By the time Zac Taylor boarded for the short flight back to Cincinnati, the Bengals coach had cooled off a bit. The edge he carried in the immediacy of postgame, over the potential coin tosses and neutral sites catering to other teams but not his, and the way the group of players he’s proud of has been regarded, has dissipated a bit.
What hadn’t, though—and won’t—was the basis for all of it.
“I mean, we’ve got a great team,” Taylor told me. “And it really doesn’t matter how people view us or what they think of us or if we’re underdogs. None of that. We know we belong in these games we’re playing in, and we’ve got confidence in each other, and that’s the only thing we care about right now.”
For obvious reasons, it was easy for anyone in the Bengals’ organization to ask, once and for all, Where’s our respect? The truth is, as Taylor said while the team loaded up to go back to Ohio, they didn’t really need to seek that validation from anyone else anymore. These Bengals know who, and what, they are. And if what happened Sunday doesn’t show you, well, then you may never know.
The Bengals’ methodical, systematic, 27–10 takedown of the Bills in Western New York was really just the latest example of what Cincinnati has become. It follows three straight wins over the mighty Chiefs. It follows consecutive AFC North titles. It follows last year’s trip to the Super Bowl.
If anything, these statements are only getting louder and more emphatic, and this one was plenty of both. At the half, the Bengals had doubled up the powerhouse Bills in yards (274–135), first downs (18–8) and, most importantly, points (17–7). Buffalo trailed by two or more possessions for every one of their second-half drives. And the Bengals did all this in the Bills’ house, and in the kind of inclement conditions that have made other visitors melt.
The night before the game, at the team hotel, Taylor mentioned to his players that Buffalo’s home playoff record was 13–1, best in the league. The idea was, as usual, to drive home the point because the bigger the challenge, the better his team would be—and that they, not the Bills, were going to be the toughest team to play in that stadium Sunday. Sure enough, when he brought it back up postgame, a player yelled at him from deep in the locker room: “Thirteen-and-two!”
It was his team’s way of saying that there was a juggernaut at Highmark Stadium, and it wasn’t the Bills, whether or not anyone else wanted to recognize that.
“I think they just laugh at it now,” said Taylor, of his players’ feelings on the continued skepticism. “We just won the AFC championship last year, we’ve won 10 games in a row right now. We’re here. Whatever you want to make of it doesn’t matter to us.”
I’m back, and we’re back for divisional playoff weekend! Inside the column this week, we’ve got a lot to get to, including …
• A look at the Eagles and Chiefs after their wins on Saturday.
• A dive into the Niners’ defense after their big win Sunday, a look at the new Titans’ GM-coach partnership, and a ton of coaching stuff in the Takeaways.
• An early mini mock, and an examination of the number of early entrants into this year’s draft in Six From Saturday.
• A look at why the NFL is interested in the potential for neutral-site conference title games.
But we’re starting with a Bengals team that, yup, it’s past time we regard as a powerhouse.
The nuts-and-bolts of the Bengals’ deconstruction of the Bills on Sunday will tell you a lot about who Cincinnati has become, both in specific and broad ways.
On the matter of the former, the offense’s first possession, a hot-knife-through-butter, six-play, 79-yard drive (the Bengals had to convert no first downs and were in second down just twice), was capped with a 28-yard touchdown strike from Joe Burrow to Ja’Marr Chase. It said everything about how the front office and coaching staff have tried to build, melding together football-smart guys—the play demanded the two see the game the same way, on the fly. When things broke down, Chase and Burrow were, as they always are, on the same page.
“We had to check to a play versus a pressure, Ja’Marr ran the initial route, Joe broke contain and Ja’Marr got in phase with him,” Taylor said. “He’d run a slant route, and when he saw Joe move, he immediately moved in phase down the field. And there was kind of a dead spot in the zone there—they were playing a single-high look, and there was no one back there with him. He just caught it, split two and scored.”
The defense then forced a three-and-out, and the offense came out firing again, this time covering 72 yards in 10 plays, with a second touchdown showing another quality of the team and staff in Cincinnati: their ability to adapt and adjust.
It was last week that Taylor and a number of coaches were watching the Giants-Vikings playoff game, the day before Cincinnati’s game with Baltimore, when Minnesota converted a fourth-and-2 with a play that used Justin Jefferson to draw coverage underneath and slipped tight end T.J. Hockenson out behind him for an 18-yard gain.
Taylor and the offensive staff figured they could use Chase and Hayden Hurst similarly. And after repping it during the week, Taylor decided to pull it on third-and-7 from the Bills’ 15 with 3:51 left in the first quarter.
“We stole it. We stole it from Minnesota,” Taylor conceded. “They ran a fourth-down play on the right side for a conversion to one of their tight ends. We all were watching that game on TV. We saw it. [Quarterbacks coach] Dan Pitcher helps coordinate on third downs, and he opened with it in the plan. Add a little bit of sauce on top of it with the fake jailbreak signal, and everybody did a great job sealing it and selling it. And Hayden was wide open. So a little bit of credit to Kevin O’Connell and his staff. We’re not afraid to steal good plays.”
That made it 14–0, and the Bengals never looked back. But there were a few other things they showed. One big one was in how they’d close out the Bills.
After forcing a turnover on downs with 7:23 left, the Bengals got the ball back on their own 16, still holding a comfortable, but not completely safe, 27–10 lead. From there, Samaje Perine ran for 2 and 11 yards, Mixon ran for 1, 7 and 3, Perine ran for another 4, 3 and 2, and by the time it was over, Cincinnati had churned out a couple of first downs, chewed nearly five minutes off the clock and forced the Bills to burn their last two timeouts.
