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The increasing stock of the win-at-any-cost Bengals

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This Bengals team feels different. Doesn’t it?

Cincinnati Bengals v Atlanta Falcons Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Here’s the (suspenseful) scenario.

Cincinnati, down 36-31 with 1:21 remaining against Atlanta, has fourth down on the Falcons’ 35-yard line. If the Bengals convert, they sustain an assault that could lead to an improbable victory — improbable in that they seemed to encounter psychological hurdles after Tyler Eifert’s devastating injury. If the fourth down conversion fails, the Bengals, with only one timeout remaining, lose.

A win only encourages an adaptable narrative that this franchise, once youthful and unpredictable only five years ago, is demonstratively showing mental fortitude to win games they’ve struggled to finish in the past. Remember the 31-14 lead against Buffalo in 2010 becoming an 18-point loss? Or the 28-7 quarter lead against San Diego in 2006 that ended with a 42-point second half by the Chargers to win 49-41? More examples are floating in the archives of our fading memories and the pages of Pro Football Reference.

The Andy Dalton era stabilized those games, largely thanks to a Mike Zimmer defense that, while not as dominating, remained philosophically capable when his understudy Paul Guenther took over.

Everything is pointing to a centralized theme now.

After four games this year, Teryl Austin’s defense isn’t nearly as good compared to his predecessors — it feels more Chuck Bresnahan than Zimmer/Guenther. With the exception of Carolina, when this defense needed to make a play — a stop or turnover — they’ve come through. When the offense needed to charge to 1) break the opposing team’s momentum or 2) convert fourth downs to sustain a game-winning drive, they’ve come through.

This was the theme from Sunday’s 37-36 win over the Atlanta Falcons. Cincinnati’s defense made a stop and the offense... well, they came through in a big way.

Three receivers (Tyler Boyd, A.J. Green, and John Ross) are standing to the right during Cincinnati’s first fourth down conversion with less than 1:30 remaining. Tight end C.J. Uzomah is split wide left and Mark Walton, replacing an injured Giovani Bernard, flanked Andy Dalton. Boyd sprints to the 27-yard line and turns.

“I went on a 12-yard stop route. I got them to overrun it and I sat in there perfectly,” Boyd said via Elegantly impressive was Andy Dalton, who released the football as Boyd was eclipsing the 28-yard line, a full yard before his stop route was completed.

First down.

An illegal hands to the face call penalized Cincinnati 10 yards — at least it was more legit than this. Dalton chipped away with successive passes to Alex Erickson and C.J. Uzomah before an incomplete third down pass forced Cincinnati into another fourth down situation.

They need six yards to reach the first-down marker. Boyd and Erickson are wide right, while A.J. Green and C.J. Uzomah (aka, The Abbreviations) are wide left.

Boyd collides with his defender, wrestles free, then breaks for the sideline. It was a quick pass, caught just beyond the 19-yard line but five yards shy of the first down marker. Boyd’s initial move generated separation to snag the football and cut upfield for another first down.

This echoes a familiar name in T.J. Houshmanzadeh, who ate defenders alive with routes like these.

“That’s a slant out,” Boyd said after game. “My first reaction was looking the DB in the eyes to see what coverage he was in, to see if he would give that away to me. I knew they were in man. I knew I was going to be able to set him up and beat him.”

Two plays later, the Bengals took a 37-36 lead with 12 seconds remaining.

On a narrower focus, clutch is becoming a defining keyword regarding Boyd — he’s the receiver that famously converted last year’s fourth-and-12 against Baltimore, sending the Ravens packing and the Bills to the playoffs.

Boyd, who had 11 receptions (nine leading to first downs) last week against the Falcons, is the conductor of his own breakout story. The third-year receiver leads the Bengals in receptions (26) and yards receiving (349).

“It was what was called,” Dalton said after Sunday’s game. “TB (Boyd) has done a great job. He’s so good at getting in and out of his breaks, coming across the field, shallows, different things that he did on that drive and the biggest one was down there. When we needed to make the play, he got out and got enough for the first down. I have so much faith in all our guys. Tyler is playing at a really high level right now.”

