What a calendar year 2022 has been in Bengaldom.
It began on the second day of the year with that raucous AFC North-clincher over the Chiefs at sold-out Paycor Stadium and it hasn't stopped as the Bengals head into another Jan. 2 game at Paycor on Monday night (8:30-ESPN, Cincinnati's Channel 9) against the Bills team tied with those Chiefs for the best record in the AFC with two games to play.
Look at what has happened to them since last Jan. 2:
They've won 15 games, the most ever in one year in franchise history. They won an AFC title game on the road, came with 39 seconds of winning the Super Bowl, beat the Chiefs again, beat Tom Brady and Bill Belichick on the road, went undefeated in November and December for the first time in history, clinched a playoff berth without playing and a win Monday along with a Ravens loss Sunday gives them another first in the form of back-to-back division titles.
And now the Bills and Bengals meet tied for the most combined wins entering a Monday Night Football game with a 1997 Broncos-49ers game and it's only the 14th MNF game between teams with 10+ wins.
So, yeah, Monday night is big, but …
"We've beaten everybody. We know we can play against everybody. We've done it in the biggest moments," quarterback Joe Burrow after Thursday's practice in his weekly presser. "We're treating every game the same. We've played everyone in the last two years. We haven't played the Bills yet, so that will be a fun challenge, but they're good on defense, got a lot of veteran guys and know how to play within their scheme, they play hard, they play fast, they play schematically sound so it'll be a fun challenge."
Burrow says it's a different year, different team, different pieces, different style. And, yeah, Burrow is taking more check-downs and more content with longer drives and their revamped offensive line has given him more time. And his offense is not quite as explosive as last year but more efficient with much better numbers in key categories such as red zone (sixth in the NFL), third down (fourth) and time of possession (third).
And they are junkyard dogs when they get the lead, 8-0 when they score first and 7-0 when leading after three quarters.
But it all began last Jan. 2.
"You look back to that one and that was kind of the one that won the division for us last year," Burrow said. "So that was fun. But we hadn't played the upper echelon of the AFC at that point and so that was a big win for us. Like I said, we've proven it. I guess that's all I can say about that."
Free safety Jessie Bates III, who tipped the ball to safety Vonn Bell in overtime of the AFC title game, has lived all the year's big moments, one even as late as Saturday when Bell knocked out the ball on his 5 in the last minute.
"This team does a really good job reflecting on how we're winning," Bates said. "What we are doing well. What we aren't doing well and just lay it on the line together. We love each other. There's not going to be a fold in this locker room. "
He says the late-season success is a product of brains and brawn.
"We have really good coaches. Really smart players able to make adjustments, able to learn from one another so we're not making the same mistakes," Bates said. "You get to watch film and you see what the offense has done to other people in certain coverages. We've got a really smart group of players and coaches and the way we prepare really sticks out to me more as the defense continues to make plays."
MORE O-LINE: Head coach Zac Taylor says he's made up his mind about who is replacing right tackle La'el Collins (ACL), but won't say. He indicated that Isaiah Prince is also in the mix along with third tackle Hakeem Adeniji. Prince is on the practice squad and has been there since Nov. 23, when he came off a 10-game stay on the injured reserve with an elbow he hurt in training camp.
But, like Adeniji was at right guard last postseason, Prince was a staple right next to him with starts in all four playoff games. The 6-7, 300-pound Prince is a monstrous sort who is in his fourth season since the Dolphins took him in the sixth round out of Ohio State and has six regular-season starts.
"We've got several guys that we've been developing the last couple years that we think could serve that role for us," Taylor said. "It's a big loss with LC, but we feel like that offensive line can really step up and absorb that. "
In addition to Prince and Adeniji, offensive line coach Frank Pollack has two more backup tackles who were high picks in the 2021 draft in second-rounder Jackson Carman and fourth-rounder D'Ante Smith.
"I think the best part about all those guys who haven't been in a starting role for us is Frank has really been pushing those guys for opportunities like this," Taylor said. "In practice, really being hard on them. You can ask (ends) Sam (Hubbard) and Trey (Hendrickson). Even when they're taking scout team reps, which all of our guys that haven't been starting do, Frank's been pushing those guys to be ready for a moment like this. They've been going full speed against those starting defensive ends the entirety of the season to get ready for these moments.
