Well, last week was fun. Four days before Christmas, during a season of disappointment and frustration, the Bengals delivered fans the sweetest gift of all: a win over the Pittsburgh Steelers.
No one saw it coming. Not the ESPN analysts who unanimously selected Pittsburgh to win. Nor most Bengals fans. I certainly didn’t. There was only one person I know who expressed any optimism before or during the game: my mother.
“I’ve got a good feeling tonight,” she said. “It looks like the Bengals are gonna win.”
Immediately my heart sank. I grimaced, knowing the awful power those words have. Cincinnati had just taken a 17-0 lead in the second quarter, and I was starting to believe it could actually happen.
Then my mom said that, and I instantly knew it was over. I had flashbacks to 2017, when Cincinnati held a 17-0 lead but ended up losing 23-20. Or 2016, when the same thing happened.
I had seen this movie before. Eleven times in a row, actually. And I was beginning to allow myself to believe this time was different. Then my mom said that, and there was no doubt in my mind.
The ultimate jinx.
The third quarter started and Big Ben led the Steelers down and scored immediately, all but confirming what I feared.
I shot off a text to a friend. “It’s been fun. My guess: 23-20 Steelers. Gonna be a painful second half I’m afraid.”
Pessimistic? Guarded? Unwilling to be hurt? Maybe I was all three. I would call myself a guy trying not to get fooled the 12th time in a row.
But alas, things didn’t follow the usual script. Big Ben kept throwing wobbly, interceptable passes. Carl Lawson and company kept generating pressure, even sacking Roethlisberger once. The defense kept holding the Steelers, and the offense didn’t turn the ball over.
Then Ryan Finley led a drive and capped it off with a TD scamper, smiling all the way into the hearts of Cincinnati fans and cementing his place in Bengals folklore.
They finally came through. Or maybe the Steelers just didn’t. But that doesn’t matter. A five-year drought was washed away by a banged-up defense, a third-string QB, and a slew of backup running backs. All on the week of Christmas during what’s been one of the weirdest years ever. However it happened doesn’t matter; it’s just that it happened at all.
Ryan Finley is something like Santa Clause. He emerges once a year, drops off a nice little gift for fans, then retreats to the North Pole. Last year, he delivered the losses necessary to secure Joe Burrow with the top pick of the draft. This year, he beat the Steelers, something that has only happened a handful of times the past decade. And now he’s back to the bench, watching as Brandon Allen returns as the starter in Week 16.
But that’s okay; heck, if Christmas were every day, it wouldn’t be special. His work here is done, and now Cincinnati’s Santa Clause gets to kick back, feed the reindeer, run the scout team, and save up his energy for whatever his next magical move will be.
I hope you and your family had a merry Christmas and enjoyed the holiday. As we approach the new year, we’ve got more football to look forward to, so let’s get into this week of Bengals news.
Joe Burrow walks
It was truly a Merry Christmas for Bengals fans, who not only enjoyed the big win over the Steelers but were also treated to this video on Christmas Day.
Good week for the Bengals pic.twitter.com/yaph1zscod
— Joey Burrow (@JoeyB) December 25, 2020
LockedOn Bengals host Jake Liscoe shared some insight he received from a physical therapist who commented on Burrow’s recovery.
Physical therapist in my DMs, hiding their identity bc I'm not sure if they want it out there or not pic.twitter.com/oATCLBZfAq
— Jake (@Jake_NFL) December 26, 2020
Soon, #9. Soon.
JuJu Smith-Schuster announces he will stop dancing
The Bengals left quite an impression on Pittsburgh WR JuJu Smith-Schuster, who announced earlier this week that he will be ending his pregame ritual of performing a TikTok dance on the opposing team’s 50-yd line.
Steelers’ WR JuJu Smith-Schuster told reporters this today: “For the betterment of myself and my teammates, I'm going to stop dancing on the logos."
— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) December 23, 2020
If you need a reminder, here’s the play that prompted this decision:
.@Vonn knocks it out from Pittsburgh TikTok star.
WATCH on ESPN pic.twitter.com/n4BNZHcJ0J
— Cincinnati Bengals (@Bengals) December 22, 2020
Chalk that up as something I would have never dreamt I’d type a year ago.
Logan Wilson out with ankle injury
The Bengals’ rookie linebacker is out once again as he’s hampered by an ankle injury. Looks like we’ll see more of Josh Bynes, Germaine Pratt and Akeem Davis-Gaither in his place.
If you want some insight into how Davis-Gaither might be utilized, allow me to turn back to the analysis of Jake Liscoe:
Since @JoeGoodberry's tweet prompted me to go find ADG snaps from this week, looks like they're using him as a pass rusher and a MLB in Tampa 2 style coverages. Imagine they're trying to use the athleticism there.
— Jake (@Jake_NFL) December 26, 2020
Joe Mixon remains sidelined
Mixon won’t be suiting up today, which should come as a surprise to no one. He would have been dynamic today against Houston, but the wait for #28 must continue. Taylor didn’t rule Mixon out of next week’s finale, but it’s hard to see a way in which he gets back on the field this season. It’ll be a mix of Gio Bernard/Samaje Perine/Trayveon Williams yet again.
An update on Zac Taylor’s job security
Bengals color commentator Dave Lapham shared some thoughts on Zac Taylor’s job security. It certainly seems like last week’s win cooled the second-year coach’s seat quite a bit. I think Lap is right on the money with these thoughts:
“Mike Brown is going to think two things and they’re gonna be pretty early, pretty high on the list. Has he lost control of the football team? And I think based on the performance that he saw going into Pittsburgh, he’s gonna think he hasn’t really lost control of the football team. He hasn’t really heard anything internally that would suggest that he’s lost control and what’s good for Joe Burrow? Joe Burrow couldn’t have been more effusive in his praise of Zac Taylor. So if Joe Burrow is going to line up right behind right behind Zac Taylor and push and support him, that’s a big piece. A couple of boxes might be checked in Zac’s favor. I’m not saying they’re the only boxes, but I’m saying those are a couple of boxes as you’re going through the evaluation process and considering what to do, those are significant boxes.”
