NASHVILLE _ Even before Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow knew they were back in first place in the AFC North, he knew exactly what Sunday's 20-16 heavyweight bout of a win over the AFC South-leading Titans meant.
"This is the kind of game great teams win," said Burrow after claiming his sixth career game-winning drive in a tumultuous fourth quarter at Nissan Stadium. "It was not going to be pretty. This is the NFL and you're playing really good teams on the opposing end. You have to find a way to win and we're starting to do that."
The Bengals had never won like this before this season: They held the NFL leading rusher, Derrick Henry, to 38 yards on 17 carries, his second fewest of the season, while holding Tennessee to the Bengals' low of the season, 63 yards on the ground. And, they won for the first time this year with Burrow not having a 100 passer rating, although his 91 is as solid as it gets.
"I just think I prepare really well," Burrow said. "I understand what I'm doing and I want the ball in my hands in those kinds of situations and I've got great people around me that I have trust to make plays along with them."
NOVEMBER SONG: How big did Bengals head coach Zac Taylor think this win was? He gave everyone a game ball and then gave them Monday off with the clear-eyed view that the stretch run is as mentally draining as the physical game. He just has to go back one November for that. He also reminded them they became the first Bengals team in 40 years to go undefeated in November, when the big games begin to get played. They were 2-0 in 1982, but one November game was cancelled because of the strike and another was rescheduled. The year before, the Bengals famously went 5-0 on the way to their first Super Bowl.
The Bengals got a good reminder as they gathered around the locker room TV as they prepared for the charter flight back to Cincinnati. They watched the Jaguars beat the Ravens and knew they were in first place when Justin Tucker's 67-yard was just short.
Some of the Bengals were hoping Jags coach Doug Pederson would go for two and were rewarded.
"It's December now. It's when football counts," said Burrow, who talked to the media before that game was over. "We're 7-4. We're in a great spot. We're happy with our continued improvement throughout the season. Now it's time to show what championship mettle we have with the coming schedule and I know we'll be ready for it."
Of the last six games, they play four against teams with winning records starting with Patrick Mahomes' Chiefs at Paycor Stadium. They know have the tiebreaker over the Titans.
BENCH AGAIN: Running back Joe Mixon (concussion) and wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase (hip) couldn't reprise their holes from last January's AFC Divisional win. But they had some pretty stand-ins. Running back Samaje Perine had another big screen pass (32 yards) and 93 more scrimmage yards while wide receiver Tee Higgins had his second straight 100-yard day with 114 yards, including the go-ahead 27-yard touchdown pass with 13:42 left and the 29-yard back-breaker with 2:53 left that kept the clock running and put the Bengals in field-goal range.
The 29-yarder didn't quite look like the 19-yard bench route Burrow whipped to Chase on the left sideline with 15 seconds left to set up Evan McPherson's 52-yard winning field goal at the gun here in the AFC Divisional, but it won this game as Higgins mauled cornerback Kristian Fulton on the right sideline. Higgins outmuscled, outfought and outgutted the play.
It's play all about leverage and Higgins' threat of speed and ability to get to the side gave him the leverage.
"We've got really good players on the outside that can threaten vertically and come out of it quickly," Burrow said. "We have great players. When the going gets tough I'm going to find the guy that I have the most trust in and Tee is that guy."
Higgins said, of course, he ran the bench route better than Chase. And Burrow did what he usually does and floated a beauty where only Higgins can keep it away from the defender and Higgins did the mauling rest.
"We practiced it all week. We made sure we we're on the same page," Higgins said. "There was once they went to it and I ran the bench and he still gave me a chance," Higgins said of the traffic. "Just practice. Every single day so it comes easy on game day. Just me showing vertical, get the corner to flip his hips and you come out of it."
Higgins was Mr. Football in the state of Tennessee during high school when he was also a finalist as Mr. Basketball while growing up in nearby Oak Ridge, Tenn. If they were watching those two fourth-quarter catches, they'd go back and give it to him now because that was pure NBA stuff. Particularly on the touchdown, where he beat rookie cornerback Roger McCreary and then outjumped him. He said the Titans played him more in that last drive and made them pay with his eighth 100-yard career game.
"Joe thew it up at that point," Higgins said. "I make sure I box the defender out so he didn't have a chance to knock it down or anything.
"It means a lot growing up two hours away. Having my friends and family here. Just come out and have a big game for them."
ANOTHER DJ MASTERPIECE: Bengals nose tackle D.J. Reader followed up his masterpiece in last January's AFC Divisional with another domination of Henry. But he set the tone with his two early tipped balls for his first passes defensed in two years.
"It felt good to get one of those. Haven't had one in a while," said Reader, who felt they did the basics to stop Henry. "Just playing physical and just playing ball. You have to be ready to go downhill."
HITS KEEP COMING: How about the veteran slot cornerback Mike Hilton (seven tackles) and rookie cornerback Cam Taylor-Britt (eight) combining for 15 tackles? Hilton made a huge number of plays at the line of scrimmage upending Henry.
"Just get him before he gets going. Everybody knows once he's headed downhill," said Hilton' alluding to Henry's 69-yard ramble on a screen pass. "As you can see on the screen, once he gets a head of steam, it's hard. Once you get in the backfield and slow him down, you better your chances."
SAMAJE STANDS: With 58 yards on 17 carries, Perine pinch hit for Mixon with his most carries since his rookie year five years ago.
"It's always fun to get in a rhythm and make some stuff happen. I just went out there and did what I could," Perine said.
CHASE UPDATE: After icing Ja'Marr Chase Sunday, Bengals head coach Zac Taylor wouldn't say if he was going to play him next week against Kansas City at Paycor Stadium But he indicated there was a reason they didn't put him on injured reserve and brought him back to practice in limited fashion last week.
"You get a chance to get him back, practice for a week," Taylor said. "We felt really encouraged with where he's at. And ultimately, as we got closer to the game, it was, 'Let's get him back to practice next week and then make that decision.'
"There's not a game plan on how this thing was going to unfold. I think ultimately, we're happy with how it played out that we didn't put him on IR. So, he got a chance to practice a week earlier than he would have. So now we can go into next week, I'm not going to make any promises, but feeling like, 'OK, we've seen him on the grass.' I think he's feeling pretty good. And so we'll just evaluate where he's at starting next Wednesday."