NEW ORLEANS _On the day Joe Burrow led Ja'Marr Chase back home so he could do a new Big Easy dance craze, he also brought the Bengals face-to-face with themselves after six games of trying to feel their way through the AFC title defense.
"I think we know who we are now," said Burrow, his smile replacing the cigar after Sunday's come-from-behind Cajun magic over the Saints in the Caesars Superdome evened the Bengals at 3-3 in first place with the Ravens in the AFC North.
"For the last three quarters of the game we were pretty lights out. We like to play a complete game. We'd like to start a little faster. But like I said, we made plays down the stretch."
We know they thrive on the soul-mate connection with Burrow and Chase and we saw it again on their 60-yard play with 1:57 left that gave them their only lead of the day, a simple but stunning 50 yards-after-catch that came off that back shoulder on which Bengals fans rest.
The poet who writes this stuff delivered as old friend Andy Dalton was about to go to 3-0 against his old mates. Less than three years ago, Burrow and Chase did virtually the same thing to Clemson in this building to lead LSU to a national title.
"That's what this league's about," said Bengals head coach Zac Taylor, the play-caller who knows he's been gifted with two of the best players of the 2020s. "You need to have great players. You can give them all the play calls you want, but in these big moments you need guys to step up. These guys stepped up."
They also knew they are about a stingy, reliable defense ranked in the top ten in red zone and saw it again Sunday when they forced four straight field goals from inside the 20 while keeping alive their season-long streak of not allowing a second-half touchdown.
But they know even more about it now after they did it with a dose of adversity. Down to their third nose tackle for the entire second half and without their brilliant middle linebacker Logan Wilson (shoulder) for most of the fourth quarter.
And they did what they hadn't done yet this year and made stops on the last two series as backup tackle Jay Tufele, on one of his first 23 snaps as a Bengal, and rookie tackle Zach Carter helped gang up on the Saints run game that had dominated on 205 yards until that three-and-out set the stage for Burrow and Chase.
(Plus, we also know they are all about their first-rounder, safety Dax Hill, and he provided a glimpse of the future on the game's last play when he came from centerfield to knock down Dalton's pass at the Cincy 5.)
They also know they are all about a generational kicker as Evan McPherson quietly snuck in another 50-yarder in crunch time, his fourth 50 of the year in four tries and the 13th of his 22-game career, a 52-yarder with 3:42 left that got them within 26-24.
We also know, after last season's run, they are about playing their best when it looks worst. At 2-3 and down 23-14 with about 23 minutes left after back-to-back Saints drives had erased nearly 14 minutes, well, Taylor said it best. He was talking about how Burrow had turned a certain sack into a miraculous completion, but he could have been talking about the day.
"Sometimes when things look really bleak and dead," Taylor said, "Joe finds a way out of the mess. You don't know how he does it. He just does it. It's special to see when it happens."
The Bengals and Burrow sounded like they found out a piece of who they are. At least one of the answers to the zone coverages that have choked off the long ball and didn't give Chase his first 40-yard ball of the season until Sunday's two-minute warning.
Taylor gave Burrow his biggest plate of run-pass options (RPOs) this season. All but two of the Bengals' 54 plays came out of shotgun as they replaced hard-play action with Burrow's quick throws.
The stat sheet says Burrow completed 76 percent of his 37 throws while running backs Joe Mixon and Samaje Perine ran it ten times, but they believe some of those passes are acting as runs.
"(The RPOs) get you into a rhythm. We did a good job of that today," said Burrow, who sliced the Saints with 300 yards on a season-high 126 passer rating. "The RPOs were really good to us. The offensive line played great and when you get the ball out that fast, the defensive line kind of gets a little frustrated. Maybe they don't rush as hard or try to bat balls and then you saw on the last drive people come up and become more aggressive on defense. That's when you can take the shots."
The Saints linebackers, the fabulous Demario Davis along with Pete Werner and Kaden Elliss, were blitzing all day and they were coming fast. Davis had two of the Saints' three sacks and Elliss had the other one.
The Bengals felt like the RPOs were able to slow the backers down while also forcing more one-and-ones. Running back Joe Mixon (four catches for 23 yards) converted one of those quick checkdowns for a huge third-and-goal conversion from the Saints 9 to give the Bengals their first touchdown as he ran underneath the zone all alone at the 5 and simply squared his shoulders.
"Just checking the ball down those three yards are going to be seven-, eight-yard completions," Burrow said. "I thought we did an unbelievable job of that today. I was checking down to the running backs for six, seven eight yards like we did in the second half of (last week's) Baltimore game. When we start doing that like we did today, we're going to start getting the one-on-ones, which is how we scored that touchdown at the end."
That touchdown at the end also came because, as Burrow said, "Ja'Marr did what Ja'Marr does." He left cornerback Bradley Roby flailing for a missed tackle and then ran by the Honey Badger of his youth, Tyrann Mathieu.
"That's why he's the best," said Bengals cornerback Eli Apple. "Run after the catch. Nobody can mess with him after the catch."
Chase, who grew up 15 minutes from the Superdome, knows more than anyone.
"That's what they got me for. To be a playmaker. Make a play when we need me to make it," Chase said. "We figured out how we were going to dice up the coverage they've been giving us these last couple of weeks. I think we did that today in the first half. We saw it. We were messing with them, making them do everything they didn't want to do … They adjusted to us instead of us adjusting to them."
Their first touchdown was almost as big, since it cut the lead to 17-14 in the middle of the third quarter and came after back-to-back Saints' drives kept it from the Bengals in the last 5:44 of the first half and first 7:48 of the second half.
"Had to," said Burrow of the 15-yard touchdown dart to Chase that was one-on-one mincemeat against cornerback Paulson Adebo. "They were running the ball well. They were going to keep it away from us. We had to go down and score and put pressure on them. We were on our heels for most of the first half. In the second half, we got it going.".
After that one, Chase eschewed "The Griddy," touchdown dance for "Stan The Man," what he called "a new local dance craze in New Orleans," which is why he was grabbing his legs like he had a Charley Horse.
Then he tried to start another craze after the winner when he attempted to punt the ball in the stands.
"I won't lie," Chase said, "I was trying to get fined."
Chase said he spent Saturday night in the team's Canal Street hotel trying to stay away from family. His parents cooked up some food they brought him and he got his Voodoo rolls. But other than that, "I was just trying to stay locked in on the game," even though the players had a couple of hours of free time.
"I think I got one little boo there when I first came out," Burrow said, "but we finished the right way."
Burrow, who had the touch all day when he began it wearing Chase's No. 1 LSU jersey he wore in the title game, said he enjoyed being back amid the culture of his college days. That culture includes Chase, one of New Orleans' greatest players, who joked about his dad saying the home cooking would give him a break-out.
"I guess he's a psychic, I don't know," Chase said.
That national title night, they smoked cigars. Not now.
"Only championships," Burrow said.
Sunday was close and no cigar, but first place and poetry.
"When the going gets tough, I'm going to try to find that guy and he's going to make plays for us," Burrow said. "I'm never surprised by that guy."