In his past two games against Carolina and Atlanta, Boyd collectively posted 17 receptions for 232 yards receiving. His touchdown against the Panthers reduced Cincinnati’s deficit to a touchdown.

“He’s playing with a lot of confidence and he understands exactly what we’re doing and how to run routes,” Dalton said. “It showed with the production that he’s had. I think he’s put in a lot of work. I think a lot of it is just natural for him too. He’s got a great feel for the game and it showed with the big plays that he made today.”

Boyd, a former second-round pick out of Pitt, began his career with relative success during his rookie season in 2016, posting 54 receptions for 603 yards receiving and a touchdown. Like many second-year players before him, his sophomore season wasn’t ideal:

  • Boyd only played 10 games, was inactive for two games due to “coaches’ decision” and four other games with a nagging knee injury. Heading into Week 16, Boyd had only posted 12 receptions for 95 yards and a touchdown. During the final two games of the season, Boyd broke free with 10 combined receptions for 130 yards receiving.
  • In July 2017, a car registered in Boyd’s name was found on the side of the road after slamming into a guardrail. Police allegedly found vape pens and cartridges “containing cannabis oil.” Boyd admitted to owning both but disputed being in the car, which also contained Cognac and Vodka. Charges were later dropped when the driver claimed ownership of the vape pens and cartridges.

These immaturities turned into lessons, and Boyd took advantage.

“He had to sit and watch. I think that was a big part. I think that that was great for him ... when you take a step back and have a chance to evaluate things,” Lewis said via ESPN. “Then when he got an opportunity to suit up again, I thought he practiced differently. A part of coming back is going out there on the practice field and showing, ‘I am healthy and ready to go.’ I thought he did those things and used it as a catalyst. We have a lot of belief in Tyler.”

For now, Boyd continues building on a breakout season while Cincinnati readies for the Miami Dolphins with the likely return of a key defensive player.

Linebacker Vontaze Burfict, the soul of this maligned defense, is back. Well, we think. On Monday, he crept behind head coach Marvin Lewis and lifted him up — a sweet bearhug for his adoring mentor.

Lewis is ready.

“My job gets more fun,” Lewis told reporters this week.

The defense is ready.

“His knack for the football, he studies a lot of tape,” said defensive end Carlos Dunlap. “I feel like he’s going to fill right in and understand what we’re doing and he’s going to bring his edge to the game, being Vontaze, that Pro Bowl player, he’s going to add that into there.”

Everyone is ready.

“Hellz yea” - most Bengals fans, probably.

Cincinnati hosts Miami on Sunday, who employs one of the league’s lesser offenses (ranked 30th, averaging 286 yards/game) with a 28th-ranked passing offense and 25th-ranked ground game. In Miami’s most-recent game, a 38-7 loss to the New England Patriots, they posted 172 yards. In their games against the Raiders and Patriots, Miami averaged 48.5 yards rushing per game.

If the Bengals defense (after games of 380, 425, 377, and 495 yards allowed) has an opportunity to build confidence, it’s now. Miami is struggling offensively and Burfict is brooding in the shadows with rabies foaming from the mouth.

The seventh-year linebacker, who has served September suspensions three years in a row now, practiced as a roster exemption this week. Once the staff feels comfortable about his readiness, he’ll likely replace Tyler Eifert on the team’s 53-man roster and join Preston Brown and Nick Vigil in the team’s 4-3 alignment.

A few thoughts for Sunday:

  • John Ross is recovering from an injury and may miss Sunday’s game. If so, would the Bengals activate training camp darling Auden Tate? Probably not. Cincinnati has a strong core of receivers, from A.J. Green, Boyd, and even Josh Malone (who is higher on the team’s depth chart). Add Alex Erickson’s multi-purpose roles and Cody Core’s advantage as a special teams player, Tate will likely fail to see the gameday roster even if Ross sits.
  • Running back Joe Mixon practiced this week despite telling reporters he wasn’t cleared (is someone having a laugh?). If he’s not 100 percent, would the Bengals play him? This may depend on their primary backup. Giovani Bernard has missed multiple practices this week and if he’s unable to play on Sunday, it would increase the likeliness that Mixon suits up. If Mixon are Bernard both sit Sunday, they’ll likely go with Mark Walton and Thomas Rawls.