“That’s just our guys up front taking over,” Taylor said. “And our running backs just going downhill and getting extra yards with their legs. That’s all it was. The linemen, tight ends and running backs just kind of putting that point of the game on their backs and trying to close it out. We’ve done that a couple times. We’ve had some six- or seven-minute drives to close out games in four-minute mode. And that’s what they were trying to do there.”
It for sure worked and showed that just as this loaded team could open with smarts and ingenuity on its first two touchdowns, it could shut the door on an opponent with grit and toughness and an old-school edge. That’s one of the broader areas where the Bengals took command.
As of Sunday night, the Bengals had fielded just one head coaching request for one of Taylor’s staff members (offensive coordinator Brian Callahan interviewed with the Colts)—an incredibly small number considering that, for the most part, the entire group Taylor put together has been on board for all four years of the build to this point.
Taylor, to be sure, isn’t pleased about it. On the lack of calls coming in on defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo, in particular, Taylor says, “That part doesn’t make any sense to me.”
On the flip side, the reality is that he’s benefiting from it, with Sunday’s game providing an illuminating window into the job that Taylor’s coaches have done, and continue to do, in bringing the program to where it is right now.
On defense, Anarumo committed to a plan to take Stefon Diggs away from Josh Allen with double teams, and for the defense to play its game elsewhere—mixing coverages and rush packages to try and throw Allen off and get home on him more often. It’s fair to say that worked. The Bills had more three-and-outs (three) than scoring drives (two), and Allen posted his second-worst passer rating (68.1) of the season.
“Lou’s another guy we’re just lucky to have,” Taylor said. “He’s been a tremendous resource for me. Just for us to be able to have honest conversations where he can help me and I can help him. We’ve grown together, and he’s an incredible defensive coordinator. He’s got these guys playing at a high level, and they believe in everything that he asked them to do.”
On offense, the passing game, for the most part, was what it had been. The Bengals were ready for inclement weather, having practiced in 27-mph winds and some rain at their own stadium Thursday. Facing snow with minimal wind didn’t faze anyone much.
On that end, Taylor just had Callahan do his job. “I think all the coaches and players know how critical his role is, and what he does for me. I got the head coaching stuff I have to deal with over the course of the week, and Brian just keeps the whole thing on course, catches me up, and he’s the guy I’m talking to the most during the game to make sure how I’m seeing it is the right way.”
But doing that in the run game this week was a little more complicated. Starters Jonah Williams, La’El Collins and Alex Cappa were out up front, replaced by Jackson Carman, Hakeem Adeniji, and Max Scharping. Offensive line coach Frank Pollack was charged with managing all that movement and putting in an adjustment that, he thought, could exploit the Bills’ rules—using their reaction to motion to get defensive backs at the point of attack on certain run calls.
Long story short, it worked, and it helped to key a 172-yard effort on the ground (Joe Mixon finished with 105 yards on 20 carries). And it happened not just because the game plan wound up working, but because Pollack had a crew that, while laced with backups, was ready to execute it.
“The impression he’s made on me the last two years here, he just does a great job,” Taylor said. “He works his tail off to get ready for these games, tirelessly, to make sure that we’re in a good position in the run game. But not only that, to know all these guys, he’s pushed every lineman on our roster to keep working in January and in December, even if you’re not playing. And sometimes I’m sure he drove Trey Hendrickson and Sam Hubbard crazy, because our scout team guys are working to get better. But it’s for moments like this.”
It’s also a result of sticking with developing guys like Adeniji and Carman, who are now in their third and second years, respectively. Both were part of last year’s maligned line and were effectively replaced in the offseason. But Pollack kept working with them and pushing them, and that left each guy prepared for the next chance they got it.
Which is just another sign of how far this whole operation has come. Last year, they couldn’t put five good linemen together. This year, while it’s not perfect, they’re better off. Really, the whole team is.
All of it is why Sunday wound up standing, in Taylor’s mind, as a program win, the kind after which a head coach doesn’t have enough gameballs to give out.
“It was all three phases complimenting each other, all the way down to Drue Chrisman hitting a great punt to the 10-yard line, where they couldn’t get a return,” Taylor said. “It was awesome to see as a head coach because guys were picking each other up. The offense went up 14–0 with the two scores. The defense was, they were the ones on the field patting us on the back. And they were going three-and-out. So it’s just awesome, the team performance, awesome complimentary performances. I’m really proud of the guys.”
And he’s especially proud of the tone-setter, and catalyst, of all of this.
A couple of weeks ago, some jaws dropped when Burrow said that the Bengals’ title window would stay open as long as he’s playing. Yet those who work with and around him weren’t surprised in the least. The Bengals are proving who they are, and it’s what Burrow has always been.
“It’s critical,” said Taylor. “And the guy’s won championships. He’s played in championships at every level he’s been at. The team knows that, so they know that when those moments are big, he’s at his calmest. And you gotta have that in your quarterback. And I can talk about every guy on our team that, they all got championship mentalities—Mike Hilton, D.J. Reader, all these guys. But you gotta have that from your quarterback if you want to do special things. And fortunately, we’ve got that from our guy.”
Clearly, they’ve got it from the head coach and seemingly everyone else now, too. Even still, there’s a chance they’ll be an underdog again next week in Kansas City.
“Who cares? It doesn’t matter to me,” said Taylor. “At this point, this team, we know we belong on any stage. We’ll be ready for it.”
For some, it’s still hard to conceptualize that—the Bengals as a superpower. But don’t worry. If Taylor, Burrow & Co. have their way, everyone will have a little time to catch up on that.