Looks like the Bengals are again the team to beat in the AFC North
Coming into the 2023 regular season, it was safe to say that the Bengals, two-time champions of the AFC North, were the favorites to win the division again.
Also, after narrowly losing the Super Bowl and the AFC Championship game following the 2021 and 2022 seasons, Cincinnati was one of the frontrunners to at least contend for the ultimate prize again in 2023.
Then, training camp started and star quarterback Joe Burrow suffered a severe calf injury. Just how bad was Burrow’s injury? So bad that Ja’Marr Chase, his favorite receiver going back to their days together at LSU, reportedly told Burrow to rest and heal until around Week 5 of the regular season.
Burrow didn’t do much during the remainder of training camp and the preseason, but he did start Week 1 vs. the Browns in Cleveland. Unfortunately, he only completed 14 of 31 passes for a lousy 82 yards in a 24-3 beatdown.
Next up, was a 27-24 loss to the Ravens at home.
Speaking of Paycor Stadium, one week after squeaking out their first victory over the Rams–a 19-16 result that couldn’t have been all that exciting for the home folks–the Bengals suffered their second road shellacking, a 27-3 loss to the Titans at Nissan Stadium.
Cincinnati was 1-3. Furthermore, Cincinnati’s high-powered offense had been held out of the end zone in two of its four games. Furthermore, Burrow looked horrible over the first month of the season, throwing just two touchdown passes to go along with two interceptions.
What was the solution? How about a little NFC West therapy?
The Bengals traveled to State Farm Stadium to knock off the hapless Cardinals, 34-20. One week later, Cincinnati survived a game Seahawks team, 17-13, at Paycor Stadium.
But the true test would come after the bye. That’s right, the Bengals traveled to Levi’s Stadium to take on the San Francisco 49ers last Sunday. Yes, the 49ers were scuffling a bit after suffering two losses in a row, but surely they would bounce back against Cincinnati, right?
The Bengals picked Sunday, October 29, to show the football world that they were back. Hyperbole? You tell me. After all, Burrow completed 28 of 32 passes for 283 yards and three touchdowns in a 31-17 road victory.
Cincinnati pretty much controlled the action from beginning to end. Running back Joe Mixon had 87 yards and a touchdown on 16 carries. Chase had 10 receptions for 100 yards and a touchdown. Tee Higgins, who had been dealing with injury issues earlier in the year, had five catches for 69 yards. Tyler Boyd added three receptions for 40 yards and a score.
The Bengals’ defense may have allowed 465 yards, but it forced three turnovers and sacked quarterback Brock Purdy twice.
The Bengals sure look back to me. Of course, there’s the matter of their playoff positioning, which is to say they don’t currently have one; if the postseason started today, Cincinnati would not be involved. Further compounding the Bengals’ problem is their record in the AFC North–0-2–as well as their record against the AFC–0-3. In fact, all of Cincinnati’s wins have come against the NFC West, which isn’t going to do any good come playoff tiebreaker time.
Even at 4-3, the Bengals are in last place in the AFC North, 2.5 games behind a 6-2 Baltimore squad that already defeated them on the road in Week 2.
Fortunately, there’s still time. The Bengals have four games remaining within the division–including two vs. Pittsburgh. They have nine left against AFC teams–including a home date this week vs. the Bills on Sunday Night Football.
The Bengals have done really well against Buffalo in recent years. The Bengals have also held their own against Kansas City, who they travel to Arrowhead to play on December 31.
The Bengals may be hitting their stride at just the right time.
Burrow has thrown eight touchdown passes with only two interceptions during Cincinnati’s three-game winning streak. Chase is on pace for 145 catches and nearly 1,600 receiving yards.
Lamar Jackson is great, but the Bengals have the best offensive arsenal in the AFC North.
The Bengals know how to rebound from sluggish starts. They were 7-6 in 2021 before rallying to win the division and almost the Super Bowl.
Cincinnati was 0-2 and 4-4 in 2022 before turning things around.
Yes, the Ravens look good, but they have a recent history of fading in the second half of the season. Cincinnati has a recent history of doing just the opposite.
I’m betting both teams follow familiar paths over the second half of the 2023 campaign.
The Bengals are not only back, but they’re the team to beat in the AFC North.
Maybe even the AFC.