Prior to the 2021 postseason, the Cincinnati Bengals had not won a playoff game in 31 years. Every single game after the regular season felt like a monumental task that Marvin Lewis could not rally his guys to overcome, and when the moment was the biggest, the Bengals turned into the Bungles. Then, Joe Burrow showed up, and all of that changed. Now, the Bengals have won four of their last five playoff games and are one away from equaling the entire franchise output prior to Burrow’s arrival. The fact that playoff wins are becoming almost routine in Cincinnati is worth celebrating in its own right. That the most recent came against a hated rival is icing on the cake.
Getting to the game itself, it was anything but comfortable for a Bengals team that was expected by many to win handily. The offense sputtered for wide portions of the game, the defense struggled to stop the run, and when it was all said and done, they ended up giving up 130 more yards than they gained themselves. However, Cincinnati took care of business in a number of key areas of the game as well; they won the turnover battle (two to one), were much better on third and fourth down (54% to 36%), and owned the red zone (100% touchdown conversions on their end compared to 25% for Baltimore).
Bengals’ Defense Bends But Doesn’t Break Against Run-Heavy Baltimore
The Bengals’ Super Bowl run last year was largely engineered by the defense, even if most of the team’s stars belong to the offense. And if this game is any indication of how the rest of January will go, we might see a repeat of that. The Bengals’ defense was not great at stopping the Baltimore rushing attack, giving up 155 yards on the ground and over four yards per carry despite leading for most of the game. While Cincinnati was able to get some impressive run stuffs from the always-reliable DJ Reader, the team didn’t look entirely prepared to play the physical style that Baltimore is known for.
Through the air, they did look a little better, giving up only 209 yards to Tyler Huntley and forcing him into check-downs to his running backs frequently throughout the evening. However, Mark Andrews was a difficult cover, pulling in five catches for 73 yards, and the Bengals struggled to find a guy that could consistently hang with him in coverage. Additionally, the biggest defensive bust of the game came through the air when Tyler Huntley found a wide-open Demarcus Robinson, who had beaten Eli Apple on a double move, for an untouched 40-yard touchdown reception to tie the game in the third quarter. While there were some bright spots, this wasn’t a game for the secondary to write home about.
However, the defense also made some of the game’s biggest plays when it mattered most. An early interception by Akeem Davis-Gaither set up Cincinnati’s first touchdown of the night. They forced a crucial stop in the deep red zone at the end of the first half to keep the deficit to one point, the only deficit the team faced all game. They got a huge stop to start the first half and give the ball back to the offense to retake the lead. And on the drive after the Robinson touchdown, when the Ravens found their way down to the two-yard-line, Germaine Pratt, Logan Wilson, and Sam Hubbard made one of the biggest plays in Cincinnati sports history.
Sam Hubbard has spent his entire football career in the state of Ohio. • Archbishop Moeller High School (2010-14) • Ohio State (2014-17) • Cincinnati Bengals (2018-present) The hometown kid is a hometown hero. pic.twitter.com/tA2BVXNwCw — Ben Stevens (@BenScottStevens) January 16, 2023
After the Fumble in the Jungle, the defense tightened up considerably, forcing Baltimore off the field on two consecutive drives before making the most important stop of the game as time expired to secure the win. It was never easy, and the fact that Baltimore was able to efficiently move the ball without Lamar Jackson or either of their top receivers in Rashod Bateman and Devin Duvernay is concerning. However, wins in the postseason are never easy, and the Bengals were able to walk away with a win because the defense made big plays in the most important moments of the game.
Bengals Do Just Enough Through The Air To Advance, But Run Game Issues Remain
The Bengals’ run game has been poor for a number of weeks, and it is something that they are going to need to address as they continue to advance in the postseason. Despite leading for a majority of the game, Cincinnati only ran the ball 18 times, largely because when they did, it was ineffective. They averaged under three yards per carry against an admittedly stout Ravens’ defense, but only totaling 51 yards on a night where they needed to chew clock to counter Baltimore’s run-heavy attack almost cost them and very well might against Buffalo. Losing three linemen certainly hurts, but they have to hope that Alex Cappa and Jonah Williams can be back later in the playoffs.
Still, the Bengals’ offense did just enough when they were needed to win, and that started with Joe Burrow. He looked extremely comfortable on Sunday night, passing for 209 yards with a 72% completion rate. He was especially effective on third downs, converting a number of crucial ones in some of the biggest moments of the game to Ja’Marr Chase, Tyler Boyd, and Tee Higgins. Chase especially had a very nice game, catching nine passes for 84 yards and a touchdown despite having two drops that would have kept drives going. The pass protection wasn’t great, allowing four sacks, but when it did hold up, you could see how the Bengals’ offense can operate through Burrow’s arm.
Joe Burrow now has 4 career playoff wins after his win tonight against the Ravens. No other QB from the 2020 QB Draft Class has even ONE 😳 pic.twitter.com/qTA51BgoM6 — NFL Rookie Watch (@NFLRookieWatxh) January 16, 2023
Big Matchup With Buffalo Looms For Bengals
Now, Cincinnati prepares for a divisional round showdown against the team they were supposed to play just three weeks ago: the Buffalo Bills. The Bills themselves are coming off a tight divisional contest against a Miami team starting third-string quarterback Skylar Thompson, but they are still one of the most explosive teams in the league when they are on their game and cannot take them lightly. It will be a huge game up in Buffalo, potentially the biggest of the weekend, as the winner could go on to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl. The Bengals will do everything in their power to ensure they are on their way back to the Big Game for a second consecutive season.
To beat the Bills, Burrow will need to play just as effectively as he did on Sunday and in their brief meeting on January 2, as well as for the defense to force turnovers and buy the offense extra possessions. The Bills are one of the most turnover-prone teams in the league, so it’ll be crucial that the Bengals’ pass rush gets home and starts to force Josh Allen into decisions that could create those sorts of plays for the defense. The Bengals can absolutely go into Orchard Park and secure a huge postseason upset on their road back to the Super Bowl. It won’t be easy, but just like any Bengals fan will tell you, “They gotta play us!”