As the Bengals prep for Sunday's semi-annual crusade against the Steelers at Paul Brown Stadium (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Local 12), the team's bid to get into December with a game-and-a-half lead on Pittsburgh comes against the backdrop of a sophomore quarterback and a third-year coach evolving and finding their feet in the heat of the AFC playoff race.
Both are coming off an impressive, pressure-packed effort on the road in the 32-13 win over the Raiders.
Head coach Zac Taylor was able to step out of the minutia of the game plan and not only envision how the Bengals had to beat Raiders big picture, but spent the week able to communicate it to his players and coaches by counseling them about patience, ugly starts and big finishes.
Quarterback Joe Burrow spent Sunday executing that vision by taking what the Raiders gave him in a career-low 148 yards that gives them a 4-2 road record after winning three in the last three seasons.
Before Wednesday's practice they both agreed they may have done some growing last Sunday.
"You can say that," Burrow said. "Knowing the kind of game that it is, when you're running the ball the way that we are and the defense is playing the way they are, you don't take those chances down the field when maybe you would've when you're down 10 points, the defense isn't playing as well or you're not running the ball. As a quarterback, you have to adapt to the game it is every week and the kind it was on Sunday, we had to take completions, move the chains and score points whether it's field goals or touchdowns. That's what I did on Sunday, it turned out well for us."
Burrow, who remained the AFC's leading passer despite his longest completion just 17 yards, was making just his 20th NFL start. He's showing the more that he makes, the more he learns.
"That was one of the first games like that that we had one when I'd been here," Burrow said. "I could just take my completions, move the chains, score points and come out with the win. If you do that, it puts pressure on the defense because they want to get off the field so they start pressing, playing more man. They were patient, made us work for it, but some other defensive coordinators and some other teams might get tired of us taking 4 yard completions all the way down the field. That's what we did on Sunday."
It was Taylor's 42nd game as head coach and he says he's learned from the 41 games that came before. On Wednesday, he recalled watching a game a few weeks ago between two other teams and he was appalled at what one coach was clearly doing so badly. And then he realized that he would have done the same bad coaching move in his first season.
"I hope I'm a significantly better coach at 48 than I am at 38," Taylor said, "or else I really screwed up."
At 38 he certainly has a better record than he did at 36 and 37. He's seen games go every which way and he admitted that as he put together last week, he went back in his head to the week two loss to the Bears, a curious 20-17 game that wasn't that close but one in which they were a Justin Fields scrambling first down away from having a shot at putting it into overtime. Or even better.
"You could say Chicago. I think I learned a lot from that game," Taylor said. "There's more if I went deep into the last two years. But I think that's one. If I had done some things a little differently, it would have put us in a better position to win. (Like last Sunday), to have a three-point lead in the fourth quarter that turns into a 20-point victory. There are a lot of games that could go that way where it's tight, tight, tight and because you did it the right way it blows open for you and we kind of did that for Chicago."
Taylor thought about Chicago and that first drive, a good one that countered the Bears' opening touchdown march. They reached the Bears 36, kicker Evan McPherson territory, but Taylor kicks himself for not coming out of it with any points and the Bears were able to wangle that 7-0 lead into a game-long advantage.
But in Vegas, the Bengals followed up the Raiders brief drive that took a 3-0 lead with a drive to the Vegas 42. Two Joe Mixon runs put it on the 36 and when Burrow made sure he stayed in field-goal range on an incomplete pass, McPherson tied it on the first of his record three 50-yarders and it was on the way to being the game Taylor envisioned with the three points they didn't get at Soldier Field two months ago.
"There are moments to be aggressive and moments to be smart and managing the game the right way and finding the balance between aggressive and what the situation calls for," Taylor said. "There's a balance there that I think comes with experience."
Taylor thinks he's getting better at seeing the big picture and he gives a lot of credit to special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons, the 19-year coach working his 306th Bengals game this Sunday.
"Darrin's the assistant head coach. He's got a lot of experience," Taylor said. "He does a real good job trying to feel me out and give me his two cents. I need that. I appreciate that. I lean on his experience big time and he's usually well -timed with advice he gives as well. It's during the week and certainly moments in the game. 'Hey, the game's evolved differently than we predicted,' or, 'it's going exactly the way we predicted and remember what we said during the week.'''
