You can’t really call them “Must Games”, but pretty close.
Maybe the back-to-the-wall games and the Bengals of the last two seasons have been great in this one. Call them 7-1 (2-0 this year) and it looks like one of those games Monday night (8:15-Cincinnati’s Channel 9 and ESPN) in Cleveland.
Forget prime time. It’s crunch time and the Bengals have Cap’n Crunch in Joe Lee Burrow.
“Absolutely,” says Bengals slot cornerback Mike Hilton, a member of three AFC North champions after Cincinnati prevailed last season. “It’s time to get our first win in the AFC North. It’s the time when teams start to separate and pull away from the pack for the playoff push. We like where we are, but we still have lots of things to do.”
How to avoid going 0-3 in the division. The Bengals have won the AFC North five times in the last 17 seasons, but only once did they go 3-3, when their 11-5 record in 2013 was three games better than the .500 Ravens and Steelers.
It doesn’t look like anyone is getting away with it, as the Bengals look for a win over the Browns to tie for first in the North with Baltimore at 5-3. For now, Cincy is one game away from the playoffs with that 0-2 and 2-2 AFC division record holding them back in tiebreakers. But Monday night is the kind of game they’ve won in the Burrow era.
Last year they went to Las Vegas out of the bye and all 5-4, beat the Raiders. Then, after losing back-to-back games at Paycor Stadium to open December, they absolutely had to win in Denver and they did. Then, in the final four games of Wall Ball, they went 3-1 in the playoffs.
This season, they came back from the brink of 0-2 with a meaningful win in New York over the Jets. Just a few weeks ago they got back to .500 at 2-4 with a win in New Orleans.
The common thread has been road wins with defense at the center. Paycor’s only win in the Wall category was Germaine Pratt’s Wild Card. Even the one loss, in the Super Bowl at SoFi, was a defensive masterpiece.
“It’s still early in the season. ‘Should,’ it’s just a word we throw around, but in the NFL we have to win every game,” cornerback Chidobe Awuzie said. “In our heads, we want to win every game. Every game is that kind of urgency. Obviously, this game has more lights, more things building to it. At the end of the day, it’s just another game. It doesn’t change anything.”
Here is another common denominator. Burrow turns off when the lights are on. In those eight Wall Ball games, he has thrown 13 touchdowns with two interceptions for a 103.7 passer rating with a 69 percent completion rate. In those four regular-season Wall Games, he has eight touchdowns and no picks.
“I think it has everything to do with the character of the guys in the locker room, guys who care, they care,” Burrow says of the Wall Ball Games. “And you guys are good players too. Those qualities are what make great teams. I think we’ve got a great team, we’re going to keep coming out and showing that. This is a big one. We’ve got to get our first division win on the road “.
They’ve also won them anyway. In Las Vegas and Denver, Burrow didn’t throw for more than 157 yards or attempt 30 passes as the defense allowed just a combined 23 points to protect fourth-quarter leads. Two weeks ago in New Orleans, he carried it 37 times for 300 yards and pulled it off with two minutes remaining with a 60-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase.
And in the playoffs there were those back-to-back Evan McPherson field goals on the road.
“There are two types of teams,” Awuzie said. “One, when their backs are against the wall, they fight. They get better. And the other team is when you put your backs against the wall, they crumble. One is a runner and one of them is a dog. We know that. That Cleveland is a dog. They’re in the AFC North and they’re going to fight. We’ve got to be ready for a fight and that’s what we know each other for, too.”
The Bengals haven’t beaten Cleveland since 2017, when Andy Dalton beat DeShone Kizer on two touchdown passes to tight end Tyler Kroft. No defensive players on the active roster were now part of this game.
“It’s confidence,” Hilton says of the Wall Games. “Trust in each other. Trust in the coaches. And just the belief that we’re the best team on the field. (Going 0-3 in the division) would definitely be tough. Hopefully we can get that first one and get the our AFC train going. We know we’re going to see some of those guys again and we’re going to be ready.”
Of course, every guy prepares in his own way.
“I don’t even know how many games we’ve won in a row,” Awuzie said. “I don’t even know our record. I just know we’re winning and we’ve got another game to win.”
Monday night would be their third straight win and make it the second year in a row that they entered November with five wins. In the previous 17 seasons, they’ve done it seven times and made the playoffs in six of those years.
“I think they know how important these divisional games are, and they’re going to get guys that we can rely on, which we do,” Bengals head coach Zac Taylor said. “But they know more than those big moments, when you’re up against good teams, we need our playmakers to step up and step up and they always do. And this week is no different. I think those guys like it play. prime time and they’ll be ready.”
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