CINCINNATI — There’s a sign outside the Cincinnati Bengals’ locker room that the players walked past Sunday on their way out to the field to play the Kansas City Chiefs. It’s a glowing orange rectangle with a cat-scratch mark at the bottom of it, and it reads, simply, “THEY GOTTA PLAY US” with the “US” in bold letters.
It’s hard to think of a phrase that better encapsulates what the Bengals are all about right now. Sunday, they walked past that sign and beat Patrick Mahomes, Andy Reid and the Chiefs for the third time in the past calendar year. A Kansas City team that came into the weekend with the best record in the AFC and a lot of leftover anger about losing the AFC Championship Game to this team once again fell short against Joe Burrow’s bunch, 27-24. When it was over, I asked star wideout Ja’Marr Chase what it all means.
“It means that Cincinnati’s the team to beat now,” Chase said.
There’s no denying the defending AFC champions’ confidence. After starting the season 0-2 with a pair of brutally tough losses to the Pittsburgh Steelers and Dallas Cowboys, they’ve won eight of 10, including the past four. They are tied with the Baltimore Ravens atop the AFC North, and they’re bringing a roster and a mindset to December that makes them as dangerous as anyone.
“Our team knows how to win these types of games,” Burrow said. “It’s that time of year now. It’s December/January games. This is where teams start to separate themselves.”
The Bengals have a lot of work to do to separate themselves yet. They still have to pass Baltimore to win the division, since the Ravens hold the tiebreaker by virtue of having beaten them head-to-head. They wouldn’t mind running down the Buffalo Bills for the AFC’s top seed, and they get to play Buffalo on “Monday Night Football” in Week 17. Everything the Bengals want, including a return trip to and better result in the Super Bowl, is right in front of them. And the best part might be that they know exactly how to manage the emotions that come with playing NFL games this time of year. Two weeks ago, a tough win over division-rival Pittsburgh. Last week, a tough win in Tennessee. Sunday, another tough win over Kansas City. Next week, the Cleveland Browns, whom Burrow has yet to beat.
“We’re just dialed in,” Burrow said. “We know the mistakes we made today, we know the corrections we have to make. There’s a lot of celebration in that locker room right now. It feels good to win. But everyone knows what we have to do to improve. The character of these guys, that’s what wins games.”
Having covered their past two games, I wanted to start the Week 13 overreactions column with the boisterous Bengals. So here you go.
The Bengals will be the most dangerous team in the NFL playoff field
Burrow is now the first quarterback to beat Mahomes three straight times. They got Chase back from injury for this game. They overcame an inexplicable drop by the always-reliable Tyler Boyd and a 24-17 fourth-quarter deficit to beat the team that’s bullied everybody in the AFC but them for the past half-decade. They feel like they can beat anybody, and no other team that’s going to be in the playoffs this year was in last year’s Super Bowl.
Verdict: NOT AN OVERREACTION
Again, they still have to get in, and they would still like to get in with a high seed. Maybe the highest, if they can get there. But their ability to follow the old cliche of “one game at a time,” their ability to put to the side the win or the loss they just endured and focus on the upcoming week, that’s going to serve them well.
“Joe’s really grown and matured as a quarterback, as crazy as that sounds, given how good he already was,” Bengals offensive coordinator Brian Callahan told me this week. “Just his understanding of what it means to play quarterback in this league, that every week requires something different of you. He’s done a really good job of getting his teammates to trust that he knows that, and of learning how to play smart and still be aggressive. Knowing it’s time to get the ball out of your hand instead of taking a sack. His growth has been really, really fun to see.”
An improved Burrow behind an improved offensive line with all those same weapons and the confidence of a Super Bowl team? That should scare anybody.
Having already lost starter Trey Lance for the season in Week 2, the Niners were fortunate to still have Garoppolo on their team. They couldn’t trade him in the offseason, they got him to take a pay cut and he came back to buoy them with his experience in their system, and things were going quite well. Then he broke his left foot in Sunday’s 33-17 victory over the Miami Dolphins, and he’s out for the year.
Backup Brock Purdy finished the game and figures to have to take them the rest of the way. The 49ers have won five games in a row, are 8-4 and one game in front of the Seattle Seahawks for first place in the NFC West. If the playoffs started today, they’d be the NFC’s No. 3 seed.
