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The Morning After: Cincinnati puts the NFL on notice
Joe Burrow is special, but it's always been about more than the star quarterback in Cincinnati. Also, Miami's 2022 season truly begins, the Broncos stink and Christian Watson is unstoppable.
The sermon rings loudly. Every head coach preaches about the dire need to change the way his team thinks. Before he can begin to scheme the X’s and O’s, the first order of business is — once and for all — exorcising that demon within. Killing off that sinking feeling that everything will inevitably go wrong in the fourth quarter.
Let’s check in on the teams whose fans historically put bags over their heads this time of year.
The Arizona Cardinals, a team with seven winning seasons the last four decades, appear hopeless. Again. Despite drafting a quarterback No. 1, despite then paying that quarterback, they’re rotting. The Cleveland Browns have been the NFL’s laughingstock since re-launching in 1999. Laughs that have given way to justified vitriol with owner Jimmy Haslam signing a quarterback accused of sexual misconduct to the most guaranteed money ever. That quarterback’s former employer, the Houston Texans, are barely a functioning professional team that should be relegated to games vs. McNeese State and Houston Christian in the FCS Southland Conference next fall.
Then, there’s Dan Campbell’s Detroit Lions. They always show life and, truth be told, they’re close. A team that sincerely believed it was ready to turn this corner in 2022 has lost five games by four points or less.
The pain on Campbell’s face after those losses always says it all.
Replacing fourth-quarter doom with the polar opposite emotion — a swagger, a certainty that you will make that crucial play in the fourth quarter — can take generations.
But the Cincinnati Bengals, lovable losers for so long, made it. Somehow, they’ve busted through to the other side of the NFL spectrum. That much was clear inside the locker room last Sunday when head coach Zac Taylor brought up this whole cutthroat schedule thing everybody keeps talking about and Mark Duffner, the team’s senior defensive assistant, sniped: “They gotta play us!” F--k them!” As for this Sunday? All they did was take Patrick Mahomes’ best shot and knock off the mighty Kansas City Chiefs for the third time this calendar year.
There’s a month to go before the playoffs. A lot can happen.
Right now, the Bengals look like the most complete team in the AFC.
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Cincinnati has won six of its last seven. Quarterback Joe Burrow continues to dissect and dismantle whatever defenses throw at him with striking cool, calm. This remains a defense completely unafraid of Mahomes. Duffner is exactly right: There’s zero need for Cincy to shiver at the sight of anyone on the schedule.
On the contrary, opponents should now fear the Bengals.
“We have players who have been in these spots before,” Burrow said after his team’s 27-24 win. “The organization has done a great job of finding the right guys, that it matters to them. They’re going to work really hard to put on their best performances every Sunday. And the character of these guys, that’s what wins games down the stretch in December and January in the fourth quarter.
“We have one of the best locker rooms I’ve ever been around. You feel the energy in that room every single day from those guys.”
This win was a microcosm of the 2022 Bengals’ season. A team that was missing defensive tackle DJ Reader (torn MCL) for two months, lost shutdown cornerback Chidobe Awuzie (torn ACL) for the season and has been without wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase and running back Joe Mixon for stretches on offense withstood the KC haymakers that almost always render opponents unconscious. Sunday’s game appeared to be drifting right back into one of Mahomes’ classic traps because, it should be noted, Mahomes is still a freak of nature.
To start the third quarter, seconds after a failed deep shot to Marquez Valdes-Scantling, Mahomes went right back to MVS. Right back at the safety who broke up the pass. This time, the duo connected for 42 yards. The Bengals brought heavy pressure on the play, a poison pill for defenses against this QB. Next, tight end Travis Kelce deftly sold a block on end Sam Hubbard — clinging juuuust long enough — before releasing and taking the screen pass 20 yards. On third and 4 from the Cincy 8, Mahomes then appeared to change the play at the line of scrimmage. He spotted a soft spot in this defense, barked an audible and… handed the ball off? Yep. Running back Isiah Pacheco took it the end zone.
Three plays with three varying elements of deception gave the Chiefs a 17-14 lead.
The next drive, Tyler Boyd dropped a wide-open touchdown and the Bengals settled for a field goal which, again, is typically a poison pill against this QB. Mahomes smelled blood with a vintage third-and-10 strike to MVS. Knowing he had the 6-foot-4, 206-pound receiver man up on 5-foot-9, 184-pound Mike Hilton, he let it fly and took a hard shove from end Cam Sample. You’ve seen his ensuing fourth-and-goal, Air Jordan-like stretch over the goal line for another touchdown by now.
It’s absurd. The sort of play that should demoralize an opponent.
Yet, this is a new day in Cincinnati. Last season was no mirage.
Burrow is obviously Reason No. 1.
Burrow did damage with both his arm (25 of 31 for 286 yards, two touchdowns) and his legs (46 yards). The front office’s commitment to rebuilding the offensive line is starting to pay off — Burrow has more time than he ever did in 2021. Dangerous for a quarterback so reliant on his brain. Burrow has conversations with his top three receivers all week on how they all want specific routes ran and thrown. Down to “eyes, feet, steps,” Burrow said. An extra millisecond helps. The quarterback made a good point at his press conference, too. When his receivers are blanketed, extra time in the pocket allows him to locate an escape lane. The Bengals can now make defenses pay off-schedule more often. That was not possible last season.
Of course, Burrow remains icy late in game. With 1:59 to go, from the KC 28, his third-and-11 bullet to Tee Higgins effectively ended the game.
“We know the quarterback they have on the other side of the ball,” Burrow said. “We can’t settle for a field goal there. He’s going to go down and win the game. So we have to find a way to get that conversion.”
