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The Bengals Might Already Be Better Than They Ever Were Under Marvin Lewis

Joe Burrow's historic day shows Cincinnati has a higher ceiling their previous incarnation that made six one-and-done playoff exits.

Curse modernity and the age of instant reply, which robbed us of a fifth Joe Burrow touchdown on Sunday, on a pass that would have pushed his total for the day over 500 yards. With the game well out of reach already, he eventually eclipsed the mark, and his 525 yards give him the fourth-highest single-game total in NFL history, behind only Norm Van Brocklin, Warren Moon and Matt Schaub. While the performance was already the most significant of Burrow’s professional career, the increasingly gaudy numbers would have added an air of fitting decadence to an afternoon that taught us so much about the Bengals.

For the first time in 12 years, Cincinnati has swept the rival Ravens and Steelers. The Bengals are in sole possession of first place in what may end up being the most competitive division in football. They’ve scored more than 40 points against the Ravens in each of their matchups. Cincinnati came into the week as a top-10 team in rushing touchdowns, net passing yards per attempt, passing touchdowns and total points. They will almost certainly finish the season that way as well.

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It’s easy to forget that just five years ago, before the bleak end of the Marvin Lewis years, this was somewhat routine in Cincinnati. Before the Bengals sunk to the point where they could nab Burrow with the top pick and rebuild, they made the playoffs six times in seven years, with three AFC North titles mixed in. But after watching this Bengals team, this offense, this quarterback and the way they navigated this division, it’s more than fair to wonder if this team is good enough to win a playoff game, given that Sunday’s 41–21 win almost certainly punched their ticket. It’s even fair to wonder if they’re already better set up than they were at any point during their revival under Lewis, which, Bengals fans don’t need us to remind them, resulted in six trips to the postseason without a single win there.

I’ll back up for a minute and acknowledge I’ve been denied admission on the Cincinnati bandwagon. This is what happens when you pick them to win three games (we did nail one of those Steelers games, though). While I would guess there are plenty who would join me in the holding pen, it was hard to believe back in August that they’d made significant enough improvements on the offensive line. It was hard to believe that Ja’Marr Chase was that much better than Penei Sewell. It was hard to believe that Burrow, a quarterback whose greatest asset may be his common sense, was game to emerge early from a potentially career-altering knee injury, work through a minor case of the (very understandable) yips and take more sacks than almost any other quarterback in the NFL (including five each in his first two games).

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I’ll admit I didn’t see his first offensive snap from Sunday coming, when the Ravens cracked the backfield with nonexotic four-man pressure and Burrow simply took a full-force shot from defensive tackle Broderick Washington, rolled out and flicked a dart into traffic for Tee Higgins that netted a first down. I didn’t see Higgins getting as open as he did a few plays later on that drive, when pressure got to Burrow again and he needed an option to unload after a deft sidestep. Interestingly enough, out of Burrow’s top targets, Higgins was the least consistently open, according to NextGenStats’s average separation metrics, which says a lot. Chase, C.J. Uzomah and Tyler Boyd were all over the league average against Baltimore’s depleted secondary.

What we can see now is an offense whose numbers seem to transcend some of the statistical similarities in their recent past. Lewis’s calling card was obviously a consistent, battering defense. But in 2015, the Bengals were seventh in points and third in net yards per passing attempt. In ’13, they were sixth in points, third in passing touchdowns and ninth in net yards per passing attempt. They were almost able to fool us into believing that an Andy Dalton offense was primed for a deep playoff run. Especially in the peak Jay Gruden years (he was OC from ’11 to ’13, and the work he did got him a head coaching gig), it was convincing.

That’s not what we saw on Sunday. That run was never like an axe-swinging performance from a bigger-armed, bigger-bodied quarterback like Burrow. It wasn’t Higgins ripping down balls in double coverage, three chunk passing plays for more than 50 yards or more than 11 yards per attempt from Burrow. It wasn’t as loudly dominant. The entire foundation, at least offensively, feels more solid.

We’ll admit that it’s a dangerous proposition to base a statement like this on feel. This team, after all, has dropped games to the Bears and Jets this season. Burrow had four games this season with a quarterback rating below 90 against better, healthier defenses. He could be that player again. Opposing defenses could realize that Jonah Williams and Quinton Spain can’t run five-man protections on their own.

But on days like Sunday, it looks like a bet we’d be willing to make. Suddenly, the prospect of seeing the Bengals in the playoffs looks a lot different than it might have a few years ago, when it meant something dreadful and automatic.

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