The Bengals have a full bye week plate in the wake of Sunday's 41-16 loss to the Browns that figures to test the resolve of head coach Zac Taylor's carefully cultivated culture and send alarms through every Bengaldom village and farm.
Eight games left at 5-4 in the demolition derby AFC North. A division title still in their clutches and the players sounding like they know things can change so quickly after their second straight game they were knocked off by an underdog.
And they should know. Two weeks ago they were the No. 1 seed in the AFC. Now they're not in the playoffs if the season ended today.
But it doesn't. They're only half a game out of the playoffs, they're getting a badly needed bye and five of their last eight games are at home. The only thing that Sunday's loss seemed to guarantee is that the Jan. 9 finale in Cleveland is going to mean everything since both teams are 5-4, a game-and-a-half behind a Ravens team the Bengals beat and the Browns didn't.
"To be honest, the stress level in the locker room, we're pissed, obviously, we just lost in a bad way in front of our home crowd. But the stress level and the panic level, there is none," said tight end C.J. Uzomah. "We know what we have. We know what we can achieve. We just have to go out there and do it."
Plus, they have Joe Burrow at quarterback, a franchise guy that has proven he's one of the league's emerging young quarterbacks (11 interceptions or no 11 interceptions) and no one, especially him, thinks he's going to have another clunker like Sunday any time soon.
It was the first time all year he didn't give them a shot to win and that includes his three-pick game in Chicago in the second week of the year. And he looked like his same calm, unflustered self despite throwing his most devastating interception of the season.
Browns cornerback Denzel Ward took it back 99 yards from the goal line to end the first drive. Not only didn't they score, they were down, 7-0.
"We've still got everything in front of us," said the always impassive Burrow, who looked like he does when he throws two touchdowns, which he didn't do for the first time this season. "There's no panicking. We've lost two in a row. So what? We've got eight games left and still a chance to win the division and make the playoffs, so that's our focus going forward."
Among the more tangible items no doubt up for discussion until the Bengals next game in Las Vegas on Nov. 21 is how the defense has faltered in the last two weeks, right down to the body language. When they faced the Jets a week ago, they came in as the fifth best scoring defense.
When they left PBS Sunday afternoon, they had allowed 75 points in two games, the most in three seasons, or since Drew Brees and Lamar Jackson got them back-to-back. In the last two games, Mike White and Baker Mayfield completed 77 percent of their passes. A week ago, they had been their best tackling defense in a long time. They had 15 missed tackles in New York and on Sunday the majority of running back Nick Chubb's 137 yards appeared to come after contact.
"It's two different performances, really. Last week, there weren't very many explosive plays," said Taylor, who saw his defense allow Chubb's 70-yard touchdown run and Mayfield's 60-yard touchdown pass. "This week, explosives really hurt us. It's kind of a different issue each week.
"I think people are going to try to paint a picture of overreaction when you lose two games in a row. We're not. We're going to correct those things that we need to correct and use this bye week to get our bodies back and make sure we're healthy going into the back half of the season. This isn't unusual for teams to lose two games in a row in this league."
Each of the Bengals' four AFC North championship teams lost back-to-back games once.
"You're going to see a good football team after this bye," Taylor said. "We've got a lot of season left in front of us, and we just told our guys we're going to learn from this, move on, and be a team to be reckoned with here in November and December."
Burrow certainly wasn't panicking after going up and down the field on the Browns at will for 119 yards on the first two drives, indeed for much of the first half and an astounding 249 yards that somehow got just ten points. He and Taylor knew the answer to 41-16 was simple. Once they got down, 24-7 on two turnovers in the game's first 26 minutes, it was open season in a long 34 minutes against the Browns' relentless pass rush that took advantage with five sacks and a dozen hits.
"I thought in the first half they were really controlling the line of scrimmage," Burrow said of his offensive line. "If you get behind against those guys that's when they tee off. You can't put the O line in that position … I think we overcame (Ward's pick-six) well in the first half. We tallied a lot of yards in that first half. We were playing well. We were in rhythm. I turned it over twice. We had a fumble. In this league you can't overcome those kind of turnovers."
Taylor: "It's plain and simple: When you have the turnovers that we had, a 14-point swing on the first possession of the game, and we have the other fumble and we're trying to get some momentum there and they punch it in for three points. That put us in a hole."
And while the defense and wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase's 13-target day that converted to three turnovers and two drops instead of his typical rookie magic is going to suck up all the oxygen the next two weeks, it is going to be little, out of the way conversations like Uzomah had with Chase as the game wound down that is going to decide their fate the rest of the way.
"We had a conversation about the culture of the locker room. It's different right?" Uzomah said. "I don't want to blow out of proportion things that happened in the past. We come in and everyone is pointing the finger at themselves. Ja'Marr, is like, 'I did this, this and this.'
I'm like, 'Dude, you don't even know what I did during the game because you're only focused on the things you did.' He's like, 'I get that, but I'm taking the onus on myself.' I'm taking the onus on myself. Every person you talk to is, like, OK, I need to do this better and I think that is something unique."
Uzomah watched Burrow and running back Joe Mixon come out of the news conference room before he did and that's two of the reasons he thinks the last two weeks are a blip and not a trend.
"The people that you just talked to before me, and myself, and other leaders on the team," Uzomah said. "It's a sign of maturity of a team … I talk about how in practice people are on each other. We're like 'Hey, this is what we need to do,' but after the game everyone is like 'I need to do this better, I need to do this better.' As opposed to 'you need to do this better, or if only you did this, or whatever.' It's good. That's a sign of a good culture, a good locker room, and just good vibes in the locker room, and around the program and the organization. It's a sign of maturity in us as an organization."
Mixon was a rock Sunday. Taylor blamed two of the sacks on the backs, but he ran it and caught it for 110 yards. Yes, they were going to run it and they were running it well. His jump cut on his untouched 11-yard touchdown run tied it at 7. He averaged 4.9 yards per, but he could only get it 13 times down 24-7.
"We were definitely trying to do what we could to keep the ball rolling with the run — it was definitely working — but we just have a lot of things we have to overcome," Mixon said. "And we have to put the ball in the air, and things just really didn't go our way. We just have to get better, we have to take care of the football, and for the most part we just have to execute with little things, and that's what it comes down to, and that's what it came down to, the little things in execution. We have to take it upon ourselves and players, and look ourselves in the eye, and have a come to reality moment, look in the mirror, and have to learn from it and get better."
You may not hear better reasons for a game getting out of control than what Mixon and Uzomah offered up after it was over.
"I mean, to be honest, it's all about the mentality that we've got up in here," Mixon said. "We know the players that we have, we know the talent that we've got, and sometimes you can get carried away with everything being so big, and you just forget about the little things, and that's kind of what it came down to today."
Once the score hit 24-7, they knew they had to go fast.
"We're against the clock, we're against the Browns right now, time's not really on our side," Uzomah recalled thinking. "'I'm going to speed this route up. I'm going to speed up the way I set up on somebody, I'm going to speed up this block, I'm going to speed up the run.' Whatever the case is, we speed up something maybe.
"And that's a timing issue. I think this week that's what I'm taking out of it, because I know that I did it a little bit in this game. I can't speak for everybody else, but just being on the field that's something that played into the details."
There'll be a lot of frenetic debate over the next two weeks about tackling and targets. But the Bengals think they just have to slow it down and make everything smaller.
"There's a lot of things involved, but we just have to bounce back and figure out a way. It's still early," Mixon said. "We're at halftime right now."