Bengals head coach Zac Taylor has built his program on his locker room and on Sunday it got him a third straight winning season in the 31-14 victory over the Browns at wintry Paycor Stadium, where they ripped away the last 31 points of 2023 and the first talking points of 2024.
Cleveland is going to the playoffs and rested many of their starters, but Taylor's culture didn't pack the car and leave the engine idling in the players' parking lot during a game that meant zip in the playoff picture but everything for the Bengals of this calendar year. They dominated a game they were supposed to dominate. Easier said than done.
"What was most important was winning this game. Having a winning season for Zac," said left tackle Orlando Brown, who had only been on playoff teams until this season. "For me, personally, that was really important. Just because he's an amazing coach. It's been a tough year for all of us. Especially him. Having to deal with the quarterback change, and the guys we lost.
'Joe (Burrow) starting the season hurt … There are so many things that go into that. I've got a ton of respect for him and his family and everything he's done for me and my family."
You could argue the two top Coach of the Year candidates worked Paycor Sunday.
Browns head coach Kevin Stefanski, with his No. 5 seed in the AFC playoffs secured with his fourth quarterback of the year. And Taylor, who went 16 games into the playoff picture without Burrow healthy for most of them and the first seven NFL starts of Jake Browning, and won nine games.
If it was Browning's own personal Word Series after a five-year wait to get on the field, then Sunday's Game 7 felt decisive even if it was against second-teamers. It made him 4-3 and the Bengals 9-8 after a career-high three touchdown passes to go with a third game of at least 75% passing and a triple-digit passer rating.
(That's one offseason talking point that has been silenced. Finding a solid Burrow backup.)
"It starts with the type of guys you bring in the locker room, then the culture that Zac has established. I don't even think there was really a thought that we were going to come out and not play hard, for a couple reasons," Browning said. "I hate the Steelers as much as everybody else, but the fact that (Steelers head coach) Mike Tomlin has had that many winning seasons …
"Hopefully however many years from now, Zac has that same thing. There will be a little bit of that, 'OK, in 2024 now, good thing we got that win.' So, the streak's at three. It's not even close to Mike Tomlin, but it's still alive and I think that's a pretty cool stat for a coach to have. Zac gave me my opportunity and has treated me really, really well and is the reason I'm still allowed to put on pads on a Sunday. So, I kind of wanted that for him. I think it's a cool stat to have as a coach."
If you want to know why Taylor is so popular among his players and how his culture has got them to 31 wins the past three years despite two significant injuries to Burrow, two first-places schedules, and the toughest division in the NFL, just look at the Bengals' last touchdown drive of the year Sunday.
A 99-yarder that Elias says is their longest drive since a 1994 game against the Patriots. That New England team was coached by Bill Parcells and can you imagine what Parcells, one of the last of the cranky old-time head coaches, would have done to Browning if Browning did to him what he did to Taylor that drive?
Heck, Browning admitted he would have done it himself.
"I lost my cool for a second, and luckily Zac is a very forgiving person and not a jerk. If I were him, I would have screamed at me in the helmet," Browning said. "It's not bad, I just lost my cool in the moment, and he was great as always. He's always (even keeled) and he just stayed right there as I was through the roof pissed off. I can't be doing that to the guy who gave me a shot, and it was bad."
It appeared to come after a naked bootleg fooled no one, particularly Browns defensive end Alex Wright, and after Wright planted him in the turf with a sack, Browning was up exhorting into his helmet mic, presumably to Taylor
Taylor confirmed it with a smile.
"I was biting him a little with the headset, so we had a good little communication there," Taylor said.
Here's another reason they like him. Asked if Browning was upset with the call, Taylor said, "No, we're all good."
You never need a bus in Taylor news conference. (Remember a Parcells get together?)
:"One of the things that is most impressive about being in this building is that Zac encourages you to be who you are. I've never felt the pressure to get in front of the team and be the rah-rah guy because I'm the quarterback for these last couple games," Browning said.
"He's, 'Hey, be yourself,' whether that's how you act, how you conduct yourself in interviews or how you are outside of the facility. He says, 'Be yourself. Protect the team, but be yourself.' That's not the case everywhere. There is a ton of effort and thought to intentionally create a culture where people can be themselves."
