Time for Jake Browning to receive a prolonged standing ovation from the Paycor Stadium crowd at Sunday's regular-season finale (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Local 12) against the Browns.
Browning, 27, has done what no Bengals quarterback has done in their 56 seasons. He came off the bench to make his first six NFL starts in November and December in the teeth of a playoff run with each game bigger than the next. And he kept them in it until last week's penultimate game in Kansas City and the Super Bowl champs erased the 17-7 lead he forged in the first 22 minutes.
Bengals right end Trey Hendrickson, the NFL sack co-leader with 17, is appreciative.
Even though for the first time in his seven NFL seasons, not only is Hendrickson not going to the playoffs, but he's also not hosting a postseason game as a division winner for the first time.
"It gives me a different light on the blessings of going to the playoffs. Looking at it from the outside in. It's different. But Jake put us in position where we knew for only one week we were eliminated," said Hendrickson this week. "You and me can do anything for a week. I'm ready to go get the Browns to beat. One week is good. Six weeks knowing you're eliminated, I don't want to know that feeling. But credit to Jake stepping up for our team and our organization and the guys around him supporting him."
And in the kiln of the playoff picture, Browning went toe-to-toe with the only Bengals quarterback to be a rookie of the year in 1969's Greg Cook.
According to Pro Football Reference, in his first six starts, Browning rates first for the Bengals with the most yards (1,712) and the best completion percentage (71.1), the second-highest passer rating (97.1), the second-most yards per attempt (8.4), and the third most touchdown passes (8), tied with Boomer Esiason.
Cook, who never started another game after that rookie season because of a shoulder injury, is the leader with 12 touchdown passes in his first six starts, as well as in passer rating at 111.1 and yards per attempt with 10.4.
And the numbers hold up all-time. His 71.1% is the fourth best since 1950 and the 1,712 yards are ninth most.
"I think he's a lot more accurate in the moment than I probably gave him credit for coming out of training camp in our time with him," said offensive coordinator Brian Callahan this week. "I always thought he was accurate enough, but he's put some really impressive throws out there. That (third down) bench throw to Ja'Marr (Chase) early in the (KC) game, where he kind of started on the front side and snapped back to venture out (of the pocket). I mean, he can really put the ball in some tight windows. I think that that's been the most impressive thing to me is just how well he's placed the ball in NFL games. I think that's been impressive and better than I would've probably anticipated. It's been really good."
WHAT'S NEXT: Browning has also been good enough to show some of the things we may see more of when Joe Burrow returns after his throwing wrist heals from surgery. Offensive coordinator Brian Callahan says they already had planned to go under center a little more often and use a few more double tight end packages even before Burrow got hurt.
The Bengals believe what they've done schematically with Browning is pretty much what they were doing when Burrow was at the top of his game, starting with the Oct. 8 win in Arizona. They felt like they didn't have to protect him as much in shotgun.
Once Burrow's strained calf that took him out of 34 days of preseason healed, the Bengals were hard to stop. In his two biggest wins, against San Francisco on Oct. 29 (23% under center) and Buffalo on Nov. 5 (17% under center), the Bengals weren't like they were early in the year, when Burrow was in shotgun for all but one play in the second game of the year against the Ravens to protect the calf.
(It also depends on what and who they're playing on defense. Before he got hurt in the second game against the Ravens on Nov. 16, Burrow was also only under center once.)
When Browning beat the Jags in Jacksonville in a Dec. 4 overtime, he was under center 27%, in line with the last Burrow games.
"We've obviously dipped our toe more into some of the 12 personnel stuff (double tight end, two wide receivers) as of late. Some of that schematic versus whatever teams we're playing," Callahan said. "It gives us a schematic advantage in some way, shape or form. But there's a place for more mix of personnel. I think they've done a nice job of that probably over the last six games.
"We were trying to survive at some points with (Burrow) in the gun, just being able to manage the game. But there are a lot more things that we can do to unlock the rest of what we have and it's all part of it. We've done a better job marrying our play actions and our run game and our screen game. We've been under center a little bit more. We've mixed our personnels a little bit more. So those are all things that I think will continue."
But the Bengals are still going to be a pass-first team that runs primarily out of 11 (three receivers) and shotgun. With Burrow in the first ten games, they were in shotgun 516 times out of 579 plays (89%) while in Browning's six starts it is 80%.
SLANTS AND SCREENS: Wide receiver Tee Higgins (hamstring) didn't work all week and is the only Bengal doubtful for Sunday. Starting cornerback Chidobe Awuzie (shoulder) had been limited Thursday, but appeared to come up with a calf injury at some point because he didn't practice Friday and is listed as questionable …
So is backup slot cornerback Jalen Davis (hamstring), who has been limited all week with the groin injury that surprisingly took him out of the game in KC. The Bengals hurriedly scratched him a few hours before kickoff and that's why rookie running back Chase Brown ended up at gunner covering punts for the first time in his life. They gave up their longest return of the year, a 27-yarder to Richie James in the fourth quarter …
If the Kroger commercial starring Bengals defensive ends Trey Hendrickson and Sam Hubbard looked natural, it's because it was. They sounded like they do when they're sitting next to each in front of their lockers.
In fact, the cleanliness of their lockers is discussed.
"He's actually my wingman," said Hubbard with a laugh, echoing the theme of the commercial. "I've done a commercial or two throughout the years. You get more and more comfortable. You get better at it with practice. Acting. We're actually friends off the field. So we hung out for about two hours talking about a whole bunch of things and they ended up using about 20 seconds. Easy day on the job." …..
Browning is wearing No. 6. That's the number Jeff Driskel wore when he started for the Bengals against the Browns in 2018 and lost to Baker Mayfield. Driskel becomes the first quarterback to start for both teams in the "Battle of Ohio." It only took until the last game of the 54th year ....