It was the Backup Bowl of the century. In one corner, we have Gardner Minshew, he of football’s most famous porn ‘stache, beloved second-stringer and current starting quarterback for the Indianapolis Colts after replacing injured rookie Anthony Richardson. In the other corner, we have Jake Browning, Cincinnati’s newest JB, a scarcely-used backup who broke out with a 350 yard game on Monday Night Football and current starting quarterback for the Bengals after replacing the injured Joe Burrow. It was the epic (well, my kind of epic) clash we didn’t know we needed – and we didn’t get it.
That’s because the Bengals defense had other ideas. In fact, the Bengals defense opted for a blowout. I guess they weren’t as into the Super Sub Showdown as I was. The 34 - 14 victory was the Bengals’ largest margin of the season – and the win vaulted the Bengals right back into the thick of the AFC playoff race.
It was the most complete performance by the Bengals all season. On the day, the defense allowed just eight points (the Colts defense returned a Jake Browning interception in the second quarter for a touchdown for the other six), held a 13th-ranked Colts rushing offense to a paltry 46 yards at 2.6 yards a pop, and totally blanked the Colts for the entire second half. Suffocating, you might say. Or utter destruction. Either or.
Minshew tried to give us a show, bless his heart. He made some great throws and used his legs to make the Bengals pay for failing to get pressure (which continues to be a frustrating issue), but the Colts were far too one-dimensional to ever get into a groove on offense. Even without All Pro running back Jonathan Taylor in the lineup, the Colts had powered their way to a 7 - 5 record by pounding the rock – and the Bengals took that away.
On offense, the Bengals won with a similar recipe to the one that helped them beat Jacksonville last week: a great performance by the offensive line, a productive running game, and some timely throws by Browning. Outside of the pick-six (which wasn’t Browning’s fault, as the ball was basically taken right out of the hands of Tanner Hudson), Browning was nearly flawless. He turned 24 pass attempts into 18 completions for 275 yards and two touchdowns. If you mistook him for a slightly shorter Burrow again, you’re still forgiven.
But of course, Browning was hardly the primary reason the Bengals walloped the Colts. With Joe Mixon and Chase Brown combining for over 100 yards on screen passes, in addition to 104 yards and a touchdown on the ground, Browning was content to sit back behind a brick wall of an offensive line and calmly distribute. Tee Higgins had his first big game post-injury 72 yards on two catches, including a 46-yarder. Ja’Marr Chase was limited to just three receptions, but managed to secure a career-high 89 catches on the season in the process anyway. It was just that kind of day.
Like last week though, we have to save the majority of the credit for the people who made this possible: the fans. Just kidding – the coaching staff, duh. We thought last week was a good performance. Nah – that was a sweaty handshake compared to this.
Every side of the ball come to play – even the special teams, which capitalized on a miscue by the Colts to recover a fumble on a punt. And even though this was the Backup Bowl, don’t let that mislead you: this game had enormous playoff implications.
A) The Colts were ahead of the Bengals in the standings prior to today.
2) Prior to the game, the Bengals were a pathetic 2 - 6 in the AFC, and running out of tie-breaker opportunities.
D) With the Steelers losing on Thursday night, this was a perfect opportunity for the Bengals to make up some much-needed ground in the AFC North.
And make up ground they did. The Bengals smashed the Colts in the mouth – and they didn’t even need to attempt a trick play to do it! Christmas has come early. We didn’t get the Backup Bowl we wanted, but this gift beats that anyday.