TAMPA, Fla. _ Against the winningest quarterback in NFL history Sunday at Raymond James Stadium, Joe Burrow upped his December-January winning streak to nine games when he watched his defense come up with even yet another way for the Bengals to remain one of the hottest teams in the NFL heading into the playoffs.
In a six-game winning streak that has taken the Bengals to 10-4 and a one game lead in the AFC North, Burrow has quarterbacked the Bengals through shootouts with the Steelers and Chiefs, slugfests with the Titans and Browns and a rout of the Panthers. Now he can add one of their biggest road rallies in history against Tom Brady fueled by a defensive and special teams masterpiece to the resume they're building for the AFC's top seed with a 34-23 victory that saw them erase a 17-0 deficit in a stunning 11 minutes.
"I thought the game was almost over the way we were running around," said slot receiver Tyler Boyd. "I looked up and it was still (the third quarter)."
They still need to win the last three and for Kansas City to lose one to claim home-field advantage for the AFC playoffs and head coach Zac Taylor reminded them of all that when it was over. They weren't handing out the ballcaps and T-Shirts that signify something has been done.
"We're in the right direction. We're not done yet," said wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase, whose 60 yards led the most balanced of stat sheets. "Like Zac said, we don't have a shirt and hat at the end of this game, so we still have room to go and improve, so it's just a matter of time."
These Bengals seem to play the right game for the right moment. They won despite generating their fewest yards of the season (238) and won with their fewest yards since the Monday night a Von Bell hit changed the course of Bengaldom two years ago. Burrow threw for 200 yards, one off his season low, but he was at his rooftop-assassin best with that deadly efficient 104.6 passer rating. It conjured up memories of last year's post-bye run, when they won three games with him throwing for 190 and less. His four touchdown passes give him 31 on the season, making him the first Bengals quarterback to have back-to-back 30-plus TD seasons.
"When we don't start fast, it's not going our way, that's when Joe is at his best," said Boyd after he caught the one that put them ahead for good. "That's when he dials in and brings that inner dog in him. That's when he's in rare form. That's how Joe plays. Calm, collected and poised. He goes onto the next because he knows what we're capable of doing on the next possession."
(We'll have to wait for Jim Gray to find out what Brady thinks about losing to Burrow. He used the question to close out Sunday's presser with, "He's a really good quarterback. Thanks guys.")
You want to know about this team? Look at Boyd's mangled middle finger. It says it all. Last week at Paycor Stadium he dislocated it on the second snap and seven days out of surgery Taylor was shaking his head in admiration flipping a game ball to him Sunday night in the visitors' locker room.
"It didn't hurt as much as I thought," said Boyd, who found out on five catches for 35 yards.
But Burrow, Brady and everybody else toasted the defense on their night. Defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo cemented his title as czar of the second half with a batch of adjustments that translated into another stifling effort. They came in allowing the sixth fewest second half points in the NFL with 109 and all Brady could offer was six points in garbage time, the latest glittering numbers in a winning streak the Bengals have wrenched the ball from the NFL's best playmakers, such as 1,000-yard rushers Derrick Henry and Nick Chubb, 1,000-yard receiver Travis Kelce and the league's leading touchdown-maker in Patrick Mahomes. On Sunday, they held the NFL all-time passing leader to four of 12 on third down.
"I think we just got more aggressive as a team. We got more comfortable, (and) as players you start to feel that, you feel momentum shifts," said nose tackle D.J. Reader, as usual, in the middle of it all. "If you are a true player, a true dog, and you really love this game, (then) you know when to go and try to kill. It is not always going to happen, but you know when to start attacking, attacking, attacking, and really trying to force the issue on what you want, how you want the game to go.
"That is what guys did. We started to build momentum, we got a turnover. It just takes one, the offense got some points, another turnover and just kept it rolling. It's just who we are, we are battle-tested as a team, a bunch of individuals who are battle-tested and a lot of guys are hungry."
Reader should know. He made a final Pro Bowl pitch (the teams are announced Wednesday) by forcing a fumble and recovering another one.
Anarumo didn't have his top two sackers with Trey Hendrickson (wrist) inactive and Sam Hubbard leaving early in the second quarter with a calf problem. With his top two slot cornerbacks out, Anarumo turned to first-round pick Dax Hill, the Michigan safety who slid inside to play 66 snaps after playing 59 downs all year. Joseph Ossai, who forced an interception with a hit of Brady while also recovering a fumble, and Cam Sample held down the edges and middle linebacker Logan Wilson stacked 15 tackles on top of last week's 17.
After Brady moved easily in the pocket patting the ball for a 127 passer rating in the first half, "We got him off his spot," said cornerback Eli Apple of the halftime talk. "Let's get attached. Man coverage. Challenge them more. Especially me, I was playing a little too soft on the in-breakers. So, I just wanted to take that away in the second half and we did that."
Anarumo mixed it up to get the turnovers. When Ossai belted Brady to force linebacker Germaine Pratt's interception, he came free coming from the right edge and stunting with tackle B.J. Hill. When cornerback Tre Flowers showed blitz, he dropped out with all but three linemen to give Brady an eight-man drop and he dove in front of tight end Cameron Brate for the first interception by a Bengals cornerback this season. When Brady lost a fumble, it was Wilson blitzing him and as he took him down, Reader punched it out.
"We tried to get that old man tap dancing. We had to get him out of that pocket and had to get him more uncomfortable. So, that is what we had to do," Apple said.
As for the first half, Apple observed "(Brady) was fairly okay, but not good enough to win."
Brady calling the Bengals "a fairly tough defense," earlier in the week may have seemed innocuous. Except to the guys that mattered.
"This fairly tough defense came out and played their butts off in the second half and we gave the ball the offense in good position," said B.J. Hill, who slid out to end for about a half a dozen snaps to help on the depleted edge.
"I just told (the Bucs) wait until the second half. I knew what we were doing in the second half and we did that. We've been here before. It's not the first time. We have confidence in ourselves. It just came out in the second half. I told the guys, 'Let's bring the swagger in the second half and that's what we did. Lou always dials it up. We just have to execute."
Hill, who went there before with a second-half interception in the AFC title game, was fired up about the remark. When he was told it was the first time ever, the first time in 90 games, that a Brady team had blown a 17-point lead at the half at home, Hill said, "You mean the fairly good defense beat them? That's a good stat there."
Pratt, who went there before with the clinching pick in last year's Wild Card, seemed amused by the remark more than anything.
"We showed it a little in the defensive room," Pratt said. "We already know we're tough as nails getting four turnovers back-to-back. He knows we're tough."
It will be recalled the last time the Bengals beat Brady in the 2013 win over the Patriots, they sacked him four times. No one on that defense is left. This time it was four straight turnovers. There was something else familiar, too.
"Once you get around his feet, he's going to throw the ball," Pratt said. "The last two weeks he's thrown a linebacker a pick, so I just knew one of the linebackers was going to get a pick and I was blessed to have it."
Ossai, who sacked Brady as a rookie in last year's preseason opener, left it this way after hitting him for real.
"We know who we are," said Ossai of a defense that left its calling card at The GOAT's doorstep.