The Cincinnati Bengals played to their strengths on Sunday evening as they pulled off one of the more impressive results of this 2021 season, coming from behind to beat the Kansas City Chiefs 34-31.
Joe Mixon is a fine running back and a key player who has over 1,500 scrimmage yards and 16 touchdowns on the year, but Week 17 was not about him. When push came to shove, the Bengals needed to score fast to keep pace with the Patrick Mahomes-led Chiefs.
So, this became another historic day for Joe Burrow. Hot on the heels of his 525-yard passing day from Week 16, the Bengals' outstanding second-year quarterback hit on 30 of 39 passes for 446 yards and four touchdowns.
Not surprisingly given their college connection at LSU, Burrow turned to Ja'Marr Chase time and again. And his rookie teammate is back in the very best of form after a mini mid-season slump. Chase got on the end of 11 Burrow passes for 266 yards and three touchdowns.
To me, the most special of those three scores was Chase's 72-yard catch and run that put Cincinnati's first points on the board. It was a relatively simple slant pattern, but Chase just turned on the jets and raced away from NFL defenders who were made to look like high school kids taking on a superstar.
That touchdown gave the Bengals the belief that they could hang with the Chiefs and it served as a clear signal of intent. Cincinnati was going toe to toe with Kansas City and they were going to do it through the air.
Burrow has now thrown for 971 yards in the past two games, the second-most in a two-week span in NFL history (Dak Prescott threw for 974 yards in two games in 2020). Chase's 266 yards was a rookie record and he also became the most prolific rookie receiver in the Super Bowl era, moving to 1,429 yards with one game to spare as he went past Justin Jefferson's 2020 total of 1,400 yards.
But this game was about way more than records. This game became about the spirit and belief the Bengals showed and had in each other. They grew in confidence as they overcame 14-point deficits on three occasions. And that confidence rippled through to head coach Zac Taylor, who went for the win from the goal line on fourth down with less than a minute on the clock.
The Bengals didn't score a touchdown, but they did get an all-important penalty in the end zone which allowed kneel-downs before Evan McPherson kicked a chip-shot game-winner. It should also be noted that Cincinnati held Kansas City to just three points after the break. That fact might get lost amid all the Joe Burrow and Ja'Marr Chase excitement.
Cincinnati's win was, of course, a great moment for them as they clinched the AFC North for the first time since 2015. But it also changed the AFC playoff landscape with one week of the regular season remaining. The Chiefs have now slipped to the number two seed with the road to the Super Bowl now running through Nashville as the Tennessee Titans moved to top spot.
The Tennessee Titans… The fortitude shown by Mike Vrabel's team has been impressive. It has not always been perfect but the Titans have gone 5-3 without star running back Derrick Henry and there have been lengthy periods where they have played without key receivers in A.J. Brown and Julio Jones. But Tennessee find a way to dig deep and stay relevant. They are much more than relevant now. Their routine and dominant 34-3 win over Miami puts them in pole position in the AFC. And the ground attack continues to roll – Tennessee rushed for 198 yards and two scores on Sunday and D'Onta Foreman needs to be a part of the game plan even when Henry returns. Tennessee have flaws, like most teams this season, but they are battle-hardened and ready for the playoffs.
Big men with the football… Who doesn't love a big man touchdown? Or, a thick six, as my Sky Sports colleague Ryan Leaf calls them. Detroit Lions offensive lineman Taylor Decker caught a touchdown pass on Sunday night, becoming the 12th player weighing over 300 pounds to score a touchdown this season. That's the most in NFL history. It's weird stat but I like it because it shows that American football really is a game for all shapes and sizes!
Carson Wentz… There were some concerned members of the Indianapolis Colts leading into Sunday's game against the Las Vegas Raiders. Would Carson Wentz be cleared off the Covid-19 list to play quarterback? He was and the Colts might actually have been better off without him. Wentz was poor in throwing for just 148 yards and one touchdown (a fluky deflection that landed in the hands of T.Y. Hilton) in a 23-20 home loss to the Las Vegas Raiders. The Colts still have a great shot at reaching the playoffs as they get in with a Week 18 win against Jacksonville, but Wentz needs to up his game. It cannot always fall on the shoulders of Jonathan Taylor.
Antonio Brown… I've never seen anything like what I witnessed on Sunday night as Tampa Bay's troubled wide receiver stropped off, stripped off and marched off with 18 minutes or so still to play against the New York Jets in the Big Apple. It was the most public display of me-first petulance I have ever seen. Brown embarrassed Bucs head coach Bruce Arians and quarterback Tom Brady, both who have offered him a protective shield in recent weeks and months. And he embarrassed himself as he ran down the tunnel and straight into a taxi to take him to the airport. And, of course, his taxi ride was filmed on social media. While it was a petulant and selfish act, it was so blatantly self-destructive that I have to believe Brown needs help. I hope the yes men he has surrounded himself with suggest as much. I also believe he is done as an NFL player. What an embarrassing way to go out.
The Fast Five…
- Matthew Stafford led the Los Angeles Rams to a fifth straight win as they dug out a 20-19 victory over Baltimore. And Stafford threw late touchdown strikes to Cooper Kupp and Odell Beckham Jr. to secure the win. But mistakes continue to plague his game. He threw his fourth pick six of this season and turned the ball over three times for the second week in a row. You can come back from those sort of mistakes in the regular season, but they can end a campaign in a hurry by the time you get to the playoffs. Stafford needs to clean things up.
