The Cleveland Browns walked into Sunday’s afternoon bout with the Bengals with all the confidence in the world. They were coming off of a win in Deshaun Watson’s first career start with the franchise, a 27-14 thrashing of the Houston Texans that kept their thin playoff hopes alive. While they came into the game at 5-8, they were riding a five-game winning streak over Cincinnati. Kevin Stefanski had never taken a loss to Zac Taylor’s bunch, and Bengals’ star quarterback Joe Burrow had yet to beat the team up north. Early in the game, it looked like it might be more of the same, as Burrow and the offense struggled while Watson’s offense drove down the field easily.
However, the Bengals would claim the lead in the second quarter and never lose it, going wire-to-wire against a Browns team that had their number. While Burrow and the offense, specifically star wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase, performed admirably, the defense was the catalyst in the team finally breaking the streak that served as a dark mark on Burrow’s resume. They were able to contain Cleveland’s run game remarkably well, and by the end of the day, the Bengals’ front seven sent a message to the rest of the league: the Bengals aren’t just the “finesse” team they are often described as, and when you come to Cincinnati, prepare to take a beating.
Burrow Started Shaky But Found His Rhythm To Lead The Bengals’ Offense
The beginning of the game could not have gone much worse for the Bengals’ offense. Before the game even started, Tee Higgins apparently tweaked a hamstring injury that had popped up on the injury report earlier in the week, according to Zac Taylor. On the third offensive play of the game, Tyler Boyd was targeted and apparently injured on an incomplete pass, which was later reported as a dislocated finger that held him out of the remainder of the game. Indeed, it felt like the perfect storm of events to extend the Bengals’ losing streak to the Browns, as Burrow was missing open throws and the run game could not get anything going.
About halfway through the second quarter, however, the Bengals’ offense woke up once they remembered that they might have the best receiver on the planet in their lineup. Ja’Marr Chase was targeted early and often, taking over as option one, two, and three in a passing game without two of their top receivers and top tight end. Other guys, including Trenton Irwin, Trent Taylor, and Mitchell Wilcox, stepped up admirably, but it was no doubt that Sunday afternoon was the Chase show. No play is a better reflection of that, and the insane chemistry that he has with Burrow, than the touchdown that opened the scoring for Cincinnati.
Joe Burrow threaded the needle on this touchdown to Ja'Marr Chase pic.twitter.com/dZorbiqKVG — Mike (@bengals_sans) December 12, 2022
A week after Burrow had one of the most impressive throws of his young career to seal the game against Kansas City, he might have topped it with this throw in the second quarter that gave the Bengals the lead they never relinquished. While rated very poorly in most statistical categories, the Browns’ defense has found ways to give Burrow fits for years, and the early part of Sunday was no exception. However, after this throw, it felt like the star quarterback was able to find a rhythm that he never could in his previous games against Cleveland, and this was a big step in the right direction with the playoffs fast approaching.
Bengals’ Defense Held Their Own All Afternoon And Finally Solved Their Nick Chubb Dilemna
After the Bengals’ first game against the Browns, I wrote about how they needed to make a move at the defensive back position if they wanted to keep their playoff hopes alive. They had just been embarrassed by Jacoby Brissett and company on national television while losing their ace corner in Chidobe Awuzie. They were going to have to turn to rookie Cam Taylor-Britt, who was coming off only his second career game that saw him routinely beaten by Donovan Peoples-Jones and Amari Cooper. Taylor-Britt was about to experience trial by fire, but over the past five games, he has developed into a steady force in Cincinnati’s backfield, highlighted by his game-saving deflection against Peoples-Jones this past Sunday.
The Bengals have put a ton of pressure on Cam Taylor-Britt and he’s balling. Another draft pick well spent 🤞 pic.twitter.com/IN4a31IxkA — ℂ𝕚𝕟𝕔𝕪 𝔹𝕠𝕞𝕓𝕤💥 (@CincyBombs) December 12, 2022
However, as admirably as the Bengals’ secondary did against a bad quarterback in Deshaun Watson, their performance against an elite running back in Nick Chubb should get the league’s attention. Chubb has had his way with the Bengals, averaging over five yards per carry in eight games against Cincinnati and rarely failing to hit 100 yards on the ground. On Sunday, however, the Bengals’ front seven came to play, holding Chubb to 34 yards on 14 carries for a putrid 2.4 yards per carry. With how the game script went, Chubb was effectively taken out of the game, and a large part of that is how well Cincinnati defended the run all game.
DJ Reader continues to be an absolute force on Cincinnati’s defensive line, showing on every down how much he was missed in his six-game absence. While his stat line was nothing insane, totaling five tackles, one batted ball, and a quarterback hit, he was a force on the interior the entire game and was able to eat blockers to set up guys like Logan Wilson to show out (Wilson totaled 17 tackles, and he owes a lot of them to Reader destroying the Browns up front). The Bengals looked like the more physical team on both sides of the ball all day, something which the Browns were consistently able to outclass them in during the five-game losing streak.
Bengals Keep Pace, Both In The Division And The Conference
This win was crucial for the Bengals for several reasons. For one, getting the brown and orange elf off their back is a major relief for everyone in the locker room, as their inability to beat Cleveland was an embarrassment for the entire franchise. However, with the Ravens, Bills, and Chiefs all winning on Sunday, this win was also crucial from a playoff-seeding standpoint, as it allows them to keep pace with the teams they are chasing. After all, if the Bengals can win out and Kansas City drops one more game, the Bengals will have the top seed in the AFC and get the all-important first-round bye in the playoffs.
The road isn’t easy, but they do control their destiny in the path to securing the AFC North for a second straight season and a top seed in the AFC. Games against Tampa Bay and New England on the road will certainly be challenges, as both of those teams would be in the playoffs if the season ended today, but the Bengals should feel good about their chances in both. Cincinnati just needs to keep doing what they have been doing during the five-game winning streak; being dynamic on offense and physical on defense. If they can maintain their current play, there might not be a team in the league that can stop them in January and February.