If the impeccable impromptu timing of Sunday's celebrations are any indication, from Joe Burrow's Inquiring Photographer to the defense's homage to "Remember the Titans," the Bengals look to be in step and choreographing another playoff run. On one of summer's last-gasp-70-degree days in front of the fourth largest crowd in Paycor Stadium history, Burrow hoped the 66,160 had seen their winter's breath because when they return from the bye in two weeks it's for a Thanksgiving Week Sunday nighter in Pittsburgh.
"You'd love to do exactly what we did today," said Burrow after a vintage Seamless Joe of 79-percent passing. "We're running the ball, we're play action, and we're dropping back, throwing screens. When you're multiple like that it's tough to stop."
(The Bengals are actually one spot better than they were last year at this time in the AFC playoff picture. Also heading into the bye at 5-4 in 2021, they were seeded 10th, three games out of a spot. This year, 5-4 gets them the ninth spot.)
He called it the Bengals' most complete game of the season and it was even better than that. It was one of the two most complete games of his 35-game era and the four seasons of head coach Zac Taylor. For only the second time they rolled up more than 450 yards (464) while holding a team to fewer than 250 (228).
The only other time was two weeks ago, when Burrow made history with 481 passing yards in a game running back Joe Mixon was an afterthought as a clock-killer. Sunday's game was also historic in an entirely different fashion as Mixon took over with a franchise-best five touchdowns opening up that Pandora's Box of diversity that seems to be getting delivered to the doorstep just in time.
"If we run the ball like that," Burrow said, "it's tough to lose a game when you run for 200 yards."
It turns out they bookended nasty with history.
"We finally got that nasty taste from Monday night out of our mouth," Mixon said of the loss in Cleveland.
It was also the most complete offensive display. The Bengals ran for 241 yards, their most under Burrow and Taylor and Burrow said the exact same thing to his teammates during that fourth quarter he and Mixon sat out as they savored his season-high 152 yards and that crazy 12-yard touchdown catch at the end of the half.
"If we run the ball like this,' he told them …
Maybe it could have been a 481-yard passing day like it was against Atlanta. The Panthers were without starting safety Jeremy Chinn and starting cornerback Donte Jackson and one of their best down lineman, Derrick Brown, was ill and didn't play the second half.
But, they ran it, they said, because they could. Since Mixon carried it 24 times for just 61 yards in the Sept. 29 win over, he had carried just 47 times since heading into Sunday.
"I just thought we were efficient on the first couple of drives which allowed us to play that way," Taylor said. "The big thing coming into this game was first-down efficiency. I think that's a defense that really does a great job on second-and-seven-plus, making things really hard for you. One of our keys to victory, certainly on the offense side of the ball, is being efficient on first down, and the rushing game allowed us to do that."
During that first half Mixon became the first Bengal to score four touchdowns in a half, Burrow celebrated one by framing Mixon with his hands and "snapping,' a picture.
"That happened on the fly. Literally. Burrow was (yelling) 'Joe Mix! Joe Mix!'" Mixon said. "I'm looking around and I see him and he (made a photo taking motion with his hands) and I was like 'Okay!' That's just how we've been as a team. That stuff was like how he had it last year with the chemistry and how off the fly, we can get in things like that, just so quickly with everyone on the same page. That's just something you can't teach. That's just something in you. To see Joe come out there and do something like that, it almost shocked me."
The Bengals would like to freeze those two in that moment in time. When Mixon runs for 100, Burrow is 5-0. When they're in step, well, as tight end Hayden Hurst said, "If we can get Joe Mixon going like that, and the passing game, watch out."
It's the first time Mixon has hit 100 since he went for a career-high 165 against Pittsburgh last Nov. 28 and everyone was trying to figure out why.
"Zac stuck to it," is how Mixon said it. "Basically, everybody was firing off on all cylinders and executing it. Right hat placement and things like that. How can you not call it again if he's hitting and gashing them like that? It's a great feeling."
Mixon agreed that they mixed it up a little more than usual. A little more pulling and trapping. A little more pinning and pulling. A few more heavy sets. Tight ends Mitch Wilcox and Devin Asiasi ended up playing a combined 63 snaps, but they were playing a lot before the benches emptied and helped his biggest runs. Wilcox had a huge block on Mixon's longest run of the day, a 29-yarder.
But it always seems to be a chicken-and-egg question. When they run the ball well, is it because they're running it well or because they keep running it? Mixon said he and Taylor haven't talked about carries.
"We're all professionals, we know what we have to do. Everybody has a job and we're all on the same page. Most important is coming out with a victory and we did that today," Mixon said. " The fact we stayed true to the game, we'll always do that. I'm living in the moment."
For the moment, Mixon mirrors a bit of his offense. In the last month, there had been whispers. There are always whispers when a running back gets into his sixth season and he's at 3.3 yards per carry. Never mind the offensive line had been re-built and it's a pass-first team.
There were still the whispers. Where was the old make-em-miss jump cut? Where was that game-breaking pass catcher? Ask the eighth pick in the last draft, Panthers cornerback Jaycee Horn, still screwed into the Paycor turf as Mixon left him on the left edge on his 14-yard touchdown for the record fifth. You know you're hot when you can see it before it happens.
"I just remember pressing the line of scrimmage and the (offensive line) getting them blocked off and sealed off. We had a hat-on-a-hat and then I just saw the corner right there and I was like if I make him miss and get around the edge, I know I'm going to score," Mixon said. "(That's) literally what I was thinking pre-snap and what happened post snap. I just pressed the hole, made a jump cut, stiff-armed the corner and was off to the races. I knew if I got rolling, they weren't going to catch me."
Ask chirping Panthers cornerback C.J. Henderson when Mixon split out wide on the last play of the half, a third-and-ten from the 12. Mixon saw Burrow scrambling to the right sideline and spun Henderson around as he boxed out his own sideline in the end zone.
"I caught that thing, toe-tapped it and it was just a great feeling. It was a great feeling for me and knowing Burrow trusts me as me as a receiver is a great feeling, too," Mixon said. "Just having that extra tool for him is a great thing."
There are no whispers Monday morning. Not after right tackle La'el Collins told the media Mixon showed he's still "that guy." Mixon admits he heard some of it. But if Burrow snapped a photo of Mixon, then Mixon is channeling Burrow and is off social media.
"My teammates know what type of player I am, and most importantly, I know what type of player I am," Mixon said. " So, to be able to come out here today have a complete game and pass protection when my number was called, and delivered for my teammates, Burrow and the receivers, to be able to hit the right holes and do all the right things to have a complete game, you can't ask for (a) much better day. I'm just happy that I rose to the occasion. My game rose, I'm here in this position, and I never take it for granted."
Especially after bookending nasty with history.