Four Lessons for the Cincinnati Bengals From Championship Weekend

Every year there are things to be gleaned from the teams that go the furthest in the playoffs, and that's the case again for the Cincinnati Bengals.

CINCINNATI — Forced to watch the conference championship games on Sunday rather than participating for the first time since the 2020 season, the Cincinnati Bengals should have been more than just spectators.

Every year there are lessons to be learned about why the final four teams are the last ones standing — especially when one of them occupies the same division.

Sometimes it can be an over-arching theme threaded through all four organizations. At other times it can be a circumstantial element in which one team is forced to adapt but all four are capable. There are roster-building elements, coaching considerations, statistical signals, and various other tells when looking at the Kansas City Chiefs, San Francisco 49ers, Detroit Lions, and Baltimore Ravens.

What Cincinnati Bengals Can Learn From Final Four

It’s not about following exact blueprints, although there is a lot of merit in copying from a Chiefs team that has been to six consecutive AFC Championship Games and a 49ers group that has been to four of the last five NFC Championship Games.

Let’s look at four things that stood out about this year’s final four.

Tight Ends Matter

You don’t need a future Hall of Fame tight end like Travis Kelce to be the focal point of your offense, which is a good thing for the Bengals because that is never going to be the case as long as Ja’Marr Chase is on the roster.

But you do need difference-makers who can be enough of a threat that defenses have to honor them and still might not be able to stop them. George Kittle only had two catches for 27 yards for the 49ers on Sunday, but he’s one of the best in the league and has proven — as Cincinnati fans well know — he can take over a game when it’s needed.

 

The Bengals sold themselves on the notion that Joe Burrow can make any tight end great after watching him lead C.J. Uzomah and Hayden Hurst to career years and massive contracts in 2021 and 2022. Bargain hunting is one thing, but the dollar store approach they went with for 2023 burned them

Mark Andrews is one of the underrated great tight ends in the league, and Sam LaPorta is a future star. If you were to break down which position group had the most talent among the four teams, tight end would be right up there with edge rusher in the battle for second behind quarterback.

The Run Game Should Be More Than a Sidecar

The passing game is king and will be for the foreseeable future, but the run game can’t just be something you sprinkle in for variety or flavor.

Every year the final four teams feature elite defenses who are capable of altering, if not neutralizing, great passing attacks.

And even if a team is uber-reliant on its quarterback’s arm, at some point, it is going to need to run the ball effectively in short-yardage situations or to kill the clock and protect a lead.

Here is where this year’s final four teams ranked in rushing DVOA:

  • Ravens, first
  • 49ers, second
  • Lions, fourth
  • Chiefs, 17th

That’s a surprisingly low number for Kansas City given how effective Isiah Pacheco has been. There is not a team in the league that wouldn’t add him to its roster.

MORE: Cincinnati Bengals Depth Chart

Three of the final four weren’t in the top five in 2022, but they were in the top 10:

  • Eagles, first
  • Bengals, ninth
  • Chiefs, 10th
  • 49ers, 15th

Joe Mixon isn’t washed, but he isn’t worth the $8.9 million he’s due either.

Chase Brown showed the kind of explosion the Bengals have been looking for, and adding another hard runner like Mixon but younger would be a great way to model what the Lions have created with David Montgomery and Jahmyr Gibbs.

Fill Out the Offensive Line

The Chiefs went into the AFC Championship Game far more hampered by injuries than the Ravens, and one of the most troubling absences figured to be the All-Pro guard Joe Thuney. Not only was Thuney a veteran of five championship games (three with the Patriots, two with the Chiefs), but his presence against Baltimore’s No. 1-ranked defense and elite pass rush felt crucial.

Not so.

Nick Allegretti, who had started just four games over the last three seasons, stepped in and played terrific, especially in pass protection for Mahomes.

The Bengals have been focused on building a quality starting offensive line, and rightfully so, ever since the loss to the Los Angeles Rams in Super Bowl 56, two games after Burrow got sacked nine times in the Divisional Round win against the Tennessee Titans.

They have done a solid job of building a quality starting five, although they will need to find another starter with Jonah Williams all but gone to free agency.

The Bengals were incredibly fortunate to have all five linemen start all 17 games in 2023 after starting the same five guys for the first 15 games in 2022. But it’s not realistic to expect that again in 2024, or ever.

And when the starters began going down and the team had to start three backups in last year’s AFC Championship Game, everyone saw what Chris Jones was able to do to wreck the offense.

The plan this offseason can’t end with signing/drafting a starting right tackle. There is a shortage of backups who inspire confidence, and adding to the depth of the group is a must.

Act Like You’ve Been There Before

Fortunately for the Bengals, they have. But there still was a lesson in not diverting too far from who you are when the games mean the most.

The Ravens were in the AFC Championship Game for the first time in 11 years, and it showed.

They totally abandoned the run game and what made them the best team in the league and the conference’s No. 1 seed. It was almost as if they were trying to prove that Lamar Jackson could be “him” and carry the team to the Super Bowl solely on the strength of his arm and decision-making, neither of which were good on Sunday.

The Lions were in the NFC Championship Game for the first time in 32 years, and it showed.

It wasn’t so much their inability to handle success and protect a 17-point lead. Those things happen to even experienced teams. Just ask the Chiefs, who blew an 18-point lead to the Bengals despite playing in their fourth consecutive AFC title game.

MORE: ‘The Leader in the Clubhouse Was Right Here’ – Dan Pitcher’s Most Interesting Thoughts on Staying With Bengals

Detroit head coach Dan Campbell is getting hammered for his two fourth-down decisions in the second half. But those were the decisions that got them there, and the problem was with the execution, not the mindset.

The bigger issue was Campbell’s fourth-down decision at the end of the half, kicking a field goal on 4th-and-goal from the three-yard line while up 14. In the regular season, he goes for that. And if they had gone for it on Sunday and got it, they could have all but buried the 49ers with a 21-point lead going into halftime.

His decision to go for the field goal gave the 49ers a jolt mathematically and psychologically, seeing that he was coaching differently. And they pounced.

Zac Taylor leans toward the aggressive side himself, which is fine. Whether you’re aggressive or conservative, you got there by doing that.

If the Bengals are fortunate enough to return to a championship game, Taylor would be wise to not divert from what got them there.

As the 2023 NFL season comes to a close, the 2024 NFL Draft is on the horizon. Pro Football Network has you covered with everything from team draft needs to the Top 100 prospects available. Plus, fire up PFN’s Mock Draft Simulator to put yourself in the general manager’s seat and make all the calls!

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