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Party crashers: Bengals officially a contender in AFC after thrashing Ravens

BALTIMORE -- After the biggest statement of the NFL season had been made, Ja’Marr Chase sat at his spot in the locker room and watched. As a rookie, Chase hasn't been privy to the Cincinnati Bengals' brutal history here, the beatdowns and humiliations that, as much as anything, came to define the Bengals as league doormats. Chase was still a draft prospect last year when his once and future quarterback was sacked seven times by the Ravens. Neither was on the field for most of the games in which the Ravens outscored the Bengals by 101 points in two seasons. So Chase, after catching eight passes for 201 yards and a touchdown Sunday, just took it all in. It was, tight end, C.J. Uzomah reported, lit in the locker room and you could hear the celebration through the walls almost as vividly as Chase could hear it in person.

It sounded very much like a page turning.

Two weeks ago, when the Bengals succumbed to the Green Bay Packers after a series of missed field goals, Zac Taylor said he knew exactly what kind of team he had. The rest of the NFL knows now, too, after this 41-17 thrashing that thrust the Bengals into first place in the AFC North and announced their arrival as a legitimate contender in the AFC. They are explosive and resilient and equipped to slug it out with the game's elite, as they were against the Packers then. As they were on Sunday. They are Bungles no more.

"It's a different team," Taylor said. "We're allowed to build and improve, and we just have a different mentality right now. We've done a lot of different things to get to this position, and I've given out a lot of tough speeches over time about great things to come and keep working. And you hope and pray that the team believes in that. That's the foundation of what we're building, and this is the result. This is their moment. Everything we've talked about, we've earned."

Later, he added: "I feel like it started before this. These are just things we needed to check off. Baltimore has really taken it to us the last several times we have played them, and we don't run from that. So, I won't say we needed to prove it to ourselves, because we had a lot of people in that locker room who were confident going into that game today. But this was a box we needed to check."

The Ravens' defense – which was so effective at confusing Justin Herbert and the Chargers last week -- had a plan to take away the deep ball that Joe Burrow and Chase have used to transform the offense. For the most part, the Ravens did. So instead, Burrow and Chase connected on a series of slants and back-shoulder throws, accounting for a large chunk of Burrow's 416 passing yards on 23 completions. Then it was a matter of Chase getting yards after the catch, a process made much easier by an avalanche of missed tackles by the Ravens. With Cincinnati clinging to a 3-point lead midway through the third quarter, and the Bengals facing third-and-2, Burrow completed a short pass on a slant to Chase in the middle of the field. Chase spun, and three defenders missed him. He was off, for an 82-yard touchdown. Uzomah had two touchdowns, one for 55 yards and one for 32 yards, both of which featured missed tackles. Taylor pointed to how bruising the Bengals' running game -- which had 111 yards -- is on defenders, and how they get worn down. By the end of the game, the Ravens looked as if they had nearly given up trying to tackle.

This is a season of unusual parity in the AFC. The Titans, who lost to the Jets, have beaten the Bills and Chiefs in back-to-back games to join the Ravens and Bengals at 5-2. But what does it say about the AFC when the team that looked to be the best in the conference after crushing the Chargers last week -- the Ravens -- got thrashed at home by the Bengals? It says that the Bengals are the top seed in the conference right now, that the rebuild is over. They have arrived, on the wings of Burrow passes and a pass rush that sacked Lamar Jackson five times. The Bengals have already won more games than they did last season. If you did not see this ascendance coming quite this quickly, you are not alone.

Uzomah said he got emotional on the sideline watching how interconnected the Bengals were today. The defense pressured Jackson and contained him as much as any team can -- he still accumulated 345 yards -- giving Burrow many opportunities to set up explosive plays. It is the kind of synergy the Bengals have lacked, at least since the Carson Palmer days. They are a balanced, well-constructed team -- the defense is sneaky good, entering the game ranked in the top five in scoring defense -- and now, they have gotten over the hurdle that tripped them up against Green Bay. That game was a moral victory. This one was the real thing. The Bengals toppled a perennial playoff team, and the one that is most likely to stand in their way for a playoff spot this season.

Burrow said the Ravens put more pressure on opponents than any other team he has faced. They tried to force the Bengals into a lot of one-on-one matchups -- matchups that Cincinnati had to win. Burrow talked about the chemistry he and Chase have, of the three years of reps that give him the confidence that Chase will win his matchup no matter what Burrow throws him. Burrow said there were a few plays on Sunday that he felt more confident throwing than he did last season -- particularly throwing outside the numbers down the field. He feels like he has a little more juice in his arm. That is, in part, what prompted former New York Giants quarterback Phil Simms to say that Burrow reminded him of a modern day Joe Montana, albeit one with a bigger arm.

"Let's relax," Burrow said with a smile, when asked about the comparison. "Let me be me."

That is more than enough. And so are the Bengals.

Follow Judy Battista on Twitter.

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