No one could have predicted the road trip during the first half of the season for the Cincinnati Bengals.
Joe Burrow’s calf debacle, calls for Jake Browning, high anxiety, a missed tackle outbreak, and six total points against the Browns and Titans, a must-win declaration and then one of the best games of the quarterback’s career.
The Bengals reach the midway point 5-3 via a circular drive. Will the path from this point to the postseason provide the same intrigue? If the last two games are any indication, that won’t be the case. Cincinnati looks like a team ready to plow through the winter for the second straight season.
Taking a broader view, here are my six predictions for the second half of the regular season, ranked from coldest to boldest:
The Bengals don’t lose another home game
There’s a lot of bad football being played there. That was an easy observation while sitting down to watch the early window of football before the game against the Bills on Sunday night. Quarterback injuries, disgusting rosters, exposed, unanswered weaknesses, you name it, there are no more than 10 legitimate contenders in the NFL right now.
Most of them are on the Bengals’ schedule. Most of them also come on the road.
Cincinnati hosts the Texans this week followed by the Steelers (W12), Colts (W14), Vikings (W15) and Browns (W18) to round out the Paycor Stadium roster. Only the 4-5 Colts are below .500 right now, but given the team’s trajectory, the hostile environment of the Bengals’ home games, the entry of three dome teams into the elements and the fact that Burrow has won 12 straight regular-season games In November, all trends point to the same likely outcome.
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The winner of Ravens-Bengals on Nov. 16 will decide the division
Maybe these teams will take the season by one week, but I won’t. All eyes were on Thursday night, November 16, in Baltimore. These teams look like they’re in the high class of the AFC North, with all due respect to Cleveland and Pittsburgh. For the Bengals to catch the Ravens, this is a game they need to play. Barring an injury to Lamar Jackson or Burrow, it’s hard to see Cincinnati chasing two games and a tiebreaker over the most complete team in football.
If the Bengals can go to M&T Bank Stadium and win the division on the road in a short week, something no North team has done since 2016, that would provide a catapult to a third straight state crown.
For the first time since realignment in 2002, the division has all four teams at least two games over .500 after Week 9. The bloodbath will continue as the teams eliminate each other. That’s why I come back to the remaining match. However, records are falling, and in the end, that game will end up being the difference in the North title whether on record or in a tiebreaker.
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Taylor Britt will lead all cornerbacks in interceptions
Year 2 quickly developed into the breakout season Cam Taylor-Britt the Bengals were hoping for after a promising rookie campaign. He has three interceptions in the last four weeks and was close on the others. As his understanding of coverages and ways to lure NFL quarterbacks has increased, they have put him in positions to show off his hands and athleticism.
Taylor Britt grabbed a close-range seed from Arizona’s Josh Dobbs for a pick-six and then went parallel to the turf to intercept Seattle’s Geno Smith. After getting a bad throw from Josh Allen for Sunday night’s pick, these moments seem more inevitable than coincidence.
He’s one block behind Dallas’ Darron Bland and New Orleans’ Paulson Adepo, but with the expectation of several more weeks of play from forward and a few quarterbacks with a tendency to make rotation-worthy plays in front of them, the picks could stack up.
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Hendrickson leads the AFC North in sacks and pressures
For those who haven’t been paying close attention, just watching Myles Garrett and TJ Watt enjoy all the headlines, they may not realize that Trey Hendrickson is actually facing more pressure than both of them this season with 43. Garrett and Watt each have 39. All three teams have played eight games . .
Garrett and Watt each have 9.5 sacks and Hendrickson 8, but that’s not an insurmountable number. The Bengals offense has a much greater opportunity to provide Hendrickson with more opportunities to chase down the QB from the front.
Chasing Garrett, especially with his league-leading win rate, winning speed and freakish athleticism, will be a chore, but that’s why this ranks among the bolder projections. It’s just a gut feeling in what has been a career year for Hendrickson reaching another level.
Burrow finished at least second in MVP voting
Last year, after working on issues on offense and recovering from a preseason appendectomy, Burrow shined over the final three quarters of the season. While Patrick Mahomes ran away with the MVP, Burrow moved back to No. 4 behind Jalen Hurts and Josh Allen. His slow start to pulling down his numbers hurt him in the end despite the angry finish.
If Burrow plays at last month’s level between now and January, will voters ignore the month he spent battling a calf injury? Or will this be a matter of his overall season not holding up against Lamar Jackson, Hurts or Mahomes? I don’t have a lot of confidence in voters’ ability to see the nuance, which is why he takes this on the grittier side of the ledger, but he will be given plenty of opportunities for big matches on the big stages where he has shined the last couple of weeks.
If Burrow and the Bengals manage to win a North title and one of the top seeds in the AFC, that could be enough to make everyone forget about the ugly start to the season and get their first MVP. Unlikely, certainly, but given what we’ve seen in the past month, I wouldn’t bet against it.
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Higgins outpaces Chase the rest of the way
The Bengals’ offense has been turned around this season by feeding Ja’Marr Chase. Beyond nutrition, really. Think Thanksgiving dinner at grandma’s house. His goal average rose to career highs and all of the offensive levers contributed to his versatility and expanding his role. He gained 697 receiving yards during Week 9. Tee Higgins is second on the team with 328 yards.
That might be about change. Higgins has shaken off early season issues and a rib injury and looks set to return to expected form. He scored 13 of 15 targets for 179 yards in wins against San Francisco and Buffalo. If you enjoy small sample sizes, that’s 111 receptions for 1,522 yards over a 17-game season.
No one expects this pace, but the reality is that more teams will follow the Bills’ approach and focus all attention on stopping Chase. At that point, a healthy, dominant Higgins will be the first to take advantage of the coverage imbalance. He’s also likely to connect with deep shots downfield anyway, given the nature of his traditional usage. We’ve seen this show before. In 2021, as the league reacted to Chase’s explosion onto the scene with extra attention, Higgins shook off early-season injuries and lack of production to average 92.3 yards per game over the final eight. That included four of five games with at least 114 yards.
Chase will still be the focal point, but you can absolutely feel the Higgins wave arriving.
(Top Image: Dylan Boyle/Getty Images)
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