The Cincinnati Bengals are back
Joe Burrow makes it clear that this is "the standard." That fact changes the AFC. Also inside: The Minnesota Vikings should still go for it in 2023... and there may be one QB option.
All of the familiar sights have returned. This is the jubilant, borderline cocky, Cincinnati Bengals team that came within inches of winning one Super Bowl and reaching another. The villains.
After rushing for a five-yard touchdown with 2 1/2 minutes left to give Cincy a 31-17 lead, Joe Mixon faced a sea of red at Levi Stadium and pretended to swing a baseball bat before saluting and saying goodnight.
A few moments later, Mike Hilton slipped underneath a route to pick off Brock Purdy. He wanted to party in the end zone but a bogus roughing the passer penalty delayed the proceedings. The next snap, Trey Hendrickson supplied a sack-fumble and off the defense went, following B.J. Hill somersaulting into the end zone.
And quite obviously, the greatest sign of all was the franchise’s most important man — the recipient of a five-year, $275 million contract extension — finally looking like himself again. Not the tranquilized version gutting through an injured calf. Joe Burrow made a mockery of the San Francisco 49ers. His escapability has always been unique. He doesn’t mash like Josh Allen or dash like Lamar Jackson. When he’s on, Burrow’s pocket maneuvering is a blend of tap-dancing… ducking underneath the forearm of a 6-foot-7, 290-pound defensive tackle (Arik Armstead)… shoving away one of the sport’s true sack artists (Nick Bosa)… and delivering a first-down strike before absorbing a harpoon shot from a linebacker.
All on third and 10. Exactly as he did on his fifth play of the game.
Burrow was only getting started. He finished the day 28 of 32 for 283 yards with three touchdowns, no interceptions and a 134.8 passer rating. At one point, Burrow completed 19 straight passes. The Bengals scored 31, yet also missed one field goal and tight end Irv Smith Jr. fumbled in the red zone on another drive. This was total domination.
The surest sign that the Cincinnati Bengals are a Super Bowl-contending force once again came along that game-clinching drive on offense. Leaving a diving defender in his dust, Burrow sprinted upfield in a manner nobody’s seen since last season. And slide? No, no. There will be no sliding. He gritted his teeth, covered the ball with two hands, gladly accepted this 49er sandwich and popped up in a state of overwhelming euphoria. The famously stoic quarterback smacked his helmet with two hands as if signaling to the entire league: I’m back.
There was no greater revelation in Week 8 of the NFL season.
It’s a scary one for everyone else in the AFC, too.
“This is the standard,” Burrow said at his presser afterward. “It wasn’t perfect. There’s still a lot to get better at, and we’re going to.”