The Saints are going to be kicking themselves. Good thing that’s not the Bengals problem. The Battle of Who Dat vs. Who Dey was fierce, but Who Dey prevailed.
On a day in which Joe Burrow, Ja’Marr Chase, and others were making their returns to New Orleans, a city where the two won the National Championship together at LSU, it certainly didn’t feel like a homecoming for the former Bayou Bengals. The Caesars Superdome was rocking. The Saints weren’t about to be shown up on their home turf.
The game started disastrously for the Bengals, with punt returner Trent Taylor muffing a Saints punt, allowing the familiar Andy Dalton to put the game’s first points on the board with a strike to receiver Tre’Quan Smith. Bengals slot corner Mike Hilton was unable to make the play, and for as great of a blitzer and tackler as he is, he can be a liability in coverage at times, especially against larger receivers.
And speaking of liabilities…oh boy, this was another rough game for cornerback Eli Apple. He was routinely targeted by Dalton, missed tackles, and failed to seal the perimeter on several run plays, including Saints receiver Rashid Shaheed’s 44-yard jet-sweep touchdown. It was an incredible debut for Shaheed, who was one of three receivers called up from the Saints practice squad for this Week 6 matchup.
If you're wondering why the Saints had to roster, and play, three practice squad receivers for this game, it’s because their top three receivers, Mike Thomas, Chris Olave, and Jarvis Landry, are all injured. And yet, you’d be forgiven if you thought the Saints were at full strength. Time after time, the Bengals were gashed in the run game, one of the few times the Bengals have failed to contain the run over the last two seasons.
For a significant portion of this game, that uneasy feeling was taking hold. The Bengals were struggling against a backup quarterback and an inferior opponent again. And the QB was the “Red Rifle” Andy Dalton, no less. He’s already 2 - 0 in his career as a starter against his former team, once with the Dallas Cowboys in 2020 and again with the Chicago Bears in 2021. Was he really going to be 3 - 0?
The answer, incredibly, was no. The Bengals responded in the waning minutes of this game like they haven’t done since last year. The Joe-to-Ja’Marr Connection was money when it mattered most.
After the Saints capped off a 14-play, 66-yard, 7:23-long drive to put the Saints ahead 26 - 21 with 11 minutes left in the fourth quarter, things were starting to look bleak. The Bengals had been getting abused by the Saints on the ground, Dalton was finding receivers on critical third downs, and the Saints pass rush was making Burrow’s life miserable as he’s accustomed. When the Bengals responded with a long drive of their own, it looked like the tide had shifted.
Two straight sacks on second and third down killed the drive and forced the Bengals to “settle” for a 52-yard field goal by kicker Evan “Money Mac” McPherson, who, of course, drilled it. The Bengals had cut the Saints lead, but there wasn’t much time left. With the way the Bengals defense had been playing the run, there was little hope that the Saints offense was going to stall out. After all, the Saints had already run for 218 yards. Just a few more first downs and that would be ball game.
The Bengals defense had other plans. They were pushed around most of the day, but like they’ve shown time and again, they rose to the occasion. The Saints would go three-and-out, and punter Blake Gillikin would shank the punt, giving the Bengals the ball with time and good field position. As it happened, they didn’t need either.
On the very next play, Burrow hit Chase for a 60-yard catch-and-run touchdown to put the Bengals ahead 30 - 26, and the margin would stand after the Bengals defense stifled Dalton and the Saints once more. It was the big play we’ve all been waiting for all season. The moment where the NFL’s most electric throw-and-catch combo gave us magic.
It couldn’t have come at a more opportune time. And this win couldn’t have been more opportune, either. If the Bengals had fallen to 2 - 4, it would have been devastating. Division-rivals Cleveland Browns and Baltimore Ravens lost to the New England Patriots and the New York Giants, respectively. Losing to the Saints wouldn’t have been a death sentence, just like the 0 - 2 start wasn’t, but it would have been terribly disappointing to miss out on an opportunity to regain some footing in the AFC North. Instead, the Bengals are now square with the Ravens at 3 - 3.
That’s a good spot to be, especially at this point in the season, and especially after that start. With eleven games left to be played, the Bengals have plenty of time to make up for missed opportunities, and another juicy Ravens matchup looms at the regular season finale. The Bengals haven’t made the strongest early season impression, but they just might be finding their footing.
That said, it feels like I’ve been saying that since Week 3. The Bengals offense was strong on Sunday, but the defense had its weakest showing in some time. The Bengals went to the Super Bowl last year because they played complimentary football. This year, it’s been less complimentary. It’s like someone saying they thought your haircut was “interesting.” It leaves you a little dubious.
That’s what this Bengals season has been. When the offense was playing poorly, the defense was playing well. In this game, it looked like the defense was going to blow it. They avoided catastrophe, though. They survived. And in the NFL, you can’t really ask for anything else.