How Joe Burrow and the Bengals Won a Game They Should Have Lost

The Baltimore Ravens got the type of rough-and-tumble game they wanted against the Cincinanti Bengals, but they couldn't capitalize against Joe Burrow and Co.

Facing the Cincinnati Bengals for the second time in as many weeks and the third time this season, the Lamar Jackson-less Baltimore Ravens nearly managed to pull off a Wild Card Round upset.

The Ravens succeeded in foisting a muddied-up game plan on the Bengals and probably should have walked away with a win on Sunday night. Instead, a few key breaks allowed Cincinnati to advance to the Divisional Round, where they’ll face the Buffalo Bills next Sunday afternoon.

The Ravens Gave the Bengals All They Could Handle

It’s difficult to criticize the Ravens all that much for their performance on Sunday night. With Jackson still sidelined by a knee injury, Baltimore was an eight-point underdog against their divisional foes.

Tyler Huntley, who didn’t suit up when the Ravens played the Bengals in the regular-season finale, performed better than expected. He averaged 7.8 yards per attempt, added 54 yards on the ground, and finished with the second-highest QBR of his career.

Additionally, Baltimore largely executed their strategy designed to keep the clock running and the ball out of Joe Burrow’s hands. Huntley threw an interception on the Ravens’ first drive that allowed the Bengals to grab an early 9-0 lead, but Baltimore then put together a 17-play touchdown drive — one of the 30 longest NFL drives by play count this season — that took more than 10 minutes.

A Bengals fumble and a subsequent Justin Tucker field goal gave the Ravens a 10-9 lead at halftime, and Baltimore had to be pleased with where things stood at the break. Each team had handled just three possessions, and luck had gone the Ravens’ way.

Not only did Baltimore recover Hayden Hurst’s fumble, but Huntley calmly ran down a snap that went over his head, released the ball 14.3 yards behind the line of scrimmage, and somehow completed a 19-yard pass to Mark Andrews.

But the story of the game for the Ravens ended up being missed opportunities, beginning at the end of the first half. In the closing seconds of the second quarter, Baltimore drove to the Cincinnati 4-yard line only to settle for a field goal. All told, Huntley and Co. took the ball inside the Bengals’ 5-yard line three times but only scored ten points.

The most significant moment in the game occurred on one of those trips deep inside Cincinnati territory. With the score tied at 17 early in the fourth quarter, Huntley, attempting to convert on 3rd-and-goal from the 1, tried to reach the ball over the goal line. Bengals linebacker Logan Wilson forced a fumble, which defensive end Sam Hubbard took back 98 yards for a touchdown.

The defensive score — the longest fumble return in NFL postseason history — put Cincinnati in the lead for good. It marked a 14-point swing and dropped Baltimore’s win probability from 65.9% before the fumble to 16.8% after.

Even after that gargantuan mistake, the Ravens still had chances to tie or win the game. Baltimore forced Cincinnati to go three-and-out on their next offensive possession, but a roughing-the-punter penalty gave the Bengals three more plays that allowed them to churn more precious fourth-quarter seconds.

Down seven on their final drive, Baltimore seemed to lose track of the clock. On a possession that started at the Cincinnati 46 with 3:12 remaining, the Ravens somehow moved only 19 yards in 10 plays. They failed to use their timeouts correctly (essentially swallowing two of them) and hand to end the game with a de facto Hail Mary attempt.

Baltimore posted their best offensive performance in weeks, scoring two offensive touchdowns for the first time since Jackson went down. They outgained the Bengals by 130 yards, and the Ravens’ defense largely held Cincinnati’s offense in check. Burrow threw for fewer than seven yards per attempt, and only two Bengals’ plays went for more than 15 yards.

And yet, the Ravens will clean out their lockers this week while the Bengals advance to the AFC Divisional Round.

Two Problems Facing the Bengals as They Prepare for the Bills

Burrow’s counting stats weren’t great on Sunday night, but he still generated 0.11 expected points added (EPA) per dropback, which would rank 12th in the NFL on a season-long basis. Although the Ravens tried to keep everything in front of them by relying on two-high safety looks, Burrow diced up those coverages, going 15 of 18 for 147 yards and a touchdown while producing 9.6 EPA, per Next Gen Stats.

Burrow was also able to mitigate problems caused by Cincinnati’s offensive line, which lost left tackle Jonah Williams to a potentially serious knee injury against the Ravens. Given that right guard Alex Cappa and right tackle La’el Collins also suffered injuries in recent weeks, the Bengals are down to just two of their original OL starters, one of whom is a fourth-round rookie (LG Cordell Volson).

The Bengals revamped their offensive line through free agency last spring, but they still don’t have much depth, especially at tackle. Burrow will likely have to rely on some combination of Hakeem Adeniji, Jackson Carman, and Isaiah Prince at OT when Cincinnati plays Buffalo next week.

Even with Von Miller out for the year, the Bills still have a wave of pass rushers ready to go after the Bengals’ quarterback. But if Sunday night was any indication, Burrow will be able to handle a crumbling pocket. Playing with three backup linemen against the Ravens, he routinely got the ball out quickly to negate Baltimore’s pass rush. When he’s in rhythm, Burrow is a machine, and his surgical approach can help mitigate a porous front.

After taking a league-high 51 sacks in 2022, Burow has also improved his ability to feel and escape pressure. He’ll never be a mobile alien like Josh Allen, but Burrow can extend plays when needed. While he does have physical limitations, Burrow is also 6-foot-4 and 220 pounds, giving him the size and strength to power through tackles and fight for extra yardage.

Burrow can’t help solve Cincinnati’s other potential weakness — cornerback — where the Bengals don’t have enough depth after losing Chidobe Awuzie for the season.

Second-round rookie Cam Taylor-Britt has been up and down since entering the starting lineup, while Eli Apple got burned by journeyman wideout Demarcus Robinson for a 41-yard score on Sunday night. Rookie defensive back Daxton Hill only played a handful of snaps against the Ravens but still managed to pick up three penalties. The only standout was slot corner Mike Hilton, who ended the night with two tackles for loss, a sack, and a pass breakup.

Safties Jessie Bates and Vonn Bell can help make up for some of the Bengals’ cornerback deficiencies, but Stefon Diggs, Gabe Davis, and the rest of Buffalo’s wide receiver corps will have every opportunity to take advantage of this depleted unit next week.

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