The Bengals are one of the hottest teams in the NFL. Will it matter against the Ravens?

If history is any guide, one of the three NFL teams streaking into the playoffs will lose this weekend.
Published: Jan. 13, 2023 at 8:23 PM EST
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[Full Bengals coverage]

CINCINNATI (WXIX) - Joe Burrow walked into the tunnel at FirstEnergy Stadium with a bowed head and slumped shoulders on Halloween night. A bruised and beaten Bengals team surrounded him, having just gotten run off the field by the Cleveland Browns on national television.

The Bengals offense didn’t look competent, let alone explosive, and the run defense proved sieve-like. It was a romp, through and through. Cincinnati left Cleveland at a crossroads.

That was the last time the Bengals lost a football game in 2022. Now 12-4 and on a franchise-best eight-game winning streak, they’re one of the hottest teams coming into the playoffs.

Head coach Zac Taylor draws confidence from the team’s late-season run.

“Every single week has been a playoff game,” he said Friday. “Every single week we’ve had to win in order to put us in the best position. So, just because the stakes might be a little bit higher doesn’t mean we need to change anything we’ve been doing.”

But the Bengals aren’t the only ones streaking. The Buffalo Bills are riding a seven-game winning streak of their own. The San Francisco 49ers, the betting favorite to win the Super Bowl, are unbeaten in 10 games.

And that’s a first, according to Paul Dehner Jr. of The Athletic.

Since 1966, when the modern NFL was formed, never have three teams entered the playoffs with winning streaks of at least seven games.

Since 2000, 16 teams have entered the playoffs on such a winning streak. Seven of those teams didn’t win a single playoff game.

Former Bengals offensive lineman Andrew Whitworth says momentum, seeding and home-field advantage are overrated in the post-season. It’s all about what happens during those three hours of game time on Sunday.

Whitworth spoke on the Cincy Jungle podcast: “I think it really comes down to what team has the ability to ignore all the noise, regardless if you’re home or away... the ability to ignore the bigness of the game, to ignore whether there’s going to be a big crowd, whether there’s going to be moments of adversity, moments where you don’t think you’re going to win... Just ignore all that and play your best football for 60 minutes, with everything you’ve got, with no hesitation. Relentless. Never second-guessing yourself. Just play.”

Bettors think the Bengals are that team. In fact, according to the oddsmakers, the more likely outcome is that the Bengals do to the Ravens on Sunday night what the Browns did to the Bengals on Halloween.

But Baltimore is no slouch, even without Lamar Jackson. The Ravens’ defense is fast and multiple. It can play with deep safeties while competently covering the middle of the field, forcing Burrow to show the passing precision he uncharacteristically lacked last week.

The danger is the Ravens condense the game and limit Bengals possessions by grinding out first downs with a run-heavy offense. If Burrow and the receivers can’t capitalize on the few chances they get, the game could turn on one mistake.

Maybe it’s a costly interception where a Ravens safety drops into robber coverage and Burrow doesn’t see him. Maybe it’s a strip sack after the Ravens bring pressure on the suddenly questionable right side of the Bengals’ offensive line. Maybe it’s a missed kick from Evan McPherson in the first quarter that comes back to bite the Bengals in the fourth.

Or maybe (don’t laugh) it’s a perfect pass in the game’s dwindling moments from whomever the Ravens trot out at quarterback.

Cincinnati might have the more talented team, but Baltimore is capable of turning any game into a coin flip.

Even in that sort of game, though, the Bengals might have the edge.

“They always find a way to shut the door and win games,” said former Bengals offensive lineman Anthony Munoz. “It’s a confidence in themselves and each other. And I think that gives the fans confidence.”

Taylor claimed this Cincinnati team has the highest overall football IQ of any team he’s been around, allowing the sort of quick and subtle adjustments that can make all the difference when the outcome is in doubt.

“It’s a very smart team,” he said. “They’ve just repped this stuff so many times over the years now to where it all makes sense to them, so you can make the subtle adjustments in-game or out-of-game, where it’s easy, where there’s no stress that someone is not going to understand it or do it.”

Former Bengals quarterback Ken Anderson credited the coaching staff for putting the players in the best positions.

“We have a bunch of smart players,” he said Friday. “When you talk to defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo, he can do a lot of things, because the players can handle it. They’ve got a lot in their playbook, and the coaches adjust well.”

For Anderson, it goes back to Taylor’s singular focus on the culture of his locker room.

“He’s got the guys in the locker room he wants,” Anderson said. “He’s got a lot of leaders. They look for guys that were team captains, that really love football, and this team understands the process that you have to go through to be successful. And they’re willing to pay the price to do it.”

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