We’re not in the business of outrageous statements, such as proclaiming Sunday’s game against the Buffalo Bills as “must win”. After all, the Bengals, with the Steelers losing horrifically to a dangerous Jacksonville Jaguars squad that’s thrashing AFC North teams, gained traction in the standings; after beating the Bills 20-16 on Sunday, Cincinnati is one game out of first place with 11 games remaining on the season.
Think about that.
Cincinnati, broadcasting intense incompetency with an 0-3 start last month, is potentially one game away from being .500 with a share of first place in the division. However, Sunday’s win was a much-needed victory to sustain their growing confidence. The Bengals destroyed the Browns, a team that’s been helping struggling teams gain confidence for over a decade. Cincinnati took that momentum into a four-point win over the Bills, who entered Sunday’s game in lone possession of first place in the AFC East. Not only did they beat the Browns, they beat a very good Bills squad. The Bengals have momentum and they’re playing with more confidence.
It wasn’t pretty, sure.
In fact, Sunday’s game could have gone in any direction. A.J. Green’s 77-yard touchdown toss to A.J. Green put Cincinnati on the board early, however defense and mother nature kept the game within a possession all afternoon. Another 49-yard reception by Green early in the fourth quarter helped Cincinnati transition a 13-10 deficit into a 17-13 lead on Joe Mixon’s five-yard touchdown with 14:55 remaining in the game; Randy Bullock added a pair of chip-shot field goals.
Rain persisted throughout the afternoon, causing breath-holding deflections that led to interceptions, sled-like conditions for linemen, and destabilizing efforts for ball carriers. Cincinnati’s offense, which built a 10-3 lead early in the second quarter, took a dive in the middle periods with three turnovers and a three-and-out over the next five possessions. Andy Dalton started on a tear, completing 11 of his first 14 passes for 165 yards and a touchdown. However, two interceptions cooled his momentum until late, when he pieced together two scoring possessions.
A.J. Green (seven receptions for 189 yards receiving and a touchdown) was the only remarkable receiver for Cincinnati, with Brandon LaFell, Alex Erickson (big third down reception) and Tyler Boyd, securing eight receptions for a collective 50 yards. Bengals tight ends Tyler Kroft and C.J. Uzomah combined for five receptions and 59 yards. As dominating as Green was, both of Dalton’s interceptions bounced off him (the first was a high throw and arguably shared fault between Dalton and Green) and the fumble he lost in the third quarter led to a Bills field goal.
As much we enjoy seeing the Bengals offense growing behind Bill Lazor, it’s the defense that’s putting their mark on the season. Paul Guenther’s group came into Sunday’s game with 12 sacks, third in the league. They added six on Sunday, led by interior rusher Michael Johnson (aka, the new Wallace Gilberry). Safety George Iloka’s sealed Cincinnati’s 20-16 win with an interception. Of Buffalo’s 12 possessions, seven resulted in a punt, with four drives penetrating the red zone and leading to three field goals and a touchdown.
Sunday’s win proved that the Bengals are adapting. Their young linebackers are impressive assets that are making impacts, as the grizzled veteran Vontaze Burfict, who led the team with 13 tackles and a sack, looks on. With cornerbacks Adam Jones and Dre Kirkpatrick exiting the game with injuries, Darqueze Dennard and William Jackson became the primary cornerbacks. Bills quarterback Tyrod Taylor completed 20 of 37 passes for 166 yards and a 63.6 passer rating and Brandon Tate, with two receptions and 25 yards, was Buffalo’s leading wide receiver (and one of those receptions, a touchdown, occurred against Josh Shaw). Cincinnati’s defensive line is arguably the most impressive, with rookie Carl Lawson becoming one of the team’s hottest rookies.
The Bengals have their scheduled bye week coming up, and then games at Pittsburgh, home at the Colts, and then three straight road games against a scary Jaguars squad, Titans, and then Broncos before returning home with back-to-back division games against the Browns and Steelers.