Joe Burrow backup quarterback Jake Browning makes his first NFL start next Sunday against the Steelers at Paycor Stadium and a win would not only keep the Bengals in the thick of the playoff race, but it would put him in a class with Boomer Esiason and Brett Favre.
The Bengals return to work Monday to prepare for their first game since Burrow was declared out for the season with a torn ligament in his throwing wrist. A look at some Bengals' first NFL starts with the help of the Elias Sports Bureau and Pro Football Reference:
_Browning doesn't have to look very far for advice on first starts. The last Bengals quarterback to win his first NFL one is AJ McCarron, signed to the practice squad when Burrow aggravated his calf in late September. McCarron stepped in for Andy Dalton after Dalton broke his thumb against Pittsburgh and the next week in San Francisco engineered a 24-14 win that clinched a 2015 playoff spot.
McCarron completed 71.4 % of his 21 passes for a 115.6 passer rating and rode four turnovers from the defense that included interceptions by linebacker Vontaze Burfict and Adam Jones. The only quarterback with a more efficient NFL debut for the Bengals was future Super Bowl head coach Sam Wyche during the franchise's first season in 1968. They lost to the Oilers, 27-17 at Nippert Stadium as Wyche hit 80% of his 25 passes and had a 118 passer rating.
_Esiason is the last Bengals quarterback to win a first start at home when he survived two interceptions and the Bengals beat the Oilers, 13-3, at Riverfront Stadium on Oct. 7, 1984 early in his rookie year. Esiason threw for just 159 yards, but future Pro Football Hall-of-Famer Warren Moon, with 181 yards, wasn't much better. The Bengals' front seven harassed Moon with three picks (Ross Browner, Reggie Williams, Glen Collins), fellow rookie Stanford Jennings was the Bengals leading rusher with 68 yards, wide receiver Cris Collinsworth caught 74, and Esiason scored the game's only touchdown on a three-yard run.
_Ken Anderson, Esiason's fellow Bengals Ring of Honor member, had better numbers in his first start on Oct. 10, 1971 at Riverfront, also in his rookie year, with a 97.1 passer rating on a touchdown and no interceptions. But it wasn't enough in Miami's 23-13 win headlined by the Dolphins' Hall-of-Fame connection of Bob Griese to Paul Warfield for 74 yards.
_Anderson was also the quarterbacks coach for two of the most spectacular first NFL starts in Bengals history. No. 3 emergency quarterback Jeff Blake didn't get the win on Oct. 30, 1994 at Riverfront for the winless Bengals against the Super Bowl champion Cowboys, but his performance in the 23-20 fourth-quarter loss spawned "Blakemania," and a three-year run he made the Pro Bowl.
Five Octobers later in Cleveland, first-round rookie Akili Smith secured a fourth-quarter comeback when he led the Bengals on their final ten plays of the game starting with 2:04 left. His two-yard touchdown loft to Pro Bowl wide receiver Carl Pickens with five seconds gave the Bengals an 18-17 win.
_The Bengals also got a fourth-quarter win in Cleveland during Dalton's first NFL start in the 2011 opener. But he wasn't there at the finish because of a bruised wrist. Vet Bruce Gradkowski came off the bench to throw the go-ahead touchdown with five minutes left, a 41-yard pass to rookie wide receiver A.J. Green for his first NFL catch.
_On Oct. 16, 1983 in Denver, vet Turk Schonert, best known for coming off the bench to rescue the 1981 opener and set the table for that season's Super Bowl run, had the most prolific first NFL start for the Bengals with 290 yards in a 24-17 loss to the Broncos. Carson Palmer had 248 yards in the 31-24 road loss to the Jets in the 2004 opener, one more than Blake against the Cowboys. Blake staked the Bengals to a stunning 14-0 lead with his signature moon ball touchdown passes of 67 and 55 yards to wide receiver Darnay Scott.
_According to Pro Football Reference, the last time the Steelers lost to a quarterback making his first NFL start was to Favre, the future Hall-of-Famer, on Sept. 27, 1992 at Lambeau Field. Courtesy of the Bengals. The week before at Lambeau, Bengals nose tackle Tim Krumrie sacked Packers quarterback Don Majkowski on a play the Magic Man broke his ankle and brought Favre off the bench. He threw a 35-yard touchdown pass in the last 15 seconds to beat the Bengals and the next week he gave Steelers head coach Bill Cowher his first loss with a 144.6 passer rating in the Pack's 17-3 win.
_Cowher and his successor Mike Tomlin haven't let it happen again against the last eight quarterbacks making their first starts against the Steelers. Tomlin is 4-0 with the last one coming on Nov. 11, 2020, when the Steelers needed a Ben Roethlisberger touchdown pass with 2:14 left in Dallas to catch the Cowboys' Garrett Gilbert.