But if they've got a vision for this Sunday, they're not offering public predictions how this one is going to go.
"I don't know," Burrow said. "We'll see. Probably a little too early to tell."
MIRROR, MIRROR: Rookie wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase's long ball has been held relatively in check the last three games. He's got just one catch of at least 20 yards, a 21-yarder a month ago in New York, but he's still in range to meet two of his goals he put on a sticky note on his mirror: 1,500 yards and 12 touchdowns. He's got eight TDs, one shy of Isaac Curtis' club rookie record of nine touchdowns, and he's on pace for 1,474 yards, which would break Chad Johnson's club record of 1,440 yards in 2007.
He won't reveal the one or two other goals, but one of them is not the Pro Bowl, where he is the second-leading vote-getter at receiver after the first returns.
"I didn't think about it actually. That wasn't the first thing that popped in my head," Chase said before Wednesday's practice. "I mean it's cool that is happening. Of course I want to go. But, it wasn't a big goal of mine to happen. Everything's happened for a reason."
Chase knows exactly why the numbers that were there in the first seven games aren't there now. Since the 82-yard touchdown in Baltimore, he's got 113 yards.
"They've been moving to two-high (safeties) lately," Chase said. "I've been seeing that a lot lately, playing a little cloud towards me, trying to get me to have a lot of under routes now."
Chase admits it can get frustrating. But he also knows his buddy, slot receiver Tyler Boyd, can do damage in the two-high and although Boyd had just 49 yards in Vegas half his six catches ended up converting third downs.
"You want to be a deep ball threat, but patience is a virtue though," Chase said. "Man, NFL games go by faster than you really think, especially when you're playing in them. I'm always trying to be patent, I'm never on the sideline complaining about the ball. TB went off last game. I'm right on side TB, cheering TB on cause if TB keeps eating, TB is going to keep us in the game. I just want to make sure everybody's on the same row, want to make sure everybody's on the same page, just here to do my job basically."
WHERE WERE YOU ON DECEMBER 2? Make that Dec. 2, 1990. Paul Dehner, Jr. of The Athletic did his due diligence and on Wednesday asked some of the players and Taylor if they knew the last time the Bengals beat the Steelers three times in a row.
They didn't. But talk about an ugly style. It was a brutal 16-12 affair at old Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh on the way to the Bengals' last AFC Central title. They completed a series sweep holding the Steelers to four Gary Anderson field goals in a game Tim Krumrie recovered a fumble, James Francis had a sack and Mitchell Price had an interception. The Bengals rushed for 165 yards, Boomer Esiason hit Eddie Brown with a 50-yard touchdown pass in a secondary that had Rod Woodson at cornerback and the only guys left that covered it are Bengals radio analyst Dave Lapham and a wayward scribe that punched out a tome for the now defunct Cincinnati Post. And Dehner, who started all this, was ten.
"Wow. I wasn't even born," said Bates, who was seven years later. "I'm a Midwestern guy. I've always heard of the Steelers, Ravens, Bengals type of game. Yeah, people are aware what this game means. Not to our season this year, but bragging rights for fans and the city and to Mr. (Mike) Brown. Upstairs. Everybody in this organization. This game. Any game in the division is very important. Hopefully we can come up with a victory and make history as well."
Bates knows what it means. They all do. So does Taylor, who was in second grade in Norman, Okla.
"It matters. It matters to everybody. It matters to everybody in this building, in this city, in this state. You certainly feel that," Taylor said. "That doesn't mean we change our approach and how we do it. We know when we walk on the field it's going to be a battle. It's such a great opportunity to be a part of games like this.
"1990? I was seven. And I was in pre-K, whatever, I don't know. As you grow up you dream, I would watch games with the Bengals logo on the helmet and Steelers logo and you could never imagine being in this position. Being a part of this game that affects people everywhere. Everyone lives and die with this game. It's a cool thing to be a part of. We don't lose sight of that, so we put everything we got into these games because we know how much it matters. Not just to us but to the community also."
INURY UPDATE: Bengals wide receiver Auden Tate (thigh) has apparently had a relapse. He went full two days last week, but didn't Sunday and didn't practice Wednesday. Everybody else looks ready to go.
"We are kind of slowing him down this week," Taylor said. "He's doing everything he can. We just have to kind of slow him down this week. It will be touch and go for Auden this week."