Joe Mixon said it first. Jake Browning owned it.
Are the Cincinnati Bengals a playoff team?
The Bengals came into Sunday’s game with the Indianapolis Colts on the outside looking in. With only seven playoff spots up for grabs, Cincinnati sat at No. 11 after Week 13.
After a convincing 34-14 victory over the Colts, the Bengals only moved up one spot in the playoff picture but sport the same record as four of the teams above them. And Cincinnati has games remaining with two of those teams, Pittsburgh and Cleveland.
So the Bengals are back in the race to the playoffs, and a big part of the credit for that belongs to Jake Browning, the career practice-squad quarterback who was thrust into the starting lineup when Joe Burrow was injured in a loss to the Baltimore Ravens in Week 11.
“We’re just taking it one week at a time,” Mixon said after the game. “We don’t really care about where we are in the standings as long as we do what we’re supposed to do and just check the W box every week; everything else is gonna take care of itself. We just got to stick to the script.”
Lately, that script has included a healthy dose of Browning, who stepped into the NFL record books Sunday. Browning now has the highest completion percentage after his first three career starts in NFL history at 79.3%.
Against the Colts, Browning completed 18 of 24 passes (75%) for 275 yards (an average of 11.5 yards per attempt), two touchdowns and an interception and finished with an overall rating of 122.7.
“I know there’s some things that I can improve on and so that will kind of be my focus,” Browning said after the game. “But it feels better doing that when you won and trying to keep getting better instead of losing and trying to get better, so I’ll take it.”
Cincinnati jumped out to a 14-0 lead with just over 10 minutes left in the second quarter and looked to be ready to take control when Indianapolis answered with 14 points in 25 seconds. The second of those scores came on a 36-yard pick-6 by the Colts’ Ronnie Harrison Jr. with 1:31 left in the half.
“Coming into halftime, my thought process was that the only time they had stopped us is when I threw it to the other team,” Browning said.
The Bengals put together a 6-play, 75-yard drive to open the second half that culminated with an 11-yard touchdown strike to tight end Tanner Hudson to take a 21-14 lead, and never looked back.
And, they did it on the strength of a rejuvenated rushing attack that went over 100 yards for the second week in a row. Mixon finished with 79 yards rushing on 21 carries, and rookie Chase Brown added 25 yards on the ground on eight carries.
Brown led all Cincinnati receivers with 80 yards on three receptions, including a screen pass that he turned into a 54-yard touchdown, and Mixon had three catches for 46 yards.
“We’re doing a good job of complementing each other,” Browning said of an offensive explosion that featured 25 passes and 32 runs. “I think our o-line played really well. I think they were really consistent throughout the game.”
In fact, the Bengals’ offensive line, which has received plenty of criticism all year long, was nearly perfect against a Colts’ team that came in ranked second in the league in sacks. Browning was not sacked all afternoon, and the line surrendered only three quarterback hits.
“Our o-line’s playing great football,” he said. “Our o-line and tight ends have been blocking their ass off.”