E. RUTHERFORD, N.J. _ The Bengals' first win of the season was authored by Joe Burrow and Trey Hendrickson, but it was autographed by the toughness of La'el Collins and Tee Higgins and Samaje Perine and a rebounding offensive line and the resiliency and resourcefulness of a defense that is sniffing around the top five.
It was Mind 27, Matter 12.
"We want to have an aggressive mindset. We've got great players. We wanted to get them involved early and let the other team feel that pressure from us," said head coach Zac Taylor, who wrote the forward Saturday morning, when he and his staff decided to snap a two-year trend and take the ball to start the game.
The Bengals took their first lead of the season 5:25 into the game and played like they played down the stretch winning the AFC title. Burrow fired his first three-touchdown pass game since winning the AFC North against the Chiefs, they had four sacks for the first time since they won in Kansas City in the AFC title game and they forced four turnovers for the first time ever in the 52-game Taylor era.
"We set a tone today. We're just going to keep building off that," said right tackle La'el Collins, already thinking about Thursday's game (8:15 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 9) at Paycor Stadium against the undefeated Dolphins. "Keep our eyes forward and worry about what is in front of us, not behind. To get the win feels great, but we have to enjoy it for not even 24 hours. More like 12 and we get back rolling."
Collins and Taylor seemed to be the only ones that thought Collins was going to play Sunday. There were already rumblings how unsteady he looked in the first two games after a back problem sidelined him until late in training camp. After he missed every practice last week, some were even writing his Bengals obit.
But Collins continues to introduce himself. Burrow took two sacks Sunday, both up the middle. Collins' edge guy didn't appear on the stat sheet.
"He pushed through it, that's the kind of guy he is," Burrow said. "He's tough, he's going to just keep getting better and better for us."
Collins, signed with so much fanfare after the Cowboys let him go, was told Burrow's words.
"It means a lot," Collins said. "That's the player I am, the guy I am for my team. I look to be that leader for my team. I wouldn't say (playing with no practice) was hard, It was a little bit of a benefit. I was able to get the body up and under me."
Collins isn't sure if the back is going to make him and them go week-to-week. All he knew right after the game was he felt so good mentally and physically.
"I think it's just an around the clock thing. It's kind of what the body is telling me," Collins said. "But I feel good. I'm excited, I'm happy."
One of the other celebrated pickups, center Ted Karras, thought it was a major day in the offensive line's ongoing effort to get Burrow's trust. He also sees it as a big week.
"I thought we handled the game plan the right way and we've got a quick turnaround here," Karras said. "We have a chance to even it up after a rough start and even it up against a team that's rolling.
"We played pretty good against a real good defensive front. That's about as good as an interior D-Line gets in the NFL, so I thought we held up pretty solid."
Burrow knows why.
"They're just improving," Burrow said. "I played better, we called a better game, and we weren't behind in the first half. Like I said last week, you get behind in the first half over and over again, you put those guys in bad positions. When they're just getting pass rushed every single snap if you're behind by 14 points so we were able to jump out on a lead and then we could run it, we could play action, makes it easier on those guys."
Karras went out for the coin toss with Burrow, called tails, won it said they'd take the ball on a kick for the first time since 2020.
"If you look around at the league statistically, playing with an early lead is a big indication of winning. It obviously doesn't guarantee anything," Karras said. "But we haven't led the whole season."
This was a mental toughness game and the Bengals rode the emotional wave. The first drive was a microcosm of the season. Fits and starts. But some hellacious third down throws to keep it going behind good protection were hints this would be different.
They actually scored three times on that drive. One touchdown was taken away by a holding call on rookie left guard Cordell Volson and another was taken away by an official who didn't rely on the replay and called Higgins out of bounds on a great catch that was close enough for the Bengals to replay it.
But Burrow wouldn't let it die on third-and-goal from the 12. He admitted taking the ball was a risk. "If it's a three-and-out, it's a different conversation." He hung in the pocket, hung in the pocket, rolled to his left and was still able to pop it through two defenders to Perine.
"Probably not a lot of drives that end in touchdowns when you keep getting called back and called back," Burrow said. "But we were able to find the end zone and it was great start to the game for us."
All Perine does is produce. Last week in Dallas he blocked game-breaker Micah Parsons long enough for Burrow to throw the tying two-pointer to Boyd with 3:45 left. Then he made himself available for Sunday's make-or-break touchdown. You could argue that Perine has made the pivotal plays in their last two wins. Sunday's catch and his 43 yard-catch-and-run that was the Bengals' first touchdown in the AFC title game.
Then Perine came off the bench in that last drive and carried eight times for 46 yards while starter Joe Mixon cooled a sore ankle.
"Wherever I'm needed," Perine said last week.
The rushing numbers weren't great, but they were still able to go play-action early and often, which was something that hadn't happened the first two weeks. Leading 14-6 after beating a blitz for wide receiver Tyler Boyd's 56-yard bowling-ball touchdown play, Burrow went up top on the next play to Higgins beating rookie cornerback Sauce Gardner down the right sideline.
The sheer physical force of the 6-4 Higgins was on full display. He wrestled the ball away from Gardner and held on despite a vicious head shot by safety Lamarcus Joyner.
"That's what I get paid to do. Catch the ball," said Higgins, holding a cloth up to his mouth. "No, I didn't say anything to him. What was I going to say? He hit me with a good shot."
How tough is Higgins? He lost his father the week of the opener, got knocked out of the opener with a concussion and on Sunday he took a hit that got flagged and he still ended up with a season-high 98 yards.
"Tee was awesome," Burrow said. "It was great to see him have a game like that because that's what he's capable of doing. He's a big strong guy that we need to get the ball to more and I'm going to say that every single time someone has a big game. TB has a big game, Tee has a big game, Ja'Marr. Just because we have so many guys, I'm not focused in on one guy. We can do a better job of getting everybody the ball. I thought we did great today, just going to keep going like that.
It is those wide receivers and Burrow that get all the ink. But don't look now. The defense is giving up 18 points per game and just put together their first four-turnover game for defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo. They have an uncommon bond Hendrickson and tried to share his thoughts on it. That was easy because he tied in his 2.5 sacks and two strip fumbles after he put an end to his personal drought of back-to-back games without a sack to start the season.
The last time that happened was in the last two games of 2019.
Hendrickson, wearing a Reds ballcap, now has 33.5 sacks in 38 games. He just went past Myles Garrett for the second most sacks in the 2020s.
"It comes with the game of football. It's a 22-man game," Hendrickson said. "When you're playing football, you're playing for your brothers next to you. It's not all about the statistics. I know they'll come. We play hard up front. We rush the passer effectively. Keep chopping wood. I'm not really looking at stats and all that stuff. We had two losses and those were the things that are important to me and it meant a lot to me we got this win."
That pretty much sums up what Taylor is looking for in his roster.
A lot of mind over matter.
"We just needed to rip that band aid off and get that first win," Taylor said. "We've been a confident team all along. I really felt this team's confidence over the course of the last week and last night. That's the only validation I need is to see the look in their eyes."