- The Arizona Cardinals needed a little bit of help from the officials (they blew an early whistle on a late fumble) and from Mike McCarthy burning all his time outs, which meant he couldn't challenge that play just before the two-minute warning. But it was a mightily impressive 25-22 win in Dallas for a Cards team that had lost three in a row. Arizona started strong and built a nice lead and twice they answered when the Cowboys threatened to make the game close. First, with a Matt Prater field goal and secondly to run out the final minutes of the contest.
- The Los Angeles Chargers were big winners on Sunday as Justin Herbert threw for 237 yards and two touchdowns in a 34-13 thrashing of the Denver Broncos. It was indicative of the wide-open nature of the NFL this season that such a result would send ripples through the NFL pond. In one fell swoop, the Chargers set up a winner-gets-in Week 18 showdown with the Las Vegas Raiders. They also knocked the Broncos, Cleveland and Miami out of the playoffs.
- Of those threw who were knocked out by the Chargers, the Cleveland Browns have to be the most disappointing. Denver have gone six straight seasons out of the playoffs since winning Super Bowl 50, but did we expect them to make noise this year? And Miami paid for their seven-game losing streak in the first half of the campaign. But the Browns have been a massive disappointment as we keep hearing they have a Super Bowl-calibre roster. But do they have a Super Bowl quarterback in Baker Mayfield? There are some big decisions to be made in Cleveland and soon.
- The NFC's road to the Super Bowl will run through Green Bay for the second season in a row. The Green Bay Packers could not have looked more comfortable in recording a 37-10 win over a Minnesota Vikings side without quarterback Kirk Cousins and wide receiver Adam Thielen. Aaron Rodgers remains ruthlessly efficient and travelling to a frosty Lambeau Field in January will be no picnic. After losing the last two NFC title games, could this be Green Bay's year? They have been the most consistent team in the league in an up and down year.
Finish That Sentence
Each week in this spot I ask readers - via Twitter - to randomly send me the start of a sentence and, as we so often did on our NFL UK Live stage show tours, I will finish the sentence with the first thought that comes into my head. Here we go…
From Dol-Fan UK Podcast (@DolFanUKPod) The Miami Dolphins quarterback in 2022 will be…_ much discussed in the coming months. Tua Tagovailoa had some strong moments during Miami's seven-game winning streak but his every throw continues to be dissected and graded. And it has to be said that he also made mistakes and showed limitations in his game, even during a successful period of play. I think Tua has doubters within his own building and not just within the Miami fan base. That has to be tough on him. Whether it seems unsavoury or not, I think the Dolphins investigate the Deshaun Watson situation closely once again and maybe make a move for the troubled but talented passer. Whether Watson comes on board or not, Tua has not done enough to show he is going to be a high-end franchise quarterback in Miami. Not yet, anyway.
From Kim (@KimJLJ) The team who will over-achieve in the playoffs will be… anyone from a large group of dangerous squads. Cincinnati's win over Kansas City reminded us that the very best teams in either conference can be taken down on their day. And there is, of course, no coming back from a playoff defeat. I think teams like the Cincinnati Bengals, the Indianapolis Colts (despite their loss on Sunday), the Arizona Cardinals and the San Francisco 49ers will be dangerous on their day. Green Bay have been the class of the NFC but the likes of the Los Angeles Rams, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Dallas Cowboys can scare them on their day. In other words, this playoff competition is going to be wide open and unpredictable. Much like the rest of this 2021 season.
From John McLellan (@JohnMcLellan82) The last three playoff teams will be… the Indianapolis Colts and Los Angeles Chargers in the AFC. The Colts are going to have too much for a Jacksonville team that will finish as the worst in football for the second year in a row. And the Chargers should have too much firepower for a Raiders team that has won three successive games to get back into the race. In the NFC, the New Orleans Saints are not as good as the San Francisco 49ers, but they could pip them to the post. The 49ers have a good recent history against the Los Angeles Rams but Matthew Stafford and Co have won five in a row. If San Francisco lose and the Saints beat an Atlanta Falcons team already out of the playoff picture, the Saints will grab the final spot in the NFC. I think that is a very likely scenario that could leave San Francisco on the outside looking in.
Fact of the Week
Kansas City's loss on Sunday dropped them to 11-5 along with the Titans. And it's likely that one of those two will be the AFC's top seed. And that means the number one seed in the AFC will have at least five losses on their record. That means we will have our first conference number one seed with five losses since the Oakland Raiders went 11-5 in 2002. It's just another indication of how wide open the NFL has been this season.
This probably got lost in the shuffle of a busy Sunday night, but the New England Patriots are back in the playoffs following their 50-10 beatdown of the Jacksonville Jaguars. Mac Jones threw three touchdowns in a one-sided win as the Patriots got back on track after dropping two consecutive contests. After a down year in 2020, it didn't take long for Bill Belichick to get New England back into the playoff picture. At first glance, I see them being below the likes of Tennessee, Kansas City and Buffalo in the AFC, but they have beaten the Bills and Titans in the last five games and have enjoyed good recent form against the Chiefs. Don't rule out Belichick conjuring up some magic in the postseason.