The Bengals bandwagon is about to get crowded
A young, fun football team might be on the verge of taking Cincinnati by storm
You would be forgiven if you didn’t really believe in the Cincinnati Bengals coming into the 2021 season. After all, this is the franchise that hadn’t won a playoff game since the first week of 1991. You remember that glorious time, right? C & C Music Factory was shooting up the Billboard charts with “Gonna Make You Sweat.” “Cheers,” where everyone knows your name, was the top show on television. “Home Alone” ruled at the box office.
Yeah, that was a long time ago. Meanwhile, back in the present day, the Bengals were coming off a 4-11-1 season in 2020. Head coach Zac Taylor entered the year with a 6-25-1 record through his first two seasons. The club had a franchise quarterback in Joe Burrow, but he was returning from a devastating knee injury, and there were questions about whether the team had an offensive line that could protect him long enough for Burrow to realize his vast potential.
Eleven games into the 2021 season, however, and the narrative surrounding the Bengals is beginning to change. Only time will tell, but Sunday’s dominant 41-10 victory over the Steelers — the third consecutive victory over the black and gold — seemed like a real turning point, given how long that team from Pittsburgh had tortured Cincinnati football fans.
"Beating those guys three times straight is a changing of the guard," cornerback Mike Hilton — a former Steeler — said after the blowout win over Pittsburgh. "It gives us a lot of confidence, and guys are excited to see how this pans out."
If you’re looking for reasons to be excited, there are plenty and all were on display against the Steelers. Burrow was 20 for 24 for 190 yards through the air, including a 32-yard touchdown pass; he ran for another TD. Running back Joe Mixon rushed for 165 yards and two touchdowns, becoming the first player in fifteen years to score multiple TDs in four straight games. Mixon has now scored in eight consecutive games.
And what about the receiving corps? Tee Higgins had six catches for 114 yards and a touchdown. Rookie Ja’Marr Chase only had three catches, but his speed and talent have taken the league by storm. Though he’s cooled off recently (thanks to opposing defenses paying way more attention to him), earlier this season Chase became only the third player in more than half a century to have 800+ receiving yards and 8+ receiving touchdowns over their first 10 career games. (The other two: Mike Evans and Odell Beckham.)
It’s been a while since Cincinnati boasted so much young talent at the skill positions, but I was just as impressed with the defense on Sunday. As Ben Baby noted over at ESPN, three of the Bengals’ recent free-agent signings* came up with three huge turnovers to help key the win over Pittsburgh. One was a pick-six from the former Steeler Hilton, who signed with Cincinnati for 4 years, $24 million after Pittsburgh declined to bring him back. But defensive end Trey Hendrickson (4 years, $60 million) also forced a fumble, while cornerback Eli Apple nabbed an interception for the second consecutive week.
*Note to Reds: signing free agents can improve your roster.
The win almost felt like a catharsis for Cincinnati sports fans. Mo Egger’s reaction seemed to reflect what many longtime, hardcore Bengals fans were feeling:
Bengals 41 Steelers 10 was about a lot of different things, even if most of them were attached to the same theme of Cincinnati domination over its arch-nemesis. An offense that's hopefully just now starting to realize its potential. A running back playing perhaps his best game as a pro. A quarterback awash in weaponry. A defense that helped made the team's longstanding tormentor of a quarterback look helpless. An emphatic way to over the Vegas preseason win total with weeks to spare. And of course, a very big step toward an ahead-of-schedule postseason berth.
I’m getting way ahead of myself, but I’m starting to feel some serious 2010 Reds vibes here. A roster filled with exciting young players, a fan base that has been beaten down so much over the years, and a team arriving on the playoff scene perhaps a year or two ahead of schedule. Remember, among some “experts,” the Bengals were uniformly expected to finish in last place in the AFC North division.
Meanwhile, according to ESPN, the Bengals have a 62.1% chance to make the playoffs right now. Two weeks ago, that number was at 30%.
"We have higher aspirations than beating the Steelers," Burrow said after the game on Sunday. "We’re right where we want to be. We can’t let up now."
This team should only get better in the coming years. But let’s not talk about the distant future just yet. What about the rest of this season? Cincinnati has a tough schedule down the stretch, but you can’t argue with the assessment of NBC’s Peter King:
Tough schedule to finish, with the Chargers, Niners, Ravens and KC at home. I thought Burrow would be this generation’s Dan Fouts, and the Bengals have the kind of bombs-away attack that could beat anyone, home or away. You better have a healthy secondary if you want to compete with this offense in January.
I’ve already told you about the day that I first hopped onto the bandwagon (at halftime of the 1982 Super Bowl). I have a feeling that many more fans are going to jump on in the coming weeks. Hang on, this is likely to be a wild ride.
The Riverfront on YouTube!
Big changes afoot for the World’s Most Dangerous Podcast. Later this week, we are launching our YouTube channel, with at least one episode every single week devoted to the Cincinnati Reds. Be sure to subscribe for free to the channel so you don’t miss a single episode. We have some exciting things planned over the next year. Next up: a Bengals channel? Maybe?
Here’s what you can expect from the channel (including me in my FC Cincinnati cap):
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