Alright, time to talk Week 16. Bengals/Texans talk coming just as soon as I smile…
Four things to know
1. Brandon Allen is expected to return as the starter. Despite Ryan Finley leading the Bengals to one of the franchise’s most unlikely victories in team history, Brandon Allen is going to be the starting QB versus the Texans. Put simply, Allen gives Cincinnati the best chance to win. Finley only completed seven passes last Monday, relying on his rushing ability more than anything. Allen leads a more balanced offensive attack, and Taylor has to feel more comfortable opening the whole playbook with him under center. I will be curious to see if Taylor subs in Finley to run any more zone-read looks in these last two games, as that was wildly successful versus Pittsburgh.
2. Tyler Boyd is out with a concussion. After taking a hard fall attempting to make a contested catch last Monday, Boyd was diagnosed with a concussion and has been ruled out for today’s game. It’s a big blow to the offense, as the former Pitt Panther has been one of the most reliable options on this Cincinnati team. With only one game remaining in the season after today, Boyd’s in danger of losing his two-year, 1,000-yard receiving streak. He sits with 840 on the year and could potentially miss next week if his symptoms linger.
3. Zac Taylor and company are seeking their first road victory in two seasons. The Bengals broke down one barrier last week, snapping the 11-game Steelers losing streak. Now they get to set their sights on another: getting Zac Taylor his first road victory as a head coach. It’s also their last shot for the year, as next week they finish out the season hosting the Ravens.
4. The Texans have one of the league’s worst defenses. Houston is bottom-two in total yards allowed per game (402) and rushing yards per game (150). Cincinnati has no excuse not to put points on the board this Sunday. The bigger challenge may be stopping Deshaun Watson and company, which leads us to our next talking point…
Three players to watch
1. Deshaun Watson, QB Texans
Despite the Texans’ 4-10 record, Deshaun Watson has been having a career year. The Pro Bowler’s thrown for a career-high 27 touchdowns and is on pace to throw for a career-high in yardage, despite losing DeAndre Hopkins in that fateful offseason trade. Watson never wavered; instead, he transformed Will Fuller into a WR1 (who has been suspended due to performance-enhancing drugs) and has really been the engine that churned the wheels of what would otherwise be a stagnant offense. He’s a winner who elevates his teammates, and I expect that to be clear today.
2. Giovani Bernard, RB Bengals
Bernard had a great game versus the Steelers, rattling off 83 rushing yards, one TD on the ground and one through the air. Today’s game presents a much more favorable matchup for the veteran. He had 22 attempts vs. Pittsburgh, which was possible due to the Bengals defense playing great football and helping the team mount a big lead. If Bernard gets that many chances against a much worse rush defense today, he should put up even better numbers.
3. David Johnson, RB Texans
Johnson broke out as a young player in Arizona but hasn’t really put together an impressive campaign since 2016. Injuries and benchings derailed his time in the desert, and he came to Houston as part of the Hopkins trade in March. Playing alongside the dynamic Watson has helped revitalize his career, and he’s produced his most efficient numbers since 2018. The Texans like to air it out, but this is a favorable matchup for Johnson on the ground. I could see a scenario where the Texans jump on the Bengals early and turn to the ground game to control the pace of play, which would lend itself to Johnson having a good day.
Two names to know
1. Chad Hansen, WR Texans
Hansen has stepped up in a big way since Fuller got hit with a suspension several weeks ago. He was drafted by the Jets back in 2017 and has bounced around several practice squads since, landing with Houston’s this season. He got the call-up in early December and has tallied 14 catches for 222 yards and one TD in three games, emerging as a primary target of Watson’s. I expect him to make a splash play or two today.
2. Mike Thomas, WR Bengals
Thomas hasn’t caught a pass since Week 7 versus Cleveland, but I think he could be in line for an increased workload this afternoon as Boyd’s sidelined with a concussion. The former LA Ram has shown some spark when he’s been on the field, coming in and out of breaks quickly and moving up the field well. He only has 13 receptions for 132 yards and one TD on the season, but if there were ever a game for him to make an impact beyond special teams, this is the one.
One way the Bengals can win
Deshaun Watson is an explosive player that is very capable of putting the Texans on his back and willing them down the field when it matters most. Very rarely does he get blown out. So, the best way to beat the Texans is to bring that defensive intensity and capitalize on turnovers. We saw the Bengals do that last week versus the Steelers and look how it turned out. Keeping Watson in the pocket, recording a sack or two, and refusing to let receivers get behind the secondary will be key ingredients in a Bengals win. When Watson breaks the pocket and rolls out, his receivers are great at freelancing and finding space down the field. Cincinnati can’t let that happen.
And on offense, it comes down to moving the ball and leading a balanced attack. Allen isn’t Joe Burrow. You can’t ask him to drop back 45 times a game and expect great results. Bernard and company will need to be heavily involved on the ground and capitalize on a great matchup. Lean on the run like they did last week, play tough defense and let the chips fall where they may.
The Bengals have a chance to finish out 2020 on a high note, still pick top five in the draft, and welcome a healthy Joe Burrow back in 2021. Given the current state of things, that’s about as good as it gets.
Bengals. Texans. 1 p.m. on FOX. See you there.