The Cincinnati Bengals almost won a Super Bowl two seasons ago. A questionable defensive holding call helped ruin that.
Last postseason, the Bengals lost the AFC championship game to the Kansas City Chiefs on the final play. For a second time in two seasons, the Bengals seemed to be a break or two away from a title.
When a team gets that close, we all expect it to eventually take the next step and win a championship or two. That might have happened to Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls, but it’s rare. Usually, those teams catch a couple bad breaks, the rest of the league catches and passes them and that championship window slams shut.
The championship window hasn’t closed for Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow — he said that window is his whole career, and he might not be wrong — but Thursday night showed how fragile everything is in the NFL. Burrow threw a touchdown pass to take a lead against the Baltimore Ravens, but at the end of the pass he grabbed his wrist in pain. He didn’t return and the Bengals will hope that it’s not the type of injury that keeps him out and completely crushes their season. Jake Browning, who was undrafted in 2019 and threw his only NFL regular-season pass in Week 1 of this season, took over. Browning had trouble moving the offense, and Baltimore cruised to a 34-20 win.
After the game, Bengals head coach Zac Taylor told the media it “looked like” Burrow sprained his wrist but offered no updates on the severity of the injury and if his quarterback might miss anytime.
Even if Burrow is fine and returns this season, the loss put Cincinnati in a bad place in the AFC North. A lot needs to go right to win a championship, and the Bengals have to wonder where this season’s hex came from.
Ravens well ahead of the Bengals
The Bengals are 2 1/2 games behind the Ravens and as a result of a season sweep, lose the head-to-head tiebreaker to Baltimore. The Ravens are 8-3 and the Bengals fell to 5-5.
Even if the Bengals are great from here on out, they need to be four wins better than the Ravens the rest of the season to pass them in the division. And the battle for AFC wild-card spots will be fierce. It will be hard for the Bengals to make the playoffs with Burrow and it seems very unlikely with Browning.
Part of the Bengals’ problem is they’re chasing a very good team at the top of their division. The Ravens had a disappointing loss on Sunday to the Cleveland Browns, but they looked like the best team in football before that and looked really good Thursday night, too. Baltimore QB Lamar Jackson was excellent, with 264 passing yards and two touchdowns. He’ll get back in the MVP discussion after Thursday night. The Ravens had 21 points at halftime on a good Bengals defense and the Ravens’ win was never in doubt in the second half.
More than anything, this week the Ravens saw the Browns lose Deshaun Watson to a season-ending shoulder injury and the Bengals perhaps lose Burrow, too. Nobody roots for injuries but those two might clear the way for the Ravens to cruise to a division title.
Ravens inch closer to division title
The Ravens had their own injury issues. Tight end Mark Andrews was knocked out of the game due to an ankle injury suffered on a hip-drop tackle on Baltimore’s first drive. Head coach John Harbaugh said postgame “it looks like a season-ending injury.”
Later in the first quarter, Jackson hurt his ankle on a tackle, though he didn’t miss any plays. Then, in the second half, Odell Beckham Jr. left with a shoulder injury after passing 100 receiving yards on the night.
Jackson played pretty well despite the injury. He limped a bit after getting his leg caught in the turf in the third quarter, but otherwise you wouldn’t have known Jackson was anything but his normal self.
The teams don’t meet again this season and they’re seemingly on different paths. The Ravens don’t have the division clinched because the Pittsburgh Steelers (6-3) keep finding ways to win, the Browns (6-3) have a fantastic defense that might overcome a scary quarterback situation and nobody knows what’s next with the Bengals. But if the Ravens don’t win the AFC North after what has gone down this week, it will be a surprise.
Cincinnati can only dream of being in that kind of position. The Bengals’ best-case scenario for the rest of the season is chasing a wild-card spot with a quarterback who has already suffered two big injuries this season. The worst-case scenario is doing it with a backup who bounced around the league for more than four seasons before finally attempting one NFL pass. Maybe Browning is the next Brock Purdy, but it’s hard to bank on that.
Cincinnati might have had its championship dreams end Thursday night, regardless of what the news is on Burrow’s wrist.