I reeeeally wasn’t looking forward to writing this article. After a gut-punch like last night, it’s more natural to want to curl up into the fetal position and just wait it out until 2024. The NBA’s already started, right? Hey Cincinnatians, want to all start rooting for the Denver Nuggets?
It looks like the worst-case scenario for the Bengals just happened, didn’t it? Joe Burrow is hurt – an MRI has confirmed a ligament tear in his wrist – and this time, he’s done for the year. It’s bad enough that they lost the game, but to lose Joe? Pain – nothing but pure, unadulterated pain.
Where do the Bengals go from here? Jake Browning was okay in relief, but he’s…what, 50% of Burrow? 60%? Is that being too generous?
Once Burrow was ruled out, the Bengals' hopes were pretty much shot. That sickening, awful feeling all too familiar to Bengals fans started creeping in – the feeling that you don’t really want to watch the second half. To their credit, the team continued to compete. Browning made a few plays, Joe Mixon ran hard, and the defense, under siege by some pitiful refereeing, was determined to make life hard on Lamar Jackson and the Ravens offense. But without Burrow, the Bengals’ powerful haymaker had been reduced to a meager jab.
The Ravens wanted this one. Badly. Their fans made that clear when they started chanting “F - - - Joe Burrow” loudly enough for the broadcast to pick it up in the post-game analysis. I’d call them classless but I remember when Bengals fans threw trash at Ben Roethlisberger when he was being carted off the field in that 2015 playoff game so forgive me if I don’t participate in the stone-throwing.
After last night, the Bengals – for at least another couple weeks – are stuck at the bottom of the AFC North. They’re 0 - 3 in the division, and with three more division games to go, plus road contests against the Jacksonville Jaguars and Kansas City Chiefs on the horizon, it’s safe to say that the playoffs are a long-shot. Check that – the playoffs are a pipe dream. It’s no fun to say, but let’s be real: as competent as Browning looked last night (he really wasn’t half bad), the Bengals are either going to need to win five of their next seven at a minimum, or they’re going to need the top of the AFC to start collectively playing like the Carolina Panthers. I…don’t see either scenario happening.
It’s probably best if we all come to terms with it: the Bengals aren’t special this year. Not that they don’t have special players – not even close – but this year, things just aren’t falling into place. I know the season isn’t over, but think about everything that’s gone awry: the defense hasn't played up to its potential, the offensive line still can't consistently protect Burrow, and injuries have gone from nagging to season-altering.
This just wasn’t their year. It’s nobody’s fault. It’s a violent sport with 32 teams competing for one prize. For two years, things went the Bengals way. They avoided key injuries and peaked at the right times. This year, they didn’t. It happens. It doesn’t take away from what they accomplished in 2021 and 2022, and it doesn't mean they can’t get back to that peak in 2024.
For now, the rest of the season is all about evaluation. It’s time to see some of the younger offensive skill players get some regular playing time. It’s time to mix-and-match on the offensive line and see who can really play and who can’t. It’s time to start letting the young players see a lot of snaps on defense. It’s time to embrace the youth movement.
With the Bengals making Burrow the highest-paid player in the NFL this offseason, this was always on the horizon. It’s hard to maintain a competitive roster with a massive QB contract and a bunch of well-paid veterans. At some point, the salary cap catches up with you – the only bright spot about Burrow’s injury is it at least gives the Bengals a bit of a head start.
Sadly, that’s where the positives end. The Bengals without Burrow is like U2 without Bono – just another band. But Burrow will be back. He didn’t let knee reconstruction stop him, so why would a little ligament in his wrist? The Bengals hopes for 2023 might have been dashed on Thursday Night, but their hopes for 2024 and beyond? Those are alive and well.