The 2021 Cincinnati Bengals have been chock-full of surprises this year. Watching them play football is akin to taking a big handful of Jelly Belly’s and shoving the wad of candies into one’s mouth.
There have been the awesome moments of Joe Burrow and Ja’Marr Chase regaining their 2019 LSU form (“tutti fruity” or “watermelon”), but there are also cringe-worthy plays from those two, the offensive line, as well as untimely defensive collapses (“buttered popcorn” and “coffee”). If that metaphor on those treats doesn’t strike you, then Forrest Gump’s take on See’s Candies’ specialty might ring a bit more true.
From week to week and even play to play, we are often completely surprised by what this upstart Cincinnati squad puts on tape. With so much talent and youthfulness as wild cards, the Bengals have suddenly become must-watch football.
Depending on how you look at things and what your expectations were for the team at the beginning of the season, their record of 7-6 can mean different things to different fans. A pleasant surprise that they’re smack in the middle of the playoff race around Christmas is one mindset, while feeling teased and downtrodden with so many could-have-been’s is another.
With four huge games left on the schedule—all in conference and two in the division—the Bengals are in must-win mode. Depending on how the rest of the wishy-washy AFC plays out, Cincinnati will safely make it to the postseason with three wins, while just two, should they come against the Ravens and Browns, should yield them the division crown.
At least, we think so...
While we’ve used the “Jekyll-and-Hyde” moniker ad nauseam for the Bengals this year, it’s apropos. One week Joe Burrow is slicing-and-dicing teams with precision passing, another it’s Joe Mixon’s tough running and, in a subsequent week, Cincinnati is beating itself to get into the “L column”.
This week, they clash against a Broncos team that has brought about some of the most iconic wins in Bengals history, as well as some of the most heartbreaking losses. Need a recap? We got you.
- 9/15/1968: The Bengals get their first win as a franchise in Week 2 of the 1968 season. Cincinnati beat their fellow AFL team handily, 24-10, with John Stofa, Bob Trumpy and Essex Johnson being the heroes of the day.
- 11/30/1986: Cincinnati was 8-4 entering Week 13 and had a critical matchup against the Broncos for playoff implications. Denver got the best of the Bengals, 34-28, with Cincinnati eventually finishing 10-6 and not making the postseason. The Broncos eventually made it to Super Bowl XXI to face the Giants in a loss.
- 10/22/2000: Corey Dillon rewrites the NFL record books with 278 rushing yards against the Broncos. Cincinnati passed for just 20 yards on the day, as the star running back catapulted the Bengals to a 31-21 win.
- 10/24/2004: Cincinnati makes its arrival in the Carson Palmer era with a 24-10 win over Denver on Monday Night Football. Chad Johnson and Champ Bailey go head-to-head in this one.
- 9/13/2009: Brandon Stokley. You can probably hear Gus Johnson’s excited voice right now, can’t you?
- 12/22/2014: On a rainy, cold Monday night, Cincinnati grabbed one of its best wins ever as a franchise. Hosting Peyton Manning, the Bengals made big play after big play to grind out a 37-28 win.
There are many others, but the point is that wacky incidents happen in this not-so-much-of-a-rivalry. And, while we tipped the scales in the Bengals’ favor in terms of the examples we laid out, Cincinnati is just 10-22 historically, with their last win coming in 2017.
As in 2014, Cincinnati needs this one to keep playoff hopes alive. But, unlike 2014, Denver isn’t relying on Manning’s Hall of Fame arm to put them in the playoff race.
The Broncos are sporting the 10th-best pass defense, in terms of yards allowed through the air, and are tied for third-best in the league in passing touchdowns allowed (16). They’re familiarly hovering around the top-10 in running the football as well, somehow scraping together a respectable campaign in a season that was once looked at as a possible fire sale.
Against the AFC West this year, Cincinnati is 1-1. In the contest with the Raiders, the Bengals rode a pretty clean game, turnover-wise, as well as a balanced attack on offense, en route to a dominant (albeit a late surge) 32-13 road win.
A couple of weeks ago against the Chargers, Cincinnati wanted to have a similar approach (especially with L.A.’s poor run defensive ranking), but a fourth-down touchdown on the opening drive by Los Angeles and many self-inflicted errors torpedoed said plan. One week later, the Bengals relied on Burrow’s right arm to get them back into the game against San Francisco.
So, what’s the idea this week?
While Cincinnati is dealing with injuries and coping with an identity crisis, Mixon and offensive balance has to be of high priority. After all, if the Bengals are able to achieve this without at least one starting offensive lineman, that would bode well for long-term viability.
Did we mention that the Broncos are a top-10 team against the run, as well?
One is inclined to believe that if the Bengals sniff 30 points, it will be hard for Denver to overcome it with their somewhat-bland offensive approach. Cincinnati’s defense is going to need to harness some of its early-season magic to make life easy on the offense.
That won’t be easy with the team being without the services of Logan Wilson, Akeem Davis-Gaither and Chidobe Awuzie. However, Trae Waynes makes his return this week and is looking to write a redemption story. Eli Apple has played some of his best pro football with the Bengals in recent weeks, so why can’t another former first-round corner.
Pass rush will also be key this week. Denver continues to sport one of the better edge defenders in Bradley Chubb, but he’s only played in four games this year. That’s not an ideal situation after Denver dealt future Hall of Famer, Von Miller.
On the other side of the fence, Sam Hubbard continues to play some of the best football we’ve ever seen from him, while Trey Hendrickson continues his Pro Bowl march, despite having back issues last week.
All in all though, this one could very well come down to which quarterback makes the most plays. In terms of overall positive plays, that designation ironically goes to Teddy Bridgewater, if we are to gauge Burrow’s league lead (tied) in interceptions with 14.
But, Burrow has seven more total touchdowns than Bridgewater, noting that playmaking ability. Mixon will be critical in this one, but timely and twist-the-knife passing from No. 9 will write the storyline.
Kind of like the Colts, the 2021 Broncos are putting things together with a mishmash of non-household names. Credit the front offices and coaching staffs of both teams for their being in the playoff race with so few bona fide stars.
And, with Indianapolis’ win on Saturday night over the Patriots, it’s becoming all-too-clear that Cincinnati’s best and easiest path to the January bracket is with a division crown. Yes, beating Cleveland and Baltimore in the coming weeks will do the trick, but so will racking up important conference wins.
The Bengals haven’t been on a three-game losing streak yet this year and I don’t expect them to start now, given the multitude of players from winning pasts who litter the roster. Cincinnati needs this one in a variety of facets and should take it, though it won’t be easy.
Tough venue, tough team to face and, likely, an ugly game.
Bengals 27, Broncos 18
AC — Wild Horses.