TAMPA, Fla. _ A day after watching the Vikings pull off the greatest comeback in NFL history, the Bengals head into Sunday's game at Raymond James Stadium with perfect records when they score first (7-0) and lead after the first (6-0) and third (5-0) quarters.
Head coach Zac Taylor's decision to take the ball instead of deferring when they won the coin toss helped a turn an 0-2 start into 2-2 when they opened wins against the Jets and Miami scoring touchdowns on the first series. In the two tosses they've won since, Taylor again read his team instead of convention, took the ball and first-drive touchdowns to fuel wins over Atlanta and Kansas City at Paycor Stadium.
After Friday's practice Taylor said the decision to take the ball isn't written in stone and he talks it over with offensive coordinator Brian Callahan weekly. Whether Bucs quarterback Tom Brady's penchant for turning magic into points at the end of halves and at the beginning of third quarters is going to be a factor for this one remains to be seen. But when the call was made Saturday night, quarterback Joe Burrow probably knew what the decision was before most of his teammates.
"Joe tends to know things before," Taylor said. "Daily I pop in with the quarterbacks to give them a heads up on things that are evolving. Like play style and what it calls for this week. They're usually privy to a little more information than the rest of the team."
But Taylor gets it. His team his entire team and that includes one of the league's best second-half defenses likes it out in front.
"It's a mentality thing for our guys. They've embraced it," Taylor said. "When we get a lead, we get pretty good control and our defense plays really when we've got the lead. The defense has obviously played well in the second half. This is a team that has a lot of confidence that when we get rolling we can maintain that momentum and carry it to a win. That how it's been for us."
The three things they've done well in this five-game winning streak prevent any loss of leads. They're ninth in rushing yards per carry (4.6), they've maintained their season-long spot at No. 3 in the NFL converting third downs, and they're fifth for the season in time of possession.
And if that isn't enough for the anti-folds then a defense that has done this in the second half is: On 67 drives, the defense has forced 27 punts, 15 field-goal attempts and seven successful fourth-down stands while allowing the sixth fewest second-half points with 109.
INACTIVES: With their top two slot cornerbacks Mike Hilton (ankle) and Jalen Davis (thumb) out, that could put the Bengals' first two draft picks on display right away. First-rounder Dax Hill, a safety, has taken some of his 59 snaps in the slot as second-rounder Cam Taylor-Britt makes his seventh straight start at cornerback since the injury to Chidobe Awuzie. Another rookie, free-agent cornerback Allan George, was elevated from the practice squad for his second NFL game and first since he took 20 snaps in the Nov. 6 win over Carolina.
Also inactive were top sacker Trey Hendrickson (wrist), tight end Hayden Hurst (calf) and offensive linemen Jackson Carman and D'Ante Smith. With Hendrickson out, seventh-round rookie Jeff Gunter was dressed for his ninth game after being inactive for the past three.
The draft class is getting its work in. Third-rounder Zach Carter is looking to give starting defensive tackles D.J. Reader and B.J. Hill breathers in the effort to knock Brady off his spot and fourth-rounder Cordell Volson is making his 14th straight start at left guard.
VINCENT GO WITH KARMA: It was a nice bit of karma when team chaplain Vincent Rey showed up in the locker room Friday.
It will be recalled in the one game the Bengals beat Bucs quarterback Tom Brady when he was in New England, linebacker Vincent Rey was huge on that Oct. 5, 2013 goal-line stand in the fourth quarter at Paycor Stadium.
On first-and-and-goal from the 1, Rey stuffed 250-pound running back LeGarrette Blount. Then on second down Rey tracked left tackle Nate Solder going out for an incomplete pass before Bengals cornerback Adam Jones fought through the hands of Patriots wide receiver Julian Edelman to jar the ball out. The Pats settled for a chip-shot field midway through the fourth to cut the Bengals' lead to 13-6. And that's the way it ended, along with Brady's skein of 52 straight games with a touchdown pass.
"Right out there," said Rey of the end zone next to the runway to the Bengals locker room. "It was a great stand."
Asked if Rey had any advices for his striped descendants, he said absolutely not.
"Nothing I can add," Rey said. "The guy's a disciplined quarterback. They just have to play like they've been playing all year."
SLANTS AND SCREENS: Taylor sounded hopeful Hilton has a shot at playing Saturday after it was up in the air for this one.
"We just took it off his plate and we'll get try to get him ready for next week and see what happens ...
The Bucs were without their best defensive lineman, 340-pound Vita Vea . and arguably their best offensive lineman in Tristan Wirfs .. .
As his want, Taylor went the local route on his game captains and gave the nod to former Bucs guard Alex Cappa and tight end Mitchell Wilcox, a Tarpon Springs, Fla., product who played his college ball in Tampa at the University of South Florida in this stadium…