Time to start thinking about wide receiver Tyler Boyd and running back Joe Mixon as possibly the Bengals' co-MVPs for 2018 as they prepare for Sunday's Paul Brown Stadium finale (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 12, **order tickets**) against the Raiders?
Forget that they're on the verge of their first 1,000-yard seasons. Instead, also consider the fierceness and grit they've brought to their play in a five-game losing streak the Bengals have lost perennial Pro Bowl wide receiver and A.J. Green and quarterback Andy Dalton and how it's provided leadership by example in a tough time.
Offensive coordinator Bill Lazor alluded to it after Thursday's practice as he talked about the Mixon and how the running game has been a positive force.
"One of the things that's been fun to watch is the way Joe plays," Lazor said. "The passion he's playing with, the positive attitude is affecting his teammates. That's really fun to watch."
Boyd, 10 yards shy of 1,000, knows the value of it because that's what he's been doing in the passing game. He knows guys are watching him and he's been inspired by Mixon.
"You just need somebody to show you. It's easier said than done," Boyd said. "If you go out there and show it and grind and they get extra yards, make big plays and help the team, it brings a spark in another guy's eyes. 'I can step up and help, too.'"
Mixon said this week he's got no problems with being a leader if that's how people perceive his play heading into Sunday needing 134 yards for 1,000.
"Some guys (have to) step up even another level than they are used to playing at, but like I said, that's how I'm trying to approach it," Mixon said. "And I'm going to embrace it and I'm going to do whatever I can for those guys to lean on me to make plays and I'm going to do whatever I can to stay in the game and get nothing but positive plays in and do whatever I can to stay true to it."
Mixon says he's not a numbers guy, but he's noticing Boyd's climb up the rankings.
"You go hard and you are doing the things you need to do, the stats will come," he said. "It's going to come with that. Tyler has been having a great season. To me, he is one of the best receivers in the league, and he's definitely one of the best slot receivers in the league and he's undervalued but the more he starts getting the ball and the more he does, the more people start noticing. Tyler does a great job and he's going to get 1,000 yards this game, and I can't wait to be there to witness that. It's a great accomplishment for him."
Boyd agrees enough that he's going to keep the ball that arrives with that 1,000th yard. And here's a guy who sweats 1,000-yard seasons. His senior year in the ultra-fast Western Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic League he rushed for 2,584 yards before going up the hill to Pittsburgh, where he had two 1,000-yard seasons. But this ball is going to join the ball he caught for his first NFL catch in his trophy case at his mother's home just outside Pittsburgh.
"I've got to keep that. That's a must. It means something. First time," Boyd said. "It's not easy to do in the league. Not too many people that can do it in the league. That's a huge milestone that I'll achieve."
LAZOR FLAGS FLAGS: A week after watching his offensive line commit six penalties, Lazor saw four false starts by three linemen and on Thursday he called it "an embarrassment."
"I think professionally it's embarrassing, really, to have pre-snap penalties. We're all professionals, players and coaches, so to have unforced errors is embarrassing," said Lazor, who wouldn't rule out sitting people because of the flags. "I guess at some point it has to be part of the evaluation of your performance. If you're costing the team a certain number of yards, then what's the difference if you're missing a block that's costing you yards? It's just part of their evaluation of the whole picture. You have to take it all in. It's embarrassing."
They did make a change during the game at left guard, where Christian Westerman came off the bench to play twice as many snaps as starter Trey Hopkins, and Lazor liked what he saw when it came to Westerman's well-known power.
"I thought he played physical. I think he's improving. He brought a physicality," Lazor said. "I thought as a group the offensive line played physical. It looked like they were competing even with each other on who could be the most physical in the run game. They had a number of knockdowns and it was kind of what we challenged them to do. When he was in there, he was part of that. I thought it was a good step for him."
PASSING JUDGMENT: Westerman didn't get a great block on the tying two-point attempt with 1:50 left on a drop-back pass that resulted in a sack and Lazor wasn't that critical about quarterback Jeff Driskel going through his options on a play that had five of them and begin with the ball snapped as the play clock ran out.
"There was no mental error. There was not failure to have everyone on the same page. It was the play we've rehearsed," Lazor said. "He could have called the timeout, I guess, if he wanted to, but I don't think the play clock really affected it. It was what we rehearsed, so I think everyone was fine.
"As he was getting to the options someone came free. Sometimes you see them come free when you're looking and sometimes you don't. That's quarterbacking. You're trying to find the two guys in the back of the end zone and an unblocked player came."
Images from the Bengals' Wednesday practice. The team continues preparation for the matchup against the Oakland Raiders.
Where Lazor wants improvement is yards per pass. Last Sunday it was 5.6. The game before that it was 5.5.
"I thought he progressed. I thought he got better. I think as a group, we really are struggling," Lazor said. "If anything the statistic, the number one stat in football is yards per attempt passing. We were (5.6) last game. That's not just Jeff. In general, maybe some of it is the play calls, maybe some of it is the protection, maybe some of it's the route running, some of it's the quarterbacking and it's been a little bit of a trend, so we've got to get that going again. If you look at one thing offensively that held us back in this game, it was not making enough plays in the passing game. "