If there was ever a must game Sunday for the 3-6-1 Bengals in 5-5 Baltimore (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 12), this is it. And have they ever gone into what is basically an elimination game with their offense so stripped of their weapons?
No A.J. Green. No Giovani Bernard. Against the Ravens, the NFL's No. 1 run defense. Their two top receivers consuming 42 percent of quarterback Andy Dalton's targets, 45 percent of his completions, and 47 percent of his yards.
Try two years ago when Green left the Denver game in the first moments, leaving Dalton without him, wide receiver Marvin Jones, and tight end Tyler Eifert in a Monday nighter the Bengals needed to win to make the postseason or be forced to qualify next week in the season finale.
They won with the Bengals rushing for 207 yards.
Try the Wild Card Game in Indianapolis two weeks later, again without Green, Eifert, and Jones. They rushed for 110 yards and lost.
"A.J. was having a career year. Gio did phenomenal things, especially in the passing game with his blocking and those little things we'll definitely miss," said running back Jeremy Hill Monday as the Bengals stood in the rubble of the first ten games of the season.
"It takes a couple of days to process all that. That's how the belly of this beast goes."
It turned out The Beast didn't devour everything Sunday. Head coach Marvin Lewis said the hamstring injury that knocked Green from the 16-12 loss on the second play was just a strain and that he expects him back before the end of the season.
But Bernard's season is over and if you didn't realize how much he means to this team and is probably their most complete player, you will now.
Hill: "Little things. The things the naked eye doesn't see, but we in this locker room see it."
Tight end Tyler Eifert: "He just brings energy to the offense. He can turn a no gain, or should have-been-tackled three different times into a big play. Or turn a loss into a no gain. He's one of these guys that bring so much energy to the offense we have to find a way to make up for that."
Running back Rex Burkhead: "He's a leader on and off the field. He finishes to the ball all the time, whether that's with the ball in his hands or not. He's a leader for us out there. He sets the tempo for us in practice and sets tempo during the game. That's going to be missed. We're going to have to have other guys step up and fill that void."
They see things like this:
The last minute of Sunday's game in that last kamikaze drive where Bernard's check-down route was the only one available to quarterback Andy Dalton against Buffalo's prevent defense. On Bernard's second effort after one catch he got dragged down by a couple of Bills and collided with left guard Clint Boling in the wash. He got up in a hurry because there were no timeouts and caught another ball before exiting when there was a penalty with 38 seconds left.
"Gio trying to make it happen still with a torn-up knee and still trying to battle through it. That's the kind of character we have on this team," Burkhead said. "He caught it, got tackled, his legs went up in the air. He played a couple more plays. And then I think he realized how bad it was."
And there was the play at the end of the first half, when he came out of nowhere in the middle of the field and chased down Bills cornerback Stephon Gilmore at the Bengals 3 after an interception and the Bengals held the Bills to a field goal.
"That was a huge play, great hustle play," Burkhead said. "That's Gio."
All eyes are on Burkhead, Bernard's good friend (and they're all his good friend because Bernard is that kind of guy) because he's the guy that is going to take his place as that jack-of-all-trades-third-down back that must catch run, catch, and block.
And there is enormous confidence in the 5-10, 214-pounds Burkhead. He's an example of how deep the Bengals believe their roster is, a versatile sort promoted to slot receiver in the week between the 2014 regular-season finale and the Wild Card Game when Green couldn't play with a concussion.
"More than capable," Hill said.
He's emerged as a special teams staple the past two seasons, where he's showed his reliability and smarts, and he's their teams leading tackler this season. His hands have been on display every preseason and there has been a murmur after that stint in the slot to get him on the field more.
He only has 38 regular-season touches from scrimmage with 19 carries for 70 yards and 19 catches for 167 yards in four seasons, eight of them coming this season on six carries for 39 yards and one of his two catches coming Sunday the play after Bernard left.
But that's the kind of time you get when you're a sixth-round pick out of Nebraska who came in the same year they took Bernard in the second round and a year before they took Hill in the second. He would seem to be the ultimate on-any-other-team-he'd-be-a-regular guy.
"You think about it, but at the same time it happens for a reason," Burkhead said. "I've had a great four years here so far. I'm just making the most of my opportunities and whatever happens going down the line happens."
Burkhead had to laugh. His first regular assignment comes against the NFL's best run defense. But Bernard's biggest impact may come against the pass while picking up the blitz, what Hue Jackson would call a 5-9, 205-pound bowling ball of butcher knives. Profotballfocus.com rates him as the second most efficient blocking back in the NFL.
(Go back to last year in Baltimore on Green's 80-yard touchdown catch in the fourth quarter when Bernard crushed a blitzing linebacker just before Dalton got rid of it.)
(More Ravens-Gio: in that same game with the Bengals driving for the winning touchdown with 2:10 left, Bernard had a 23-yard catch-and-run.)
Burkhead knows just how well he has to perform in blitz pickup.
"He's always on his assignments," Burkhead said. "He's not the biggest guy but he still takes on linebackers with ease. I definitely need to fill that role.
"He's good in all phases. I think he finishes really well. Whether that's running the ball or getting down field to find blocks for the other guys. I think he does that really well. He's one of the guys on our team that shines in that area. That's going to be a focus for me."
It's all a little bittersweet. Burkhead's best shot comes at the expense of Bernard's worst nightmare.
"Knowing him he'll be the first one cheering me on. That's our relationship," Burkhead said. "I've been waiting a long time for it. Whenever you have the opportunity to get more opportunities on the field you're going to be excited to get your number called and hopefully step up and rise to the occasion."
Bernard's injury is apparently clear-cut and one that doesn't have a lot of damage to the surrounding ligaments. A normal rehab should get him back to the practice field during training camp. As Hill noted, Bernard came back from ACL surgery on his other knee in college and it's no longer a death knell to running backs.
"Not with modern technology," Hill said. "He's already coming off an ACL and he's played his butt of. It's not anything he can't come back from, especially knowing he's done it before."
Cincinnati Ben-Gal Cheerleaders perform during the Buffalo Bills vs Cincinnati Bengals game 11/20/2016 *Photos taken by Steve France