It goes without saying that Joe Burrow and the Cincinnati Bengals can put up points. Heading into their Week 12 matchup against the Tennessee Titans, the Bengals ranked fourth in offensive efficiency and had scored at least 30 points in four of their previous five games.
However, those performances came against lackluster defenses like the Falcons, Panthers, and Steelers. Playing the Titans, who boast the NFL’s eighth-best scoring defense at 18.6 points allowed per game, was an entirely different story.
By taking down Tennessee (and essentially beating them at their own physical game), the Bengals proved they can find many different paths to victory — and that adaptability might help guide them through the AFC playoffs.
The Cincinnati Bengals Are Super Bowl Contenders
Don’t look now, but the Bengals have quietly morphed into one of the NFL’s most complete teams. After beginning the season with tough losses to the Steelers and Cowboys, Cincinnati has since gone 7-2. They’re currently tied with the Ravens for the AFC North lead, although Baltimore holds the head-to-head tiebreaker.
And it hasn’t been only one side of the ball getting it done for the Bengals. Cincinnati is one of only four teams that ranks in the top 12 in EPA per play on both offense and defense. The other three? The Bills, Cowboys, and 49ers, all of whom look like legitimate Super Bowl contenders.
On Sunday, Cincinnati was forced to play at less than full strength. While the Bengals tentatively expected Ja’Marr Chase to return from a hip injury to play against the Titans, they ultimately decided to hold him out another week. Joe Mixon also sat out after suffering a concussion against the Steelers in Week 11.
Even if Mixon had been available, there might have been better strategies than running the ball against Tennessee. Heading into Week 12, the Titans ranked first in success rate against the run and second in rush EPA.
The key members of Tennesee’s front — Jeffery Simmons, DeMarcus Walker, Teair Tart, and DeMarcus Walker — all weigh at least 280 pounds. It’s a mauling unit that plays in the mold of head coach Mike Vrabel and sets the tone for the entire roster.
And yet, the Bengals weren’t afraid to line up and pound the rock. They became just the third team to rush for more than 100 yards against the Titans and the first to do it since Week 2. Cincinnati managed a 38.1% rushing success rate — only the Giants in Week 1 and the Colts in Week 7 posted better marks against Tennessee.
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Backup running back Samaje Perine, who’s scored four touchdowns over the past two weeks, deserves a lot of credit for his effort. But so does the Bengals’ offensive line, which has found cohesion after struggling over the early portion of the campaign.
Cincinnati added four new OL starters during the offseason: rookie left guard Cordell Volson, plus veterans Ted Karras, Alex Cappa, and La’el Collins from center to right tackle. With so many new faces, it’s perhaps unsurprising that it’s taken some time for the Bengals’ front five to mesh.
That improved blocking also translated to the passing game. When these teams squared off in last year’s AFC Wild Card Round, the Titans sacked Joe Burrow nine times, tied for the highest total in NFL playoff history.
On Sunday, Burrow absorbed only one sack. He was pressured nine times — his third-fewest of the season, per PFF — and held onto the ball for an average of 2.69 seconds before throwing, the most time he’s had all year.
With a suitable pocket, Burrow was able to take targeted shots to Tee Higgins, who’s quickly proven he’s a WR1 in the absence of Chase. With the game tied at 13 early in the fourth quarter, Burrow found the 6-foot-4 Higgins in a 1-on-1 matchup with 5-foot-11 rookie cornerback Roger McCreary and didn’t hesitate for a second:
Burrow goes deep to Higgins! @Bengals take a 20-13 lead.
📺: #CINvsTEN on CBS
📱: Stream on NFL+ https://t.co/cGelCPQevg pic.twitter.com/IjoHltNZnG
— NFL (@NFL) November 27, 2022
Up 20-13 late in the fourth quarter, the Bengals executed a nearly perfect four-minute, clock-killing drive. On all six plays where the game clock was running, Cincinnati waited to snap the ball until fewer than four seconds remained on the play clock. The longest play on that drive was another strike to Higgins, where he towered over Kristian Fulton for a 29-yard gain.
Don’t Forget About the Bengals’ Defense
Cincinnati’s offensive performance against the Titans was impressive, but their defensive output was perhaps even more outstanding.
The Bengals’ run defense, gashed by the Saints, Browns, and Panthers earlier this season, held Derrick Henry to just 38 yards rushing. He’d only posted a lower total once this season, which came in Week 2’s blowout loss to the Bills. Before that, you have to go back to 2019 to find a less productive day from Henry.
The Titans came into Week 12 with the NFL’s second-best red-zone offense, scoring on 74% of their trips inside their opponents’ 20-yard line. But the Bengals held Tennessee to field goals on all three of their red-zone visits, and the Titans kicked a fourth FG on a drive that ended right at the Cincinnati 20.
The Bengals’ defense isn’t littered with All-Pros. Trey Hendrickson was the only Bengals defender to make the Pro Bowl in 2021. But Lou Anarumo’s unit is comprised of smart veterans, allowing them to perform better than the sum of their parts.
MORE: NFL Coaches on the Hot Seat After Week 12
It’s hard to overstate how vital nose tackle DJ Reader’s return has been over the past two weeks. He eats up double teams, allowing linebackers Logan Wilson and Germaine Pratt (who might be Cincinnati’s most improved defender this year) to remain clean in run fits. But Reader also created three pressures of his own in the passing game.
Slot corner Mike Hilton had one of his best games as a Bengal, especially as a run defender. Rookie CB Cam Taylor-Britt, filling in for the injured Chidobe Awuzie, forced a fumble and already looks like a more-than-competent starter. Defensive end Sam Hubbard was his typical underrated self, filling up the stat sheet with a sack, two quarterback hits, and two tackles for loss.
Cincinnati’s defense has proven it can hang with nearly any offensive opponent. And the 56-year-old Anarumo should be on head coaching candidate lists after receiving only one interview (the Giants) last offseason.
What Comes Next for the Bengals?
Following Cincinnati’s win over the Titans, FiveThirtyEight gives the Bengals a 73% chance to make the playoffs but just a 27% chance to win the AFC North. That’s primarily because Cincinnati will face a brutal schedule over the rest of the season, while the Ravens get a relatively easy slate.
Per Football Outsiders, the Bengals have the single-hardest schedule to close out 2022. After taking on the Chiefs in Week 13, Cincinnati has to play the Browns, Buccaneers, Patriots, Bills, and Ravens to end the year. Meanwhile, Baltimore faces the Broncos, Steelers, Browns, Falcons, Steelers again, and Bengals.
Given that the Ravens already beat the Bengals this year, Cincinnati faces an arduous path to the division title. They’ll likely have to make a Lombardi run as a Wild Card team, adding another layer of difficulty in an already-stacked AFC.
Luckily, Chase and Mixon should both return next week. If the Bengals can continue to tailor their game plans to their opponents while dropping in two of the best players at their respective positions, a second consecutive Super Bowl appearance begins to appear more realistic.