It wasn’t just that the Cincinnati Bengals were 5-2 through seven games, their best seven-week start since 2015, it was that nearly half of their wins came against divisional foes that have dominated them in recent years.
Coming off an ugly loss to the Chicago Bears, the Bengals got their act together and won convincingly against the Pittsburgh Steelers. It was their first win in Heinz Field since—you guessed it—2015, and factoring how the Steelers have rallied since that game, it looks more impressive now.
Cincinnati won two of their next three games after beating Pittsburgh, but both wins came against the lowly Jacksonville Jaguars and Detroit Lions, and they barely defeated Jacksonville. There was still some doubt surrounding this team, and because of that, most expected them to lose to the Baltimore Ravens.
41 points later, the Bengals left doubt behind in Baltimore, and the NFL welcomed them to relevancy. Coincidentally, the 41 points they allowed at the hands of the Cleveland Browns has brought the Bengals back down to earth.
But wait, didn’t a loss to the terrible New York Jets already do that? Mike White torching your defense is certainly not great on paper, but the NFL is susceptible to randomness and parity. No one expected anything like that to happen; not in that fashion. But it’s football. You move on and get back on track. Things will even out over time.
A dismantling at the hands of the Browns is much more damning for the Bengals.
The Browns, much like the Steelers and Ravens, have had the Bengals’ number in recent years. Much of that has to do with Baker Mayfield channeling his Oklahoma days against them, but Nick Chubb and Cleveland’s offensive line have created a sizable gap in this once close rivalry. Chubb now has a 100-yard game against the Bengals in all four years he’s been in the league. The Browns have won all four of those games, including Sunday’s blowout.
On the other side of the ball, Myles Garrett is a consistent force that Cincinnati’s pass protection can only hold back for so long every meeting. He commands double teams and constant awareness of where he lines up, because he can line up anywhere up front. And the complementary pieces next to Garrett only make it more difficult to slow down their defensive line.
In years past, the Browns’ secondary was what held their defense back from becoming a complete unit. Look back there now, there are no weak spots. Two first-round cornerbacks in Denzel Ward and Greg Newsome II can run with the best of them, and when Ward has been out this year, Greedy Williams has been just fine in his place. Troy Hill and John Johnson III have filled out the rest of the backfield perfectly and made the entire unit dangerous.
Despite the total makeover the Bengals’ roster has undergone, the Browns have accumulated the pieces to keep them at bay when everything clicks, which seems to happen when these two teams meet lately. Not ideal for a team that was created to spite the other.
That wasn’t a talking point leading up to this game, though. The Bengals appeared to be the superior team based on their record and offensive revival from the previous month. The Browns were reeling from three losses in four weeks and the fallout of the Odell Beckham Jr. saga. The stage was set for one team to break the other and get back on track. The consensus sided with the Bengals, and that’s why they play the games.
We’re going to see if the Browns are indeed back on track in the next few weeks, just like we’ll see if the Bengals’ season has been broken from this loss. The tenacity of the AFC North has the Bengals in last place currently with a 5-4 record, but to say their season is over because of one loss in early November is the definition of premature, like calling a game over early in the second quarter.
But it did feel like this game ran away from the Bengals following the end of the first quarter quarter. After a 99-yard pick-six from Ward, the Bengals responded well by finishing their next drive with an equalizing touchdown. The Browns were not phased, as an 11-play drive concluded with Chubb punching in a one-yard touchdown to give them a 14-7 lead. They only ran into just a single third down on the drive, and a pass interference penalty on the Bengals negated the incompletion on the play.
A shootout was looking like the only way the Bengals were going to come out victorious. Brandon Wilson sacrificed his ACL to give the offense the ball at the 26-yard line, and they started the possession with two quick first downs.
What followed were five plays that shrunk the Bengals’ win probability from 37% to 19%. These are those five plays, with a focus on the trenches:
Compelling wins over the Steelers and Ravens validated the Bengals’ progress to the same degree that this loss makes us pause. Expectations started to shift in the right direction, but this felt like a bucket of ice cold water was poured on the franchise. There remains plenty to be improved on despite getting to this point so much quicker than anyone expected.
Much like that five-play sequence ended up being the turning point of the game, the game itself will ultimately end up as a turning point for the season. There is equal evidence to support things getting better or worse. For as promising as the offense looks at times, major inconsistencies in protection and decision-making can prove to be its downfall. The defense seems to go as far as the defensive line can carry it, and that group can’t always cover up tackling issues behind it.
We are entering a truly exciting time in recent Bengals history. Not exciting in the sense that we know they’re going to be fine, but exciting in the sense that we truly don’t know. How can anyone be sure when they destroyed the division-leading Ravens the same way the Browns destroyed them?
Unlike college football, we can confidently say the games matter here. And they’ll provide the answers we are desperate to know in time.