LAS VEGAS - This is how they drew it up, isn't it?
This is how Bengals head coach Zac Taylor and his aide de camps crafted the game plan for Sunday's utterly necessary game against a Raiders team with the same record and same two-game losing streak and the same standing in anybody's AFC playoff race.
The plan was built around the two Joes.
Quarterback Joe Burrow would have to fight the urge to force it deep against old friend Gus Bradley's bend-but-don't-bend Cover Three Raiders defense and eliminate his growing number of interceptions.
If Burrow couldn't force it, then running back Joe Mixon would have to be ready to buckle it up for a patient slog to keep Bradley's baying hounds prowling the edge off Burrow. They knew it wouldn't always look pretty enough to come out of the NFL Films vault. But if they could keep the ball, the defense could hit Derek Carr because he'd have to throw and …
And both responded so well Burrow coaxed a 32-13 win out of a career-low 148 yards. Mixon tied a career high with 30 carries on his way to two touchdowns. Taylor wore the smile of a 6-4 coach with his fourth road win of the season after getting six wins the previous two seasons in which there was just one road win.
"We lost 15 games in a row, on the road, I don't know if you remember that, I do," Taylor said. "We needed to win this game a certain way. We had to get that lead no matter what it looked like so that we could keep leaning on the run game and get after the quarterback a little bit, put as much pressure on him as possible."
The Bengals were able to take that lead because their defense gave the Raiders nothing on third down and their marvelous rookie kicker was able to tie an NFL record with three field goals of at least 50 yards that gave them a 16-6 lead in the middle of the third quarter.
Defense. Rush. Kicking game.
The calendar says the playoffs start the third weekend in January. But don't kid yourself. The AFC is so jammed up they're all playoff games now. The postgame Who Dey Going to Beat Them Bengals chant locker room had a playoff zeal leaking into the adjacent media room as Taylor gave out more game balls than the Bengals equipment room.
This is the way they drew it up.
"I didn't force too many against that team," Burrow said. "You know, you just try and stay on schedule. We can't give them third-and-longs because then they unleash (ends) Maxx Crosby and (Yannick) Ngakoue. So, we stayed on schedule for the most part. We were able to get first downs when we needed them. I thought we played well."
Boy, did they ever unleash when they stopped Mixon and then could tee off on Burrow. And they did early on, when Mixon had just 26 yards rushing in the first half and Ngakoue got a strip sack and Crosby nearly did when he fell on Burrow's left knee on his last pass of the first half that had Burrow grabbing it before limping off.
"Have you ever known me to care about big hits? I don't think so," Burrow sneered when asked if anything went through his mind on that play.
That's what the two Joes brought to the building a few miles from Caesar's Palace, home to so many championship fights. They came off the ropes to give their best shots. Burrow's first pass of the second half after getting rocked in the first half was a play-action bullet to rookie wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase, where hung in the pocket and stepped up amid the fray. On that same drive, Mixon set out on a vicious 13-yard run where he just dragged people like in the old home black-and-white football movies.
"He gets better every day. All you have to do is turn that tape on and at the end of the games, that's where he gets even better," said wide receiver Tyler Boyd. "I done heard it. The guy I'm blocking, he wanted me to stay on him blocking so he doesn't have to tackle him. Guys out there (opponents) are saying he's running hard. Guys don't want to tackle him. It's stealing now at that point."
"I think the unique trait about Mixon is his explosion. He can do it all," Boyd said. "It's not just the run downhill. He can hit you up. He can shake you. He can catch the ball. He can do anything you want him to do. That's why he's out there and that's why he's one of the best running backs in the league."
He also refuses to stay down. After taking losses on three straight runs totaling minus-six yards, Mixon followed wide receiver Stanley Morgan Jr.'s block on the sweep right for their first touchdown that gave them the lead for good at 10-6. When the Raiders threw Mixon for a five-yard loss and then four plays later cut the lead to 16-13 early in the fourth, Mixon helped them carve 6:39 off the clock bulling for 28 yards on six carries in a touchdown drive that made it 22-13. Then on the next series he broke the game open on a 20-yard touchdown run much like his seal-it TD in Baltimore as he cut against the grain.
"Sometimes it can get frustrating. A player like me, I always expect to do whatever I can to put the team in the best position," Mixon said. "My style of ball, I try to be the guy that sets the tone, and it was getting physical. Coach stuck with the run, and it was little things I had to do with footwork, my eyes, and once we got that stuff figured out, the guys playing linebacker were trying to shoot into their gaps and I was telling them, the center or guard can climb up to the linebacker and we'll make them pay for over shooting. We came back in the fourth quarter, set our foot in the ground and made them pay."
It was Mixon's 12th 100-yard game of his career. Nine of them have come in November and December. He's starting to feel like he can put together a huge second half because he has.
Check out his one year with current offensive line coach Frank Pollack. In December of 2018, he ran for three 100-yard games on the way to the AFC rushing title.
"The weather turns and to be real, man, with the history of me being in Cincinnati, usually November and December become them games where they lean on me," Mixon said. "And I've been really doing big things and finishing very strong.
"I'm ready for it. I'm ready for whatever for whatever they throw me. I know sometimes, it might be more of the run. Sometimes, more of the pass. But I definitely look forward to playing November, December, because like I said, we have everything and every team that we need to get in the playoffs."
Check out some of the best game images as the Bengals faced the Las Vegas Raiders in Week 11.