The Bengals got a huge lift Wednesday when middle linebacker Logan Wilson not only appeared on the practice field Wednesday but went full for the first time since injuring his shoulder 24 days ago while covering a punt against the Chargers.
Before practice head coach Zac Taylor was hesitant to make a call for Sunday against the Chiefs (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Local 12) at Paul Brown Stadium. Still, it's the kind of good fortune you need trying to nail down a postseason berth. The good news surrounding Wilson came on the same day they put his running partner on the COVID list.
Germaine Pratt took over the green dot helmet as the defensive's communicator while racking up 39 tackles in the four-game stretch starting with the Chargers. Pratt, who forced a fumble and recovered a fumble during the comeback against the Chargers and had a career-high 15 tackles during the win in Denver, needs two negative tests, by rule, to be available Sunday.
Taylor sounded more confident about two defensive players who missed last week's game while on the list, starting nose tackle D.J. Reader and backup edge Wyatt Ray.
And slightly more optimistic about Wilson, their second-year signal-caller having a breakout season. When he got hurt he was their leading tackler and he's still just two tackles shy of strong safety Vonn Bell's team-leading 92. And he's still their leading interceptor with four.
"Germaine tested positive today, so that's one that's just really kind of like we said the other day a crap shoot at that point. The other guys are more encouraging," said Taylor, who thought on Monday Wilson wasn't going to be able to go this week.
"I'm a little more optimistic today than I was on Monday. It has nothing to do with Germaine testing positive. Just the way Logan's feeling, and so he's going to get out there today and start moving around a little bit. That's kind of the last step we needed to see from him and see how he feels physically as he moves around. So, I don't have any predictions on what Sunday will look like for him yet. But that's an encouraging big step to get him out there for practice today."
Wilson has been working every day with Bengals director of rehab Nick Cosgray and since Monday they've noticed considerable improvement.
"The strength he has (shown) in his shoulder," Taylor said. "So we played it a little bit conservatively on my end, you know, not trying to push him to play this week. But on his end, just what he's done in the weight room, what he's done with Nick Cosgray. He started to feel better and better really over the last 48 hours, and so, we're going to get him out there today, and let him take that step and then see how he feels throughout the week and then make some decisions later on."
Even if Wilson can only play in certain packages it's a big boost because Pratt and Wilson are their most experienced backers in the system. Markus Bailey made his first NFL start last week on a day practice squad linebackers Keandre Jones and Austin Calitro each played 15 snaps on special teams and none from scrimmage. Calitro has played 45 NFL games, just three of them with the Bengals. Jones has played five games with the Bengals over the past two seasons. Neither has taken a snap on defense.
"(Wilson is) really good on all three downs and has done a really good job playing in the middle of that defense, creating turnovers, getting his hand on the ball," Taylor said. "And he's just really good linebacker in this league. So, to be able to get him back out there would certainly be meaningful for us."
MUST WIN: The Bengals are right with you. They want to clinch the AFC North as soon as possible with a win Sunday against the hottest team in the NFL.
If they can't solve the 11-4 Chiefs and their eight-game winning streak, that means to guarantee the division title they have to win next week's season finale in Cleveland, where they haven't won in three years during a stretch the Browns hold a 6-1 edge.
"This is a must-win game for us. That's how we're treating it. That's how we're approaching it. Like, win or go home," said tight end C.J. Uzomah before Wednesday's practice. "This is something that, again, we hold our own fate right now and we don't want to put it in anyone else's hands. We want to seize the opportunity now, this week, this weekend and play our best ball, come out swinging, come out fast, physical and keep our foot on the gas … There's a sense of urgency about this week that came last week, and now it's just we upped the ante even that."
Uzomah, the only position player left from the 2015 North champs (he took one snap from scrimmage in the Wild Card Game as a rookie), loves the way the city feels.
"I'm glad we're able to play this at home. Our fans have been going crazy. The city's been buzzing. It's the start of a new year," he said. "So I know people are going to come in hot, which is going to be awesome."
The '15 Bengals were a crew of hardened veterans at the end of a stretch of five straight playoff berths playing with the pressure of trying to win that elusive post-season game. It's a far different kind of mix this season.
"I think just the camaraderie that we have this year in this locker room, it really is unparalleled," Uzomah said. "(Not since) I'd say maybe like my junior year of college, going all the way to peewee maybe. Just how tight-knit we are, how much of a brotherhood this has become, how much we just like to pick on each other, mess with each other. Then we go out there and we do what needs to be done, and we get down to business. It is very unique to me, and I truly … come into the locker room and I'm just beaming."
MORE BURROW: Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow not only has a big arm, but a big heart. He gave all 13 offensive linemen each a custom G-Shock watch smothered in diamonds for Christmas before last Sunday's game.
"I was going to go with the Rolexes first," Burrow said, "but those were a little out of my price range at this point in my career so we went with the G-SCHOCKs."
The Rolexes will be coming soon enough. The reactions to Burrow's 525-yard game that is the fourth most prolific of all-time remain priceless. Such as when Uzomah was asked what trait stands out about Burrow.
"Just being a freakin' animal," Uzomah said. "Just being smart. Just being smart as hell. I keep saying it, this man is smart out there. He knows and can analyze and dissect defenses and just pick them apart. It's fun to be a part of this offense. It's fun to just watch him work sometimes and be like, 'Dang, that's my quarterback back there.'
"Boom. All right, 'You think you got this answer, nope, I got this. Nope, I got this. Oh, you think you can double or do this? Nope. We've got this person, this person and this person.' We've got weapons everywhere and he's able to find and place the ball perfectly to allow us to go make plays. The thing that impresses me most is his brain. Just reckless out there."