"I thought (Prince) did a good job and that's why he's in the mix this year. I think Frank does a great job of just pushing all those guys no matter if it's Isaiah or Hakeem or Jackson Carmen or D'Ante, all those guys, pushing them for the opportunity when it comes up."
Also like Adeniji, Prince didn't try to forget the Super Bowl. He's watched it to get better.
"I go back and look at all the games from last year to see where I can improve," Prince said. "You have to deal with it. I don't want to re-watch it, but there are corrections to be made and there are ways to get better from my mistakes. You always have to go back and watch. Don't harp on it, but just learn something."
LATE-SEASON BINGE: Burrow and the Bengals' starters have won ten straight in December and January. And this 4-0 December is the best close to a season since they went 4-1 in December of 2012. The seven-game winning streak ties for the longest outside of the start to a season since the 1970 team won its last seven to win the AFC Central. A win Monday ties the longest streak in a season with the 2015 Bengals and their 8-0 start.
"It says a lot about who we are as a team," Burrow said. "How smart our coaches are with how we practice and how mature our guys are taking care of their bodies, getting their lifts in, making sure they feel great on Sundays, because you don't win that many straight games if you're not healthy or if your guys are feeling really good. You've got to give credit to our strength staff and our coaches for understanding that and not practicing us into the ground and then our guys who maintain their bodies really well."
TEE IT UP: Wide receiver Tee Higgins had a bunch of huge catches last Saturday in New England, enough to give him his second straight 1,000-yard season.
According to Next Gen Stats, he's been better than that. He trails only Justin Jefferson (+452) in receiving yards over expected (+275), In NFL ranks, he's first when aligned wide (+262), second in outside the numbers (+202), third in tight-window targets (+140) and his hands have been so good his +10.1 percent catch rate over expected leads the NFL with a minimum of 80 targets,
You have to start calling him Big Game. In the 10-game winning streak in December and January, Higgins has five 100-yard games and five touchdowns, including Saturday's 128 yards and a touchdown in Foxboro. Not in the streak but very much in a big game, he had 100 yards and two TDs in February's Super Bowl. The 6-4 Higgins has simply been ripping the ball away from people in a slew of jump balls.
"We've built a lot of trust from our rookie year," said Higgins of his 2020 draft classmate Burrow. "He trusts me a way lot more than he used to. That's all you can ask for as a receiver. Is have that trust so you can go up and make a play for him and he gives me chances. That's the type of receiver I am. I can make a play at any point in the game that can make an impact, if things aren't going our way and it gets us going or just adding to the momentum."
CHASE EYES A GRAND, TOO: Wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase is 40 yards shy of his second straight 1,000-yard season, too. And even though he set the Bengals' single-season record last year with 1,455, it would mean something to him because he missed four games.
"A thousand yards in 12 games? Not bad," Chase said.
He's keeping an eye on LSU buddy Justin Jefferson's run for the all-time record. Not to mention his 193 yards against the Bill last month.
"I'll look at it sometime tonight or tomorrow morning. I know they really don't double as much," Chase said. "He's crazy talented."
Chase is moving past Saturday's near disaster, fumbling on the Bengals 43 with 3:12 left. He's gone over the technique with receivers coach Troy Walters.
"Just let it go. Watch the film. See what I messed up on and do better and move on and get better from it," Chase said.
With Burrow giving his offensive linemen a cruise, the topic was vacations and unlike the homebody Burrow, Chase said he'd opt for Miami or Vegas. Burrow, by the way, wants no part of a cruise.
"I don't like boats. I'm not a boat guy. I don't like boats. You're stuck out there. What if something happens?" Burrow asked. "I know they like it. I figured they would like it."
INJURY UPDATE: Left end Sam Hubbard took the field for the first time Thursday since his calf injury two weeks ago in Tampa Bay and went limited. Tight end Hayden Hurst (calf), punt returner Trent Taylor (hamstring) and slot cornerback Jalen Davis (thumb) all went full.