Let’s talk about the Bengals. Yes, the Bengals — you know, the team that’s 5-2 and sitting atop the AFC. They made the loudest statement of Week 7 on Sunday with an unexpected 41-17 thrashing of the Ravens in Baltimore, as the offense rolled up a season-high 520 yards and five touchdowns and the defense sacked Lamar Jackson a career-high five times.
On a Sunday in which nine of the 11 games were decided by double-digit margins, including six blowouts by at least three touchdowns, Cincinnati’s lopsided victory at M&T Bank Stadium was the most surprising and most resounding. And in a conference that’s wide open due to the ongoing free fall of the Chiefs (who once again floundered badly in defeat, this time against the Titans in Tennessee), who’s to say the Bengals couldn’t proceed to cement themselves in a new AFC hierarchy.
Certainly, Zac Taylor, the Bengals’ 38-year-old head coach, knows what it takes to build a contender from scratch, having witnessed the development of Sean McVay’s Rams as his assistant receivers coach (2017) and then quarterbacks coach (2018). The process requires patience, hard work and, most of all, top-tier talent. Taylor says his Bengals made strides well before Sunday’s big win in Baltimore.
“Everything we’ve talked about, we’ve earned,” Taylor told reporters afterward. “We’re starting to earn respect.”
The Bengals have playmakers that defenses must take seriously. The historic start of rookie Ja’Marr Chase has put to rest all the offseason and preseason handwringing over whether he was the right choice at No. 5 in the 2021 NFL Draft. The spectacularly talented wideout joined a receiving corps that already featured Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd, both former second-round picks, and veteran tight end C.J Uzomah, who’s already scored a career-best five touchdowns (including two on Sunday).
But the Bengals are where they are because of quarterback Joe Burrow, the 2020 No. 1 selection who had his rookie season limited to 10 games due to a knee injury. The 24-year-old prides himself on learning from new challenges and “playing much better the second time,” and he has taken a significant leap forward in his sophomore season, with his passer rating jumping nearly 20 points to 108.9. Only Seattle’s Russell Wilson (9.6 yards per attempt) pushes the ball down the field more than Burrow (9.2).
Burrow's 416 yards (on 23-of- 38 passing) against the Ravens on Sunday set a new career best.
“There were a couple of plays today where I feel more confident throwing the ball outside the numbers to the field, and there were multiple times today where last year maybe I got it there last year, maybe I didn’t,” Burrow said. “But I feel like I got some extra juice this year that allows me to make those kind of throws.”
“Obviously, last year wasn’t very fun,” added Burrow of the Bengals’ 4-11-1 record in 2020. “Today was a lot of fun.”
Not to be ignored is the Cincinnati defense, which has 19 sacks, two more than all of last season. Just three years ago, the unit ranked last in total yards allowed and was 29th in 2019 and 26th in 2020. This year, the defense ranks in the top 10.
Perhaps Mahomes returns to immortal status and the Chiefs reestablish themselves as the AFC's team to beat. Maybe Josh Allen and the Bills fulfill their Super Bowl promise, or Jackson’s dynamism elevates the Ravens above the competition. But for now, the Bengals lead the conference, and they're getting better each week behind a quarterback whose confidence is growing.
“I feel like I’m getting better every week. I’m going to have to if we want to go where we want to go,” Burrow said. “The goal this year wasn’t to go 5-2. We have bigger aspirations than that.”
“We can’t let this win carry over and then guys start getting fat and happy. That’s not what good teams do,” Taylor forewarned. “And so we’re going to make sure we handle this victory the right way.”
Best offensive performance
Kyle Pitts and his fellow tight ends. Did play callers around the NFL save their best TE plays for National Tight Ends Day? It sure seemed like it. Eight tight ends found the end zone on Sunday.
The best performance belonged to Pitts, the Falcons rookie tight end who’s showing why he was the fourth overall pick of the 2021 draft. The 6-foot-6, 245-pound Pitts caught seven passes for a career-high 163 yards, and he displayed his concentration and athleticism on the most nonchalant of one-handed catches in Atlanta’s 30-28 win over Miami.
Best defensive performance
Giants defense. Sam Darnold returned to MetLife Stadium and, while he didn't admit to seeing ghosts, the former Jets and current Panthers quarterback saw plenty of blue jerseys swirling about him during the Giants' 25-3 mauling of Carolina. Darnold was sacked three times, as the Panthers (still without Christian McCaffrey) were limited to just 173 yards of offense. Linebacker Azeez Ojulari had 2 1/2 sacks, four QB hits and three tackles for loss.
Best special teams performance
Dave Fipp, Lions. Fipp is Detroit’s special teams coordinator, and with the Lions winless and 16.5-point underdogs against the Rams, some risk tasking was necessary at SoFi Stadium. The gambling took place early with a successful onside kick that allowed Detroit to add a field goal for a 10-0 first-quarter lead. The Lions then rolled the dice twice with fake punts, one in the first quarter and another in the third. Surprisingly, both of them worked.
Detroit lost 28-19 to fall to 0-7, but film review should be fun this week for Fipp and his group. Not so much for Rams special teams coach Joe DeCamillis.
There’s only one stat to single out from Sunday: 600th career touchdown pass. That milestone was reached by Tom Brady in the Buccaneers’ 38-3 stomping of the Bears. The 44-year-old finished with four TDs on Sunday to give him 602 for his career.
Derrick Henry throws touchdown passes, too.
Tua Tagovailoa nearly jukes Deion Jones out of his shoes.
Marquise “Hollywood” Brown submits his entry for Catch of the Year.
Daniel Jones makes the one-handed grab and takes the hit.
The ball somehow ends up in Xavien Howard’s hands for the interception.
Van Jefferson elevates and then hangs in the air to pull down the TD.
Kyler Murray makes something out of nothing — again.
Fly Jalen Reagor fly: The Eagles receiver takes flight to snag this TD pass.