On Monday, Bengals head coach Zac Taylor made certain his team knows exactly where it stands in what has turned into the AFC Demolition Derby with nine teams having five victories heading into the NFL's tenth week and Cincinnati's bye.
The 5-4 Bengals are one of them. They play six of them over the final eight games of the season, starting with the first three games after the bye and leading off with Nov. 21 in their first game ever in Las Vegas against the 5-3.
On Tuesday, the message was received.
"We have a bunch of AFC opponents left. Everything we want is right in front of us," said nose tackle D.J. Reader after Taylor sent them off for the bye with a one-hour light workout on the Paul Brown Stadium greensward. "Everybody that's sitting at 5-4 with us, we have to play all of those people. It's an exciting feeling. You know it's on you and you much rather have it that way then sit there and hoping a bunch of teams lose. That's a rough feeling when you have to sit there and hope that's going to happen and this is going to happen, we have everything in front us. That means a lot as a player because you know it's on you. That's the way you want it."
The Bengals play three of them at home with the 5-3 Steelers and the 5-3 Chargers on back-to-back Sundays Nov. 26 and Dec. 5 and the 5-4 Chiefs on Jan. 2. After Vegas it is the 5-4 Broncos on Dec. 19 in Denver and they finish in Cleveland against the 5-4 Browns on Jan. 9 in the 17th game. It's the fourth time they've played on Jan. 9. All three of them have been in the playoffs, which is basically what this 2021 finale is going to be.
Reader is one of the dozen or so free agents the Bengals have acquired over the last two offseasons who have been to the playoffs. He gets Jan. 9. And Nov. 21. The Bengals' two-game losing streak they take into the bye is jarring, but for a guy like Reader it doesn't mean a whole heck of a lot. His Texans won a division at 11-5 after starting 0-3. They won another one at 9-7 despite a three-game losing streak that sent them into mid-December at 6-6. He can tell the Bengals, you ain't seen nothing yet.
"Week to week anybody can beat anybody in this league," Reader said. "There are players on everybody's team. It's set up the way for it to be a week to week league and that's what it is. The teams that win are consistent and hold themselves to a standard.
"We have a lot of guys right now looking themselves in the mirror and that's what the league is. It's play to play, making adjustments. Halftime making adjustments. Week to week making adjustments. Now we're in that meat part of the season where everybody is sitting in the same spot, there's no real separation. The teams who make the adjustments will be the better teams and the teams who don't, won't."
You wonder if 9-8 can make it this year. Or even 8-9. Reader knows you can't look up. He did last week and he saw the Bengals lose to the underdog Browns, the lowly Jaguars shock one of those five-win teams, the Bills, and the .500 Broncos join the five-win circle with a stunner on the home turf of the one-loss Cowboys.
"You see what the league is week to week, you see teams go out there and they may be favored and you see what happens," Reader said. "Last weekend I saw a bunch of underdogs go out there and win. You know that's how it goes. You have to go out every week and prepare as a team every week. There's no underdogs in the league. You go out there and play a team that's a bunch of professional guys who are getting paid to play this sport."
If they didn't know that, they know it now after what the Jets and Browns have done to them in the last 10 days. But Reader thinks they're good.
"We go out there and play the Jets, I watch guys go out there on a Thursday, put full pads on and go out there in the rain and not complain," Reader said. "Not one complaint was made. I don't think it's a lack of preparation or lack of effort from anybody. That's not the case. It's just execution."
JOE KNOWS: Look, here's a guy that threw 11 interceptions in four seasons and 38 games for two schools in his college career. So if anyone knows 11 interceptions after eight games is uncharacteristic, it's Joe Burrow.
Offensive coordinator Brian Callahan can't see frustration, but he can sense Burrow senses it.
"It does bother him, though. He throws it out there occasionally," Callahan said, "and says, 'I've never thrown so many interceptions in my life.' Not all of them are all his fault. Some have been mistargeted throws. Some of them have been tipped and some of those are guys making good plays. Not everything falls on his shoulders, but certainly the number is far too many."
The coaches don't sound concerned about Burrow's decision-making. They believe interceptions are hazards of the occupation and that many of the picks (such as linebacker Roquan Smith's pick-six in Chicago and Browns cornerback Denzel Ward's tip for John Johnson's pick on the second interception of the day) have been flat-out good plays. Everybody, though, would like to have back the two red-zone interceptions against the Ravens and Browns.
The idea for the bye week, though, is the offense as a whole can't keep turning it over at this rate. The Bengals are tied for 23rd with a minus-4 turnover differential. The same as Chicago, Detroit and Washington, three teams with a combined five wins.
"Most good teams that make the playoffs are well into the-plus territory when you're talking turnover margin on both sides of the ball," Callahan said. "We're not helping our defense at all. We've put the defense in some bad spots, particularly the last two games with short fields and giving up points.
