Sunday's 24-16 win over Baltimore featured a tie for the most points Cincinnati has scored since Week 14 when Andy Dalton went down with a thumb injury.
Since Dalton's injury, the offense has sputtered while scoring an average of just 20.3 points entering Sunday before scoring 24 against the Ravens' 10th-ranked defense. While the Bengals did score 34 against the 49ers in Week 15, that featured three touchdown drives of 11, 20 and 36 yards.
That game also saw the Bengals finish with just 242 yards of offense with a mere 4.0 yards per play. On Sunday, the offense netted 292 yards and 4.1 yards per play. While it's still not where Cincinnati wants to be, it does show this offense is improving and getting used to life without Dalton and improving with AJ McCarron at quarterback.
And whether you're a veteran of 77 starts or only three, having a stud tight end makes life easier for any quarterback. Perhaps the best way to explain why the Bengals just had their best offensive game with under McCarron is the return of Tyler Eifert.
After missing most of the past month with a stinger and concussion, Eifert returned to make his first career start alongside McCarron, and the result was Eifert finishing the game with four catches for 51 yards and his 13th touchdown grab of 2015.
As you can imagine, McCarron loved having a target like Eifert to rely on the first time.
"It definitely helps. He is an unbelievable player for us and a great target," McCarron said of Eifert's return. "He really made some good plays today and definitely helped us out."
Believe it or not, Sunday was just the fifth time this season that Eifert has topped 50 yards, and the first since Nov. 11 against the Browns. While Eifert's impact Sunday was similar to what it was in most games with Dalton, McCarron knows how important it is now that they get to practice and play together with McCarron as the starting quarterback.
"I feel like I have chemistry with all of the guys. It’s still throwing and catching. The only time I feel like it’s hard is on certain routes, but we spend a lot of time during the week putting in the work," McCarron said. "He has done an excellent job when he came back earlier this week really focusing in on what routes we needed to get extra work on and we did that."
Eifert is in his third year with the Bengals, so he knows the offense and where he should be. Then it's just a matter of McCarron getting the ball to the right spot and connecting with his tight end.
"He knows where to be and I have a good feel for where he is going to be," McCarron said. "I think it showed on the touchdown pass. I knew he was going to end up being there, and the defender was looking at me, so I let it go, and he did an excellent job of making the catch for the TD. There are certain guys that you know the feel they are going to have for the game and how they play the game, and he is just one of those guys."
Eifert also knows how important Sunday was for him to get back into the groove of things after missing Week 13 vs Cleveland with a stinger, which occurred in Week 12's win over the Rams, before suffering a concussion vs Pittsburgh early in Week 14, which caused him to miss the next two games.
"I thought I did well," Eifert said after the game. "It felt really good to be back out there. I was going through the season and getting into a groove, and then I missed a couple of weeks. I really just wanted to get back out there to help the guys win. It was just good to help get a win for us."
As for this coming week, Eifert may very well be the x-factor for Cincinnati getting their first postseason win in over two decades when Pittsburgh comes to Paul Brown Stadium. Eifert caught two early passes for 42 yards against the Steelers in Week 14 before leaving with his team down just 7-0 due to a Mike Mitchell illegal hit that resulted in a concussion for the Bengals' star tight end. Maybe if he played that entire game, the Bengals would have been able to win, even with McCarron seeing his first significant NFL action. We'll obviously never know.
That's why Eifert and the Bengals aren't going to try and change much this week as they look to play their game and beat the Steelers doing it.
"I think we pretty much (need to) stick to our game plan and listen to our coaches — they’ll have a good game plan put together for whoever we’re going to play — and get a good week of practice in, and go out and play hard every snap," Eifert said. "You can’t worry about all the extra stuff. You just go out and play hard, and good things will happen."
While the Bengals' defense will likely be what carries the team to a win if they are able to beat Pittsburgh, the offense must produce more than it did in either of the first two matchups against the Steelers. Eifert and McCarron must hook up early and often Saturday to keep the passing game going and keep the Steelers from just boxing up vs the run.