It wasn’t pretty and it was far from perfect. It wasn’t even particularly pleasing to watch. But the Bengals got the win. 0 - 3 was successfully avoided, and that’s all that really matters.
Heading into the Bengals Monday night contest against the Los Angeles Rams there was a ton of speculation over whether Joe Burrow would play after reaggravating his calf strain against the Baltimore Ravens last Sunday. Jake Browning, the Bengals backup QB with a single NFL pass on his resume, was potentially in line to make the start, and the entire Bengals fan-base was collectively heaving into a brown paper bag because of it. As it turned out, #9 suited up, and while he was far from the superstar-level everyone’s gotten used to, he was effective enough. More Joe Tepid than Joe Cool.
Whatever moniker, Burrow came through in a “had-to-have-it” game for the Bengals. For as bad as the 0 - 2 start has been, 0 - 3 is immeasurably worse. 0 - 2 is stumbling out of the gates; 0 - 3 is a full-on faceplant. 0 - 2 has the possibility of parole. 0 - 3 is a death sentence.
So now, the Bengals are 1 - 2, and boy, doesn’t that have a nice ring to it? It’s even a little familiar, given the Bengals started the season the same way just last year. And while it would be easy to point to the Bengals recent track record and say, “gee, what were we all so worked up about?” that's not really a fair assessment of the situation. Concern – even panic – was absolutely justified.
Let’s look at the Bengals through three weeks: they’ve been dusted by the Cleveland Browns, pushed around by the Baltimore Ravens, and barely held on to a win against the thought-to-be-lowly Rams. That’s not an inspiring start.
The offense still looks wonky through three weeks. Burrow had his best game last night, but he was barely average. Ja’Marr Chase and Tee Higgins haven't been able to make an impact during the same game. Joe Mixon has looked much more explosive than he did this time last year, but he’s hardly being featured. Cordell Volson was abused by Aaron Donald all night and spoiled an otherwise solid outing by the offensive line. You can pretty much nitpick any position group on the Bengals offense.
You could make the same case about the defense too. The Bengals had been anemic stopping the run until last night (and arguably, the Rams were foolish not to make the run a bigger priority). The secondary has been out of sorts, with only second-year safety Dax Hill standing out on a regular basis, and until they faced the Rams ravaged O-line, the pass rush had been mostly quiet as well.
And yet, the Bengals managed to beat the Rams. In a rematch of Super Bowl LVI, the Bengals got their (sort-of) revenge. It cannot be overstated: 1 - 2 is immeasurably better than 0 - 3.
There’s just something about being winless through three weeks that just eats at you – never mind that your chances of winning the Super Bowl also disappear (at least, historically). When you’re 0 - 3, it’s going to be a month minimum before you can realistically feel good about the team’s situation (and that’s assuming they win four in a row). When you’re 0 - 3, you’re the laughingstock of the league. When you’re 1 - 2, it’s just a bad start.
So, that’s where the Bengals are right now: they had a bad start. Nothing more, nothing less. And while their 2023 start was far more concerning than their 2022 start – given Burrow’s appendix surgery was unlikely to cause him issues over the course of the season and the Bengals defense played significantly better through the first two weeks of the 2022 season than the 2023 defense did – there’s no reason to expect 2023 to be any different. This team thrives on being counted out. Now, would it be nice if they could find a way to get into rhythm without starting 0 - 2? Sure, but beggars can’t be choosers (and yes, Bengals fans, we definitely count as beggars).
It’s possible the Bengals are just slow starters. It’s also possible that their first two games of the season were against difficult, divisional opponents when their best and most important player was still figuring out how to play with an injury that’s limiting his mobility. Maybe it’s both. But either way, the Bengals put it behind them and got a win. It’s a lonely win right now, but it counts the same. The Bengals managed to steady themselves. After all, they only stumbled out of the gates – not a faceplant.