Here are some of the key takeaways:
Tee Higgins loves being the top option
There’s just no denying it at this point. Higgins steps up when Ja’Marr Chase is out, and he finally got out of a season long funk these last two games with Chase being sidelined. Against Pittsburgh, Higgins had 140 yards on just eight targets (five receptions), including an 80-yard touchdown.
To Higgins’ credit, there aren’t a lot of guys in the NFL who can manage to put up eye popping numbers across from one of the top receivers in the league (Chase). So it shouldn’t surprise anyone that Higgins’ stats look a lot better when he’s the focal point of the offense.
The Bengals aren’t getting anything for Jake Browning
The backup QB broke a few records in recent weeks, but the way he was finding success didn’t really suggest he could be a franchise quarterback; Browning got a lot of yards by dumping off the ball to Chase Brown and Joe Mixon.
He worked the short game, allowed Chase to make something out of nothing, and then took chances down the field when the opportunity was there. Even then, his deep shots weren’t completely on target. Rather, a lot went right with guys like Higgins using their big bodies in ridiculous ways to haul in Browning’s throws.
Meanwhile, Cincinnati’s front office is notoriously difficult to negotiate with. So unless some team offers them at least a second round pick, Browning isn’t going anywhere.
And after an ugly game against the Steelers, it’ll be difficult for any team to convince itself that Browning can be its guy. He demonstrated all the qualities that previously turned scouts and GMs off, most prominently poor decision making and a lack of field awareness.
Yikes… don’t know what Jake Browning was thinking on that INT.pic.twitter.com/v4KfcxwWTq— JPAFootball (@jasrifootball) December 23, 2023
To be clear, Browning can function at a high level with this Bengals team so long as he isn’t expected to carry it and has strong support from his skill players (including the running backs). But he’d need a lot of right pieces in place to have the kind of success he had against the Jacksonville Jaguars, Indianapolis Colts, and Minnesota Vikings on another roster.
The Bengals are not built to win in the AFC North
Yes, as many pointed out, Cincinnati did not have a healthy Joe Burrow for any of the five AFC North games it lost this year. And not having D.J. Reader against the Steelers certainly contributed to the score being as lopsided as it was.
Joe Burrow was 100% healthy for exactly 0 AFC North games this season.— Willie Lutz (@willie_lutz) December 24, 2023
But there’s no denying that the Bengals have gotten bullied by division rivals (as well as another physical AFC team, the Tennessee Titans, as Willie Lutz pointed out) in large part because they can’t play their style of football.
The thing that really bothers me, more than anything, is the 0-5 record against the AFC North (not to mention the 27-3 meltdown against another physical AFC rival in the Titans).— Willie Lutz (@willie_lutz) December 24, 2023
Being 8-2 against everyone else doesn’t matter when you’re getting totally out-muscled by everyone…
For most of the year, Cincinnati hasn’t been able to run the ball or stop the run very well. And the Bengals are not exceptional at rushing the passer or stopping pass rushers. Where this team shines is in explosive plays on both sides of the ball, like completions from Burrow to Chase or forced turnovers by Germaine Pratt.
As many have pointed out, the team seems designed to keep up with the top offenses in the conferences in hopes of facing them in the playoffs but not prepared to handle the week-to-week gut punches from its division rivals.
Bengals have built a roster to compete against the Bills and Chiefs. They need to refocus and look at the AFC North 0-5!!— Maan Aboulhosn (@TheFireMaan) December 24, 2023
So where does Cincinnati go from here? Well, if they can somehow pull out a win against the Kansas City Chiefs on the road and then get their first divisional win of the year against the Cleveland Browns, the Bengals will have a chance (but will need help from other teams).
NY Times has them at 73% chance to make the playoffs with 10 wins. https://t.co/8bQXgMTlUI— Goodberry (@JoeGoodberry) December 24, 2023
So all is not lost quite yet, but the season hangs by a thread.