The Oxford Dictionary of Sports Science defines momentum as a positive change in behavior caused by an event that is associated with periods in which everything seems to “go right.”
The Cincinnati Bengals picked up their first victory of the season Sunday by a 33-25 margin over the visiting Jacksonville Jaguars, a team that opened the season with an upset of the Indianapolis Colts and narrowly missed beating the Tennessee Titans in week two.
A lot of things definitely went right for the Bengals.
“We feel it,” quarterback Joe Burrow said after the game. “We feel a lot of momentum right now. We’re excited about where we are.”
Where Cincinnati is now is with a record of 1-2-1 with 12 games left to play. But things only get harder from here.
“You know, obviously there’s some things to correct,” Burrow said, “but we had a great week of practice this week, and I think that’s why we won the game and we’re going to have to continue that to next week. ‘Cause the NFL is no weeks off. We got Baltimore coming up. It’s gonna be a tough game. I’m excited to play.”
There were lots of reasons for Burrow’s optimism, beginning with the rookie quarterback himself, who became the first rookie quarterback in NFL history to pass for over 300 years in three consecutive games. Burrow finished 25 of 36 for 300 yards (an average of 8.3 yards per attempt), with one touchdown and one interception.
“He [Burrow] has got a much better feel for all these receivers,” head coach Zac Taylor said after the game. “I thought the offensive line did a tremendous job today. They kept him clean and made some great blocks in the run game. I thought our guys were so dialed in this week. It was our best week of practice we’ve had in two years here. Energy was tremendous. The guys took that to the field and made it count.”
The official stats credited the Jaguars with one sack. After giving up 14 sacks in the previous three games, the offensive line was able to give Burrow a clean pocket and, for the most part, time to find the open receiver.
“O-line played really, really well today,” Burrow said. “They’ve taken a lot of heat the last couple of weeks. I was super happy for those guys to have the game that they did today, and they’re going to continue to build on it. I know they are.”
Not only did the offensive line, which was buoyed by the return of Alex Redmond at right guard, do a better job of protecting Burrow, it also opened up the running lanes for Joe Mixon, who had been held to just 164 yards on 52 carries, an average of only 3.15 yards per carry.
Against the Jaguars, Mixon exploded for 151 yards on 25 carries while adding six receptions for 30 yards. He scored his first two touchdowns of the season on the ground and added a receiving touchdown, as well, giving him the first three-touchdown game of his career.
“Joe played really well today,” Burrow said. “O-line played really well today, and that enabled us to have some success with play-action, as well. It was a well-balanced attack that we hope to continue.
“I think personally I just did a better job of taking what the defense gave me and not pushing. He [Mixon] was doing a great job of understanding his protection assignments and getting out early if his guy didn’t come. When we started pushing the ball downfield a little bit, they started to back off and Joe was open in the check downs.”
Burrow, who has been especially hard on himself through the first three games of the season, had more than enough praise to go around after his first victory as a professional. Even the head coach, who has received criticism for some of his play calling early in the season, got in on the action.
“I think Zac has done a great job of asking what I am comfortable with and calling those plays,” Burrow pointed out. “And he understands what I like in certain situations.
“We have a meeting the night before every week that I go through my top three calls in every situation that we have, and he calls them, 1, 2, 3. He’s been doing a great job of calling plays, and then we have great players on the outside that understand zone coverage, understand what we’re trying to do with every single play.”
It all adds up to a lot more confidence, and a little less stress.
“It gets the monkey off you back a little bit,” Taylor said. “That’s the truth. You gotta get that first win of the season and a lot of the small things that pop up over the weeks when you’re not winning, they add up. And so to get that first win, everybody gets that pressure off them a little bit. Now we can just free up and go play ball.”
And, hopefully, this is the beginning of a shift in momentum that will pave the way for the culture shift that Taylor and many of the veterans have been preaching since the end of last season.
“We’ve been expecting to win,” Taylor said. “This is the first game we’ve finished. That’s all it is. Last year, when you go 13 weeks, you really do feel that. This isn’t the same feeling, because we’ve been expecting this to come. We know there’s more coming on the horizon.”