The best news that came out of the Bengals' utterly necessary 19-16 win over the Rams Monday night, besides not having to incessantly hear for the next five days how they have less than a three percent chance to make the playoffs at 0-3, is that quarterback Joe Burrow's strained calf feels better now than it did after last week's game against Baltimore.
"It's way better now ... way better now. There were no setbacks today. I feel good. So, throughout this whole week, it will just continue to get better," Burrow said. "But it's still day-to-day. "I've learned through this process that it can happen at any time. So, it was good to get through this one, and that means we'll be stronger for this week. So, hopefully, I can have a full week of practice to prepare for next week."
This was blood-and-guts Joe Burrow. This was Joe Grrrr. This was Joey Resourceful. This was the first time in his 45 regular-season starts he didn't throw a touchdown pass and the Bengals won. The only time he had ever done it was in the 2021 AFC Divisional win in Tennessee when they won by the same 19-16.
Guess where they play this Sunday?
"0-3 sounds a lot worse than 1-2," Burrow said. "Morale is probably a lot lower when you're 0-3, so it's a big win for us. It was good to get on the board. I think we'll be able to put something together now."
He finished 26 of 49 for 259 yards and the Rams' miraculous fourth-quarter interception sentenced him to a 59.8 passer rating, his lowest ever in a win. And yet, given the state of his calf and their 0-2 predicament, it was one of his greatest wins.
"What a gutty, gusty performance by Joe Burrow, the heart of this franchise and this city," said center Ted Karras. "I'm so proud of him to throw it 49 times and end up with a win."
After he limped off the field last Sunday and was held out of Thursday's practice, the tide began to turn toward playing Friday and Saturday. When there were no twinges in his Monday morning workout, that sealed it.
He had plenty of talks with head coach Zac Taylor, head athletic trainer Matt Summers and his staff, plus the doctors. And maybe even one with Bengals president Mike Brown.
Burrow wouldn't divulge what he and Brown talked about last Friday when Brown pulled him out of stretching to take him for Cincinnati's most famous golf cart ride since Nicklaus last played The Grizzly.
But he felt the key was being able to go limited Friday and Saturday.
"I think it really just gave the decision makers confidence that I was going to be able to go out and do what I needed to," Burrow said.
DEFENSIVE STAND: Everyone was petrified that Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald would take over the game like he did the Super Bowl. But the guy who did was Bengals Pro Bowl right end Trey Hendrickson, even before starting left tackle Alaric Jackson (thigh) in favor of backup Zach Thomas.
Hendrickson beat Jackson inside in the second quarter to put the heat on Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford and force the first of middle linebacker Logan Wilson's two interceptions. Then against Thomas it was lights out in the second half with two sacks as Hendrickson pulled a Donald and wrecked the game. He had another sack and a half wiped out by penalty.
According to Pro Football Reference, Hendrickson's 38.5 sacks are now second only to Myles Garrett's 48.5 among defensive linemen in the 2020s. On Monday he tipped his hat to Bengals defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo.
"Lou put us in great position to have success going after Stafford," Hendrickson said. "Multiple looks in the back end. After the two picks to Logan, he kind of started to question it and that allowed us to get after him."
Exhibit A is that first Wilson pick. The Bengals gave Stafford a man-to-man pre-snap look and bailed into a Cover Two at the last instant.
"We changed up pretty much the whole game," said safety Dax Hill. "You're not going to confuse him. He's been around too long (15 years) for that. But we just wanted to make sure we disguised for as long as we could."
The proud Bengals defense that has been the backbone of 5-2 run in the playoffs the last two years was nicked in the first two games giving up the fifth-most yards in the league and the second-most on the ground. That all changed Monday with their six sacks and brilliant work in the red zone and on third down, where the Rams were ranked first in the league in both categories.
But not after the Bengals held them on their first ten third downs and allowed just field goals on the first three trips into the red zone. In the Super Bowl, it was Stafford's one-yard flip with 85 seconds left that won it. On Monday night, it was his one-yard flip with 63 seconds left that gave the Rams their only third-down conversion and red zone touchdown of the night.
"Credit to Lou creating an identity up front for us to kind of stop the bleeding the last two weeks," Hendrickson said. "Got to kind of look in the mirror, an ego check for us. More than just get back to the fundamentals of football. Run fits. Guys' eyes on the back end and us up front, too. One of these things we need to play as a collective defense with energy and kind of figure out our identity of the 2023 Bengals defense."
LOGAN'S RUN: No linebacker has had more interceptions in the 2020s than Wilson and his two on Monday now give him nine, three more than Baltimore's Roquan Smith and Buffalo's Matt Milano.
How about this? That also ties him with perennial Pro Bowler Bill Bergey back in the day for fifth most career interceptions by a Bengals linebacker. Ring of Honor candidate Reggie Williams leads with 16, followed by Al Beauchamp (15), Brian Simmons and James Francis (11), and Jim LeClair (10).
One came on the Hendrickson pressure and the other was really huge, coming a snap after the longest play of the game, Stafford's 46-yard rainbow to wide receiver Van Jefferson over old Rams safety Nick Scott to put the ball at the Bengals 30 late in the third quarter with the Bengals leading, 13-9. Slot cornerback Mile Hilton leaped at the line of scrimmage, re-directed it, and Wilson reacted.
"I'm blessed being in the right place at the right time and taking advantage of those opportunities when they come to you because they're rare in this league," Wilson said. "I'm big on, as many times that we can get the ball back to our offense, the better off we're going to be."
DAX BREAKOUT: After just his third start at safety, Dax Hill shrugged when asked if he had just delivered his break-out game. The 2022 first-rounder looked like a first-rounder. He had his first NFL sack on a blitz. Before that he dumped running back Kyren Williams for a three-yard loss, and then on the next snap forced a punt when he cut down Tyler Higbee over the middle for seven yards after a catch. He finished with a team-high eight tackles.
"I don't know about that," Hill said. "It was just fun to run around and the atmosphere was great."
SLANTS AND SCREENS: Take a bow, special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons. Rookie wide receiver Charlies Jones, who had a punt return for a touchdown last week, had a 19-yarder in the middle of the fourth quarter Monday that set up kicker Evan McPherson's fourth field goal of the night, a 54-yarder for the winning points. McPherson also drilled one from 53 after missing a 56-yarder and is now 2-for-4 from long distance this season and 16-for-20 in his career …
Plus, tight end Mitchell Wilcox covered the on-side kick to win it …
Bengals center Ted Karras gave Donald the highest compliment, calling him the best interior lineman since Alex Karras, his Pro Football Hall of Fame great uncle …
But Karras and left guard Cordell Volson had the last word. Donald was great with a sack, two hits on Burrow, and seven tackles. But like Karras said, "He didn't wreck the game like he can." …
Head coach Zac Taylor repeated history Monday. When the Bengals won the coin toss, they chose to receive, just like they did last year in New York against the Jets when they were 0-2. Unlike last year, when they got a touchdown on that first drive, they didn't get the lead Monday until 5:34 left in the third quarter on running back Joe Mixon's 14-yard touchdown run to go up, 13-9. But they were both huge wins.
"We hadn't played with a lead all season. We were down two scores in both games. We felt we wanted to attack early on and put some points on the board," Taylor said. "Usually when our defense plays with a lead they play well." ...