"The numbers have to go down. Joe is frustrated. He knows what the issues are. There's not a whole lot of things where you look at his interceptions and 'That was a really poor decision.' Sometimes you miss a throw. Sometimes the defense gets a hand in there and the ball pops up. Those things happen, but it's happened too much."
SPECIALISTS TAKE HUGE HITS: Bengals special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons has to spend the bye week re-shaping his unit that lost two major players for the season Sunday when kick returner Brandon Wilson tore his ACL and linebacker Akeem Davis-Gaither injured his foot.
And they've really got problems at linebacker with Markus Bailey going on the COVID list
As four-phase players, ADG (151) and Wilson (136) have played the third and fourth most snaps in the kicking game and between his kick return abilities and aptitude covering punts as a gunner, Wilson just might be their best special teamer.
One guy, Simmons says, can't replace him. Cornerback Darius Phillips, who is battling to keep his punt return job, is now the kick returner, but Simmons is still looking. He's going to take a look at rookie running back Chris Evans, a guy that never did it at Michigan, but has shown good hands and nice speed for 5-11, 211 pounds. Maybe practice squad rookie Pookah Williams, Jr., can make a move in practice.
And, at gunner, wide receiver Mike Thomas looks ready to appear again. Cornerback Tre Flowers, who played as many as 40 percent of the snaps one year in Seattle, is also in the mix.
"You really can't just plug-and-play one person to (replace a high-caliber player). It'll be a variety of guys," Simmons said. "You saw a little bit the other day, Tre jumped in there for us as a gunner, we had Mike Thomas who has made a living in this league playing gunner. We'll have to fill his role with a variety of people probably on kickoff and the same thing on punt return. When you lose a core guy like that it stings, it hurts, but that's life in this league too. Everybody loses players on a week-to-week basis. You hate it when it happens to one of your core guys like that, but what it provides is an opportunity for one of the other guys to step up. That's how Brandon got to play in this league. He started off on PUP and when he got an opportunity he took it and ran with it."
ADG is the second teams core linebacker to be shelved for the year. Jordan Evans, their most experienced backer, tore his ACL the first month of the season. With the Bengals moving to a hybrid 3-4 defense that favors extra linemen and defensive backs and not linebackers that can help in the kicking game, the Bengals have been playing with just five active linebackers and now they're scrambling. Although with the bye week, Bailey would hypothetically be available for Vegas.
"I'm used to having six linebackers up and active and we haven't done that in some time," Simmons said. "We've gotten dangerously thin at linebacker real fast. Akeem is somebody that we targeted coming out of the draft from being around him at the Senior Bowl. And he's been exactly what we thought he was going to be since the day we got him.
"He's really mature. He's had a really good year this year for me. You can tell he's the son of a coach, too. He understands the game and he's very sharp. We'll miss his intelligence as much as we'll miss anything. He really does a good job of getting guys lined up."
Which explains why the Bengals claimed Panthers linebacker Clay Johnston on Tuesday. Johnston, a seventh-round pick of the Rams in 2020, played eight games with Carolina the past two seasons, primarily on special teams where he logged 101 snaps this season.
The Bengals also have speedy backer Keandre Jones on the practice squad. He had 19 snaps and a tackle on teams in two games last season and if Bailey can't go is an option.
"Keandre is a guy who's been around here and if we go with him I'm sure he'll be fine," Simmons said before they were rewarded Johnston. "He and Akeem are close to each other athletically from a size standpoint, so if we go with Keandre, we go with Keandre. If that person's not here yet, that's still an option for us too."
HUBER GETS BOOST: What are the odds that a local kid from Anderson Township on the east side of Cincinnati would become the third Bengal in history to play 200 games a week from Sunday in Las Vegas when Kevin Huber punts in his 200th Bengals game?
Huber, 36, is coming off a career year (42.8-yard net, 47.2-yard average) but now finds himself in the middle of the NFL pack with a 46.4 average and 40.9 net. Simmons thinks he'll get revived by the bye with an injection for his hip.
"I don't think he's punted it probably quite as well the last couple games. Maybe it hasn't shown up in the stat sheet that way but I think you could ask Kevin and he'll say the same thing," Simmons said. "He's going to try something here over the bye week to maybe change a little bit physically to help that. He's dealt with some little minor physical things in the past that he's worked on and helped over the bye week and we're going to do that."
They also gave him Tuesday off. Rookie kicker Evan McPherson actually got off a cannon shot of a punt while standing in at practice.
"It's something very minor," Simmons said. "We're hoping this will help him and allow his leg to swing through a little truer, a little straighter and a little cleaner. He's been coming across his body a little bit. Plus, giving him a week off with this whole week, I think that will help."