If Joe Burrow is the soul, then running back Joe Mixon is the heart of the Bengals' new and reenergized locker room chemistry of a team that has suddenly burst into the AFC power structure.
But as the Bengals go for their fourth straight road victory against the Jets Sunday (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 12), that's nothing new. Mixon has been leading with his boundless enthusiasm ever since he arrived in 2017.
Just note the last seven seconds of the 2018 win in Atlanta. That's a game Mixon missed with arthroscopic knee surgery, but it didn't prevent him from bounding off the sidelines and rolling around the end zone with A.J. Green celebrating the winning catch.
It's just now he's got more company joining in the celebrations. Mixon says he's never seen such chemistry "in all my time playing football," reiterating a theme that has surfaced during the Bengals' 5-2 start.
"The defense gets a turnover and guys are jumping off the sidelines," Mixon said before Thursday's practice. "That's infectious. We never had that and to be real, that's something special. It's special what we have in the locker room."
Maybe because Sunday's game is on Halloween, Mixon wonders when the Bengals are going to have a monster game. He says they haven't had it yet.
"We haven't had a complete game and we're getting better each and every week," Mixon said. "I think a perfect game is going to come. Really, at the end of the day, we're heating up. If we get hot it's just going to be scary."
Somehow, Mixon is on a career-best 1,300-yard pace and it's hard to catch his name in the midst of the buzz around Burrow and Chase. But he's loving life in his fifth season and the first at 5-2.
"This is the way we always thought it was going to be,"
Mixon said. "Now I feel like I'm really living the dream."
There's no question that the addition over the last two years of 15 free agents with at least one playoff appearance has put this team on the right track. But Mixon knows where the locker-room chemistry began.
"It started with the base and the foundation of the team," Mixon said. "The older players who were here before. I've been here since day one with the heartbreaks and losing seasons, but one thing we did was always lead by example and very vocally. Guys like me, Sam (Hubbard), Tyler Boyd, C.J. Uzomah. Things like that is what bring us so close. The free agents have gelled and we've grown as a team."
SLANTS AND SCREENS: Linebacker Akeem Davis-Gaither, getting more and more snaps in his second season, probably summed up best the difference between this year's defense and last year's when he talked about the impact of the defensive line Thursday:
"I don't think I've been touched by an O-lineman this whole season. That's a big difference from last year. Not having to dodge O-linemen. They've been covering up and letting the linebackers run. Letting the linebackers run and the defensive linemen eating up linemen. Huge impact."
The Bengals haven't beaten a quarterback making his first NFL start since they blanked Johnny Manziel on Dec. 14, 2014 in Cleveland. Since then they've lost to Tom Savage, Deshaun Watson and Lamar Jackson and Bengals head coach Zac Taylor is looking to break the skein.
But the old Nebraska quarterback is leery of anyone with a good head on his shoulders and a good arm and the Jets' Mike White has both of those. In last week's NFL debut in New England, he did throw a touchdown pass on his first pro throw from three yards.
"I remember watching several of his Western Kentucky games," said Taylor, who scouted White as a quarterbacks coach. "I thought for a guy who was playing in his first NFL game, he played confidently. It didn't seem like a guy who was overwhelmed. He stayed in rhythm. A lot of those guys you see get skittish in the pocket. You're playing New England, you know. I thought he did a nice of coming in and managing the game. His first pass was a back shoulder touchdown on a corner route down on the goal line. That's not easy to do. I was impressed with him and I think the limited tape our guys have to watch of him they'll see the same things that I've seen."
Thursday's injury report: Running back Chris Evans (hamstring) didn't practice again and right end Trey Hendrickson (shoulder) was limited again. Center Trey Hopkins (knee) returned to work limited. Wide receiver Auden Tate (thigh) was added Thursday and went limited.