COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — The Cincinnati Bengals might be the most optimistic two-win team in the NFL right now.
The confidence around the Bengals certainly belies the 2-5-1 record at the halfway point of the 2020 season, a result that looks even worse stacked on top of last’s season’s dismal 2-14 finish.
But this time they’ve got Joe Burrow, who is driving an effective passing attack in his rookie season. And the team is quick to note that four of its five losses were by five points or less and easily could have gone the other way. The Bengals believe most of the pieces are in place for a successful future.
“We all know how good we are, and we all know what we’re starting to become,” said Tyler Boyd, the team’s leading receiver.
With most of the starting offensive linemen out with injuries on Nov. 1, the Bengals played their most complete game of the season in beating the AFC South-leading Tennessee Titans 31-20. The decisive victory gave Cincinnati a shot of confidence ahead of a bye last week.
“Our team has finished a game, and we hadn’t done a good enough job of that,” said second-year coach Zac Taylor. “So now they’ve seen it. There is evidence of it against a good football team. That’s what we’re going to continue to do as we move forward.”
Cincinnati had an inauspicious start to preparations for the second half. The team facility was closed Wednesday after cornerback Trae Waynes and offensive tackle Fred Johnson tested positive for COVID-19. Players were still off Monday, but the team said practice would resume Tuesday.
Burrow has had success exploiting defenses, working around pass-protection deficiencies by getting the ball out quickly and chipping away with intermediate throws. Boyd has emerged as his favorite target, but in each of the two games before the bye week the quarterback distributed passes to seven receivers.
Finishing. Before the win over the Titans, the Bengals kept letting close games slip away. In Week 1, Randy Bullock cramped up and missed a 31-yard field goal with 2 seconds left that would have tied the game with the Los Angeles Chargers. In Week 3, Cincinnati couldn’t get one more stop at the end of regulation and played to a 23-23 tie in Philadelphia. The Bengals blew a 21-point first-quarter lead and lost to the Colts by four, then gave up the go-ahead touchdown with 11 seconds left in a 37-34 shootout with the Browns.
Veteran running back Giovani Bernard has taken on extra responsibility with featured back Joe Mixon out with a foot injury the past two games. Against Cleveland, Bernard caught five passes for 59 yards and touchdown. In the Tennessee game, he rushed for 62 yards and a touchdown and caught a pass for another score. His solid pass blocking has been nearly as important with an offensive line decimated by injuries.
Sidelined with a shoulder injury for the first four games, defensive tackle Geno Atkins has been used only sparingly and hasn’t been a factor. The Bengals say they’re easing him back in after the injury; others believe the 32-year-old sack specialist is being phased out. Fellow D-line graybeard Carlos Dunlap was traded to Seattle Oct. 28 after complaining about his diminished role.
Offensive linemen Bobby Hart (knee), Trey Hopkins (concussion), Jonah Williams (neck) and Michael Jordan (illness) were sidelined for the Titans game. All are still listed as questionable for this week. G Xavier Su’a-Filo (ankle), injured in Week 1, could be close to returning. Mixon and CB Darius Phillips (groin) are questionable.
92.3% — The Bengals’ success rate on fourth down (12 for 13).
Cincinnati is going to need some ailing players healthy before facing its toughest test of the season Sunday on the road against the Pittsburgh Steelers (8-0). The Bengals have to play AFC North rivals Pittsburgh (Dec. 21) and Baltimore (Jan. 3) again, but the remaining opponents are less formidable.
“We have a chance to rattle off a lot of wins here at the end of the season,” Burrow said. “It starts in Pittsburgh, and that’s going to be a big game.”
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