Taylor is a new-school coach not just with Xs and Os, but with the ABCs of communicating with the social media generation. It strikes a chord with a guy like Orlando Brown, a Super Bowl champion and Pro Bowler.
"Long-term," Brown said, "these things go a long way. Having a winning season. Our character definitely showed today."
It showed up around the locker of the longest-tenured Bengal. Slot receiver Tyler Boyd had just one catch for four yards Sunday, but he had a crush of media around him worthy of a 100-yard game.
That's because after 120 Bengals games that includes everything from a 2-14 season to a Super Bowl run, Boyd is a free agent and he doesn't know if he's coming back or not.
But they know what he means. Director of player personnel Duke Tobin gave him a post-game hug Sunday. A few lockers down, running back Joe Mixon waxed nostalgically about he and Boyd, along with Sam Hubbard and Josh Tupou on defense, the longest serving players, and how they helped Taylor build it from the ground up.
Browning, who lockers next to Boyd, went into the media scrum to shake his hand, put his hand on his shoulder and announced how much Boyd means to him and this team.
Later, Browning repeated it.
"I think T.B. is an unsung hero, or a guy that pulls a lot of weight in the locker room," Browning said. "You can't throw the ball to three people every play. So, there were a lot of touches that went other people's ways, but he kind of set the tone that, 'This is not going to be a prima donna room.' It's just really about winning and going as hard as you can. I'll always have a lot of respect for T.B. and just how he carried himself."
Browning recalled that three-pick game in Pittsburgh two weeks ago he still winces about.
"Coming into the locker room, he was like, 'Hey man, shake that off. Everybody has one of those games.' So, I'll always remember that," Browning said. "Like I said earlier, you remember what people were like when something bad just happened. So, I'll always think very highly of Tyler."
Boyd is such a linchpin of the Taylor culture. But even as he spoke, the rookies who have been watching him were finding their voices. Sixth-rounder Andrei Iosivas, who Sunday caught touchdowns of three and seven yards, savored his first multiple touchdown game with a savvy observation.
"To get a winning record in the NFL in itself is an accomplishment," Iosivas said. "We're blessed to be on a squad that has expectations to reach the Super Bowl, but having a winning record is not something to look down at either."
The third-rounder, Jordan Battle, like Browning, making his first pro starts in the last seven games, got his first NFL interception Sunday on old friend Jeff Driskel's first throw of the day.
Battle, it will be recalled, is the prospect they were interviewing in one of those 18-minute windows at the NFL scouting combine who was so impressive that Bengals assistant head coach Darrin Simmons starred his handwritten notes.
On Sunday, you heard why.
"When we're all on the same page on defense and we're communicating and in the right spot, we all can make plays," Battle said. "That's something where we have to be more consistent going into year two."
Battle didn't even have to be asked about the explosive plays this defense has wrestled with the last two months, ever since C.J. Stroud came to town. Communication and identifying the most likely receivers have been some of the major talking points.
And that's what Battle did when Driskel overthrew wide receiver Cedric Tillman on the left sideline and Battle broke on it from centerfield and, bent at the waist, made the catch as he ran out of bounds.
"I've been harping on how I can play the middle of the field better. From the position of the quarterback, before the ball is even snapped," Battle said. "Just knowing where the single receiver is at. Seeing two tight ends on the left and there's a three (receivers) by one. I guessed he wasn't going this way. We had talked about how No. 19 (Tillman) was the X this game because Amari Cooper was not playing.
"Just understanding where the receiver was on the field. Seeing the receiver out wide and seeing the quarterback try to look me off, but take his eyes right back. That's something I grew in throughout the last few weeks in practice. Just trying to work on my break out of the middle of the field. Just to see it come to fruition on the field. It's beautiful."
That's the sound of Taylor keeping the culture churning.
"I'm not going to make it out to be more than it was. Everybody showed up, worked hard, did what they were supposed to do," Browning said. "They obviously were not playing all their guys, so I'm not going to sit up here and harp too much on the win. It felt good to win, but I think the culture is much more than that."
It meant a winning record and on this Sunday, that meant everything.