Look, I was never on the “49ers as Super Bowl favorites” train that so many others were, even before Garoppolo got hurt. I thought their biggest weakness was that Garoppolo had proved himself injury-prone and unreliable in big moments and that it would bite them. And I am not an I-told-you-so type, but my point is that I thought the 49ers were good, not great, and the Garoppolo injury does not change my opinion of them.
I would not be surprised if Purdy plays well in Kyle Shanahan’s system, as has been the case with nearly every quarterback Shanahan has coached. I would not be surprised if their outstanding defense helped them hold off Seattle, win the NFC West and maybe even win a playoff game or two. I thought this 48 hours ago, and my opinion of them is exactly the same today. I think they’re in the mix. I don’t think they’re any kind of scary favorite, but I also don’t think they’re done.
The NFL needs to abolish ties
I mean, nobody really cares that the Indianapolis Colts and Houston Texans tied in Week 1 because those teams aren’t in the playoff race. But this New York Giants-Washington Commanders 20-20 tie Sunday? That has a chance to mess stuff up, right? It confuses people.
The Giants still sit in the NFC’s 6-seed with a record of 7-4-1, but now the Commanders are 7-5-1 and the Seahawks are 7-5. Which of those is a better record? Are they the same record? Who wins the tiebreaker, if it even applies? This whole thing is a fiasco. Banish ties forever!
There’s nothing wrong with a tie. It’s a perfectly acceptable outcome and rare enough that it need not be treated as some sort of scourge. This will all work itself out. The Commanders are on a bye next week, so if the Seahawks win, they’ll be 8-5 and ahead of them, and if they lose, they’ll be 7-6 and behind them. If the Giants and Commanders end up tied with each other in the standings, whoever wins their Week 14 matchup will advance on the tiebreaker.
If they end up tied with someone else … well, they can’t, unless that other team has a tie, too. So ties are actually good, since they avoid weird playoff tiebreaker scenarios, which people tend not to like either. Every time there’s a tie I hear people say it’s awful, but I disagree. Much ado about nothing. And hey, did either one of those teams deserve to win that game Sunday?
The Philadelphia Eagles are the clear NFC favorites right now
Sunday looked like a real trap game for the Eagles, who were coming off a surprisingly tough Sunday night victory over the Green Bay Packers and had to try and stop the Tennessee Titans, who were coming off a tough loss to Cincinnati. The Eagles’ weakness has been their run defense, and with Derrick Henry rolling into town, some of us figured Philly might drop this game. They very much did not.
They kind of crushed the Titans 35-10, in part because of two touchdown catches by former Titans wide receiver A.J. Brown. Quarterback Jalen Hurts continued to look unstoppable on the ground and in the air. Rookie Jordan Davis returned to help shore up that run defense, and, sure enough, Henry ended the game with 30 rushing yards on 11 carries as the Eagles improved to 11-1.
Verdict: NOT AN OVERREACTION
As long as Philly holds on to that No. 1 seed the way they did in 2017 even after they lost their starting quarterback in January, they’ll be the clear favorite to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl. They hold a one-game lead over Minnesota for that 1-seed at the moment, and they hold the tiebreaker because they beat the Vikings earlier in the year.
The Cowboys are lurking, and the Eagles have to play them again in a couple of weeks. But Sunday was a bit of a statement game for the team with the best record in the league. They don’t have much interest in being tripped up on their way to the postseason.
Mike Tomlin is going to coach his way to a winning season after all
We did this one a couple of weeks ago, and I believe I called it an overreaction. But the Steelers have won two straight games — and three of their past four — to improve to 5-7 after a 2-6 start. The 19-16 victory in Sunday’s field goal fight with the Atlanta Falcons wasn’t pretty, but the standings don’t have a column for “pretty,” and the Steelers found a way to win.
With five games left in the season, Tomlin has to go 4-1 (or 3-1-1) to keep alive his remarkable streak. Tomlin is in his 16th season as Steelers head coach and has never finished a season with a losing record.
Verdict: NOT AN OVERREACTION
All right. He’s got me. I’m not ready to say he’ll do it, but I think you have to at least acknowledge the possibility. The only loss the Steelers have in their past four games was a very close one to the Bengals, who were as good as any team in the league in November.
Pittsburgh’s remaining games are home against the Ravens, at Carolina, home against the Raiders, at Baltimore and home against the Browns. You’re telling me they can’t go 4-1 (or 3-1-1) against that schedule? Especially if Lamar Jackson isn’t playing for the Ravens? I’ve reached the point where I’m no longer comfortable telling Tomlin what he can’t do. That was my bad.