 record in 2013 was three games better than the .500 Ravens and Steelers.
It doesn't look like anyone is going to run away with it like that as the Bengals look for a win over the Browns to stay in first in the North with Baltimore at 5-3. At the moment, Cincy is one game out of the playoffs with that 0-2 division record and 2-2 AFC record holding them back in the tiebreakers. But Monday night is the kind of game they've won in the Burrow Era.
Last year they went to Vegas out of the bye and with everyone 5-4, beat the Raiders. Then after losing back-to-back games at Paycor Stadium to open December, they absolutely had to win in Denver and they did. Then in four ultimate Wall Ball Games, they went 3-1 in the playoffs.
This season, they came back from the 0-2 brink with that meant-everything win in New York over the Jets. Just a few weeks ago they got back to .500 staving off 2-4 with a win in New Orleans.
The common thread has been gritty road wins with defense at the centerpiece. The only Paycor win in the Wall category was the Germaine Pratt Wild Card. Even the one loss, in the Super Bowl at SoFi, was a defensive masterpiece.
"It's still early in the season. 'Have to,' it's just a word we throw around, but in the NFL we have to win every game,' said cornerback Chidobe Awuzie. "In our head, we want to win every game. Every game is that type of urgency. Obviously, this game is more lights on it, more things build it up. At the end of the day, it's just another game. Nothing changes."
Here's another common denominator. Burrow is lights out when the lights are on. In those eight Wall Ball Games, he's thrown 13 touchdowns with two interceptions for a passer rating of 103.7 on a 69 percent completion rate. In those four regular-season Wall Games, he's got eight touchdowns and no picks.
"I think it has everything to do with the character of the guys in the locker room, guys that care, it matters to them," Burrow says of the Wall Ball Games. "And you're really good players as well. Those characteristics are what makes up great teams. I think we have a great team, we are going to continue to go out and show it. This is a big one. We've got to get our first division win on the road."
They've won them all kinds of ways, too. In Vegas and Denver, Burrow didn't throw for more than 157 yards or attempt 30 passes as the defense allowed just 23 points combined in protecting fourth-quarter leads. Two weeks ago in New Orleans, he put it up 37 times for 300 yards and pulled it out with two minutes left on a 60-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase.
And in the playoffs there were those back-to-back Evan McPherson walk-off field goals on the road.
"There are two types of teams," Awuzie said. "One, when their back is against the wall, they fight. They become better. And the other team is when you put their back against the wall, they crumble. One is a front runner and one of them is a dog. We know that Cleveland is a dog. They're in the AFC North and they're going to fight. We have to be ready for a fight and that's what we're known for, too."
The Bengals haven't won in Cleveland since 2017, when Andy Dalton beat DeShone Kizer on two touchdown passes to tight end Tyler Kroft. No defensive player on the active roster now was part of that game.
"It's confidence," Hilton says of the Wall Games. "Confidence in each other. Confidence in the coaches. And just the belief we're the better team that's on the field. (Going 0-3 in the division) would definitely be tough. Hopefully we'll get this first one and get our AFC train rolling. We know we'll see some of these guys again and be ready."
Of course, each guy gets ready in his own way.
"I don't even know how many games we've won in a row,' Awuzie said. "I don't even know our record. I just know we're coming off a win and we've got another game to win."
Monday night would be their third straight win and make the second straight year they got into November with five wins. In the previous 17 seasons, they've done that seven times and made the playoffs in six of those years.
"I think that they know how important these divisional games are, and stepping up to the plate, the guys we can rely on, which we do," says Bengals head coach Zac Taylor. "But they know more so these big moments, when you're facing good teams, we need our playmakers to step up and rise up to the challenge and they always do. And this week is no different. I think these guys like playing on primetime and they'll be ready."