There are no moral victories in football. A loss is a loss, and a win is a win. The NFL doesn’t care about your excuses. It doesn’t care about your injuries, it doesn’t care about your close calls, and certainly doesn’t care about your missed opportunities. The path to the postseason is littered with the corpses of teams that coulda, woulda, shoulda.
The Bengals are in that category. This team had the highest of expectations heading into 2023. They were on the short-list of Super Bowl favorites and Joe Burrow was on the short-list of MVP candidates. Both of those hopes went up in flames when Burrow was sidelined. It was, without question, a disappointing, frustrating – lost – year.
But today, even with last week's loss, the Bengals showed some of what got them so much preseason acclaim. Moral victories may not exist in the NFL, but today's 31 - 14 demolition of the Browns came pretty close.
Of course, the Browns team the Bengals walked over was hardly the same team that pummeled the Bengals back in Week One. Defensive Player of the Year favorite Myles Garrett was one of a host of Browns defenders who didn’t appear in today's game, and second-half hero Joe Flacco was benched in a team-wide effort to avoid major injury. In that regard, the Browns were (mostly) successful. In almost every other regard, the Browns were (mostly) unsuccessful.
In the first half, the Bengals did anything and everything they wanted. Joe Mixon and Chase Brown ran the ball with relentless efficiency. Jake Browning threaded passes to a host of receivers, threatened the Browns at every level of the defense, and even showed off some shortstop skills with a slippery sidearm throw. The defense dominated the line of scrimmage and denied the Browns any hopes of a run game. Jeff Driskell took the unsavory mantle of 5th QB to start a game for the Browns this season, and it was a distinction he made all too apparent with his play – 37 yards and two interceptions in the first half and a meager 166 yards total.
Aside from a flukey tipped pass interception on their first drive, the Bengals offense was all but perfect – albeit, against diminished competition. Mixon ran wild with 111 rushing yards and two total touchdowns as the Bengals rumbled for 183 rushing yards on the day. Browning made plays with his arm and his legs, the offensive line was sound, and Andrei Iosivas and Charlie Jones both led the way amongst Bengals receivers with a combined 8 catches for 85 yards and two touchdowns. It was a complete performance – and the kind that’s been far too unfamiliar this year.
In the grand scheme of things, this win meant nothing for the Bengals. No matter how well they played – no matter how badly they beat the Browns – it wasn’t enough. Ten wins was the bar in the AFC this year. The Bengals got to nine, and even though finishing the year with a winning record is a moderate consolation, it isn’t doesn’t quite dull the sting of missing out on another playoff push.
Still, there were a lot of positives to come out of this game. Beating the Browns kept the Bengals from finishing winless in the AFC North – a AFC North that officially tied the 2022 NFC East for most wins by a division in NFL history with 44, by the way. They managed to wash out some of the stink from the disasters of Weeks 16 and 17. And many of the young players they’ll be counting on to take a leap next year showed the talent that could make 2024 exciting.
There are many questions that will have to be answered this offseason. The futures of Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd are uncertain, and Ja’Marr Chase, who secured his 100th catch of the season early in the second half, is almost certainly in line for a massive extension that will further complicate the Bengals finances. The defense also is in need of some serious nurturing, and with Brad Robbins struggling throughout much of the season, competition at punter is a necessity as well. And of course, we can never forget about the offensive line…
But in their victory today, the Bengals demonstrated the young talent on this team that’s primed to put this team on the fast-track to turnaround. With a few targeted additions and some shrewd drafting and development, the Bengals should be right back in the thick of the AFC playoff race next year. As long as Joe Burrow is around (and healthy) the Bengals should always be in the Super Bowl conversation. The Bengals season is over, but their start to one of their most important off-seasons in recent memory has just begun.