Burrow again proved that everyone should be using his name in the same sentence as Mahomes and Josh Allen. Still, a quarterback cannot fumigate a calamitous environment alone. We learned so much about these Bengals in-between Air Mahomes and Burrow’s third-down closer. When elite quarterbacks duel, it usually takes a herculean effort by a defensive player to tip the scales. To steal a possession. That’s what people tend to forget about this team’s Super Bowl run last season. Burrow was special. Chase, too. But a different player on defense stepped up each playoff win.
This night, vs. Mahomes, it was linebacker Germaine Pratt.
After catching a ball over the middle, the tight end Kelce neared midfield with KC primed to take a 31-20 lead in the fourth quarter. Pratt wrapped up and put all of his bicep curls all offseason long to use with one of the best strips you’ll see in the sport. Kelce’s first fumble all season proved costly. The Bengals swiftly drove down the field and took the lead.
This is a calloused roster. Pratt had company in Joseph Ossai. The 2021 third-rounder who missed all of last season with a meniscus tear sacked Mahomes to force a 55-yard field goal attempt that sailed wide right. And Pratt had company in running back Samaje Perine. The back you may recall getting stuffed on third and 1 in the Super Bowl churned out 155 total yards. The defense as a whole got after Mahomes with eight hits. Trey Hendrickson and Hubbard are both tall, long, athletic ends who never tire late in games.
Said Burrow: “Our team knows what it takes to win those kind of games. It’s December now. This is when we start to turn it up. We just find ways to win these games.”
Which leads us to the latest locker room scene.
Taylor tossed a slew of game balls out. To Pratt, to Osaai, etc. But not before calling on Duffner.
“They gotta play us!” the longtime assistant screamed again.
That’s the truth, and just a hunch: The Bills-Bengals matchup at Paycor Stadium on Jan. 2 is going to have massive playoff implications.
(Icymi: We welcomed Bengals beat writer Paul Dehner Jr. on the podcast to discuss all things Bengals. And the team’s quarterbacks coach, Dan Pitcher, meticulously broke down what makes Burrow special for this recent feature.)
Now, the Dolphins’ season begins
Words don’t win games. Hate to break it to the 49er fans spamming my mentions, but we’re really not that important in the media. Yes, the Miami Dolphins’ running backs had a lot to say to Go Long. Raheem Mostert and Jeff Wilson were adamant that there was more talent in Miami than San Francisco. Including, yes, the quarterback position. Fox’s broadcasting team discussed it all during the game. Deebo Samuel referenced the comments after the game.
The reason San Francisco beat Miami in a game that was much closer than the final score? The best defense in the NFL.
After back-to-back interceptions, quarterback Tua Tagovailoa heated up. Down 23-17, the Dolphins had the ball at San Francisco’s 36 with six minutes to go. And on fourth and 2, tight end Mike Gesicki wasn’t able to secure a catch. The ball just barely slipped out, thanks to a fantastic play made by linebacker Dre Greenlaw. Convert this and Mike McDaniel starts bleeding clock, Miami takes the lead and quarterback Brock Purdy (in for the injured Jimmy Garoppolo) is forced to piece together a game-winning drive with two minutes to go.
Instead, the Niners melted 3:57 off the clock themselves over a 10-play drive to win.
Losing to a quarterback picked last in the NFL draft is a rough turn of events for the NFL’s hottest offense but, in reality, this loss to an NFC team doesn’t affect the Dolphins much. They’ll stay on the west coast to face the Los Angeles Chargers before then traveling to Orchard Park to face the Bills in a game that could end up deciding the AFC East.
We know the Bengals have an inherent toughness.
Now, we’ll see if McDaniel really has changed these Dolphins.
Christian Watson has eight touchdowns in four games. There’s no debate anymore: The Packers uncovered a special talent with the 34th overall pick in last April’s draft. There simply are not receivers this big and this fast in the entire league. Bravo to Brian Gutekunst on finding a perfect piece to grow with Jordan Love.
The Minnesota Vikings have mastered the art of hanging on for dear life. Mike White (369 yards) put a witching-hour scare into this team but — as it has done all season — the defense made the play it needed late. This time, Camryn Bynum supplied the interception at the 1-yard line of a 27-22 win.
It’s hard to put into words just how abysmal the Russell Wilson-led Broncos offense has been this season, but I think Andrew Mason did it best with this stat. Denver is the 70th team in the Super Bowl Era (1966 to today) to allow 17 or fewer points in their first 12 games. None of the prior 69 teams were worse than 6-6 after those 12 games with the average win total 9.04. These Broncos are 3-9. People will be fired.
Speaking of things that stink, there was a 20-20 tie on Sunday. Giants and Commanders players and coaches alike sounded frustrated about it.
OK, the Philadelphia Eagles are very much for real. The Titans forced Jalen Hurts to be a passer and he was must obliged. With Garoppolo now done for the season with a broken foot, the NFC path might’ve cleared up a bit for these Eagles.
That first win over Las Vegas was nice for Jeff Saturday but last night’s 54-19 evisceration should probably send him right back to pundit booth. The Cowboys scored 33 points in the fourth quarter — 33! — and quarterback Matt Ryan was dreadful. The 2022 Indianapolis Colts are a cautionary tale for all teams talking themselves into squeezing one more good season out of an aging quarterback: Don’t.
Watching Davante Adams run a route is such a beautiful sight. Not even sure where you start if you’re a cornerback. He might’ve been the best player on Sunday with 177 yards on eight receptions with two touchdowns. Every defense knows what’s coming, and cannot stop it:
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