Four Bengals made their first NFL start on offense and two on defense in Sunday's 21-16 loss to the Browns in Cleveland. Six more defenders made their first Bengals start of this season.
And head coach Zac Taylor would do it again after the Bengals finished 10-7 with the AFC's fourth seed heading into next weekend's Wild Card Game at Paul Brown Stadium. The fact that the Bengals didn't know their opponent yet when they got on the plane to head home proved Taylor's point.
Although the coaches can probably narrow down watching tape of the Patriots and the Raiders on the plane.
"No perfect decision there. I just felt like we need to be healthy – perfectly healthy – going into next week," Taylor said after the offense came up with a season-low 182 yards. "There were so many things out of our control in terms of where the seeding was going to be, that we just felt it was best to rest some key guys."
Taylor said the players who didn't make the trip because they were on the COVID list are expected to be ready to practice this week and that's a formidable list of 1,206-yard rusher Joe Mixon, club record sacker Trey Hendrickson, starting strong safety Vonn Bell and starting center Trey Hopkins. And there are defensive tackles Larry Ogunjobi and B.J. Hill and their combined 13 sacks.
"Those guys have felt good, especially these last couple days," Taylor said. "Their five days is up now. We expect to get those guys back and ready to go this week."
After breaking Chad Johnson's season record for receiving yards on the game's second series, Taylor got Ja'Marr Chase out of there. But it sounded like Chase was going back to his famous mirror to add to his rookie goals.
"I still have a lot more to do. Hopefully I can break some playoff records," Chase said.
Five starters were inactive, led by quarterback Joe Burrow. Eight more didn't play, among them safety Jessie Bates III, wide receiver Tyler Boyd, cornerbacks Eli Apple and Chidobe Awuzie and linebacker Germaine Pratt.
Starting slot cornerback Mike Hilton was pressed into action in the first half when Ricardo Allen went out with a concussion and Vernon Hargreaves III was carted off with an ankle injury. Hargreaves came back in the second half, but not before Hilton ended the first half with an end-zone interception that kept the Bengals within 14-7.
Hilton showed terrific concentration on a ball that was tipped by linebacker Markus Bailey and when he ran it out of the end zone as the clock ran out, he decided to get down after he ran about 20 yards. But he still took a shot and got up slowly.
"I'm OK. I gave myself up and he still have me a lick," Hilton said. "You have to be ready to play. Whether you're a starter or a backup."
Despite giving up a season-high 205 rushing yards, the defense gave the Bengals a chance to win. That's because both turnovers ended up in the end zone. Hilton prevented at least a field goal and safety Trayveon Henderson scooped up defensive end Wyatt Ray's forced fumble from Browns quarterback Case Keenum for a 29-yard fumble return touchdown.
It was quite a moment for Henderson, a guy that's labored on the practice squad for three seasons after losing his rookie year to a torn ACL he sustained locking up a roster spot with an interception return in the 2018 preseason finale.
"I really didn't know it was a fumble or not," said Henderson, a college free agent out of Hawaii. "We're always taught as defensive players to run with the ball just in case. When I crossed the line, I honestly thought they were going to say it was an incomplete pass. That he had his arm going forward. When they said touchdown, I didn't know the review went that fast. It was a good feeling for sure."
In just the tenth game of his career and second this season, he got the Bengals on the board late in the first half and infused them heading into the half down just 14-7.
"Being on the practice squad you have to be ready every week," Henderson said. "You really don't know what's going to happen. You may be called up the day of the game, so you just have to be prepared. That touchdown was a combination of guys and me doing things right and having it work out."
The Bengals got an intriguing look at what could be the future with some offense linemen. Fourth-rounder D'Ante Smith made his first NFL start at left tackle in his third game and got more snaps than Fred Johnson in what was going to be a rotation. It looked like the one sack Smith allowed Pro Bowl sacker Myles Garrett came when quarterback Brandon Allen pump faked instead of getting rid of it.
Next to Smith, Jackson Carman made his first NFL start at left guard and the Bengals did put a 4.4-yards per carry dent in the Browns' starting defense with running backs Trayveon Williams (38 yards on nine carries) and Chris Evans (five yards per pop on seven carries) running hard.
Evans, the sixth-rounder, continues to impress in limited time. He added four catches for 24 yards and that included a four-yard touchdown catch from Allen rolling out to cut the lead to 21-16 with 2:26 left in the game.
Allen made no bones about looking to Evans when he had him in space and the touchdown was all space as Allen got on the perimeter and Evans just ran away from drifting cornerback Greg Newsome II, the Browns' first-round pick, to the right corner.
"He is an extremely talented receiving back out of the backfield, and a lot of the time, he is getting covered by linebackers who really can't hang with him," Allen said. "He has done a great job all year of catching passes out of the backfield and being a mismatch in the pass game. He also runs the ball really well in the run game. I thought all of our backs did a great job. Trayveon ran the ball really hard. I think we had a really good showing from those two guys today."