The Cincinnati Bengals went into Baltimore on Thursday looking to reestablish their ownership of the AFC North. Instead, they left with a 34-20 loss and the division’s worst record—and that wasn’t even the most significant L that Cincinnati took. Late in the second quarter, Joe Burrow left the game with a wrist injury that prevented him from even gripping a football.
After the game, Bengals coach Zac Taylor called the injury a “sprained wrist,” but we’ll have to wait for the results of an MRI before we really know the damage. Amateur lip-readers believe NBC cameras captured Burrow telling Ravens linebacker Patrick Queen that he “felt a pop.”
Even if that pop doesn’t end Burrow’s season, it may have already ended Cincinnati’s. The team’s odds of making the playoffs now sit at 27 percent, per Pro Football Focus. The Bengals own the league’s toughest remaining schedule based on opponent winning percentage. They’ve lost every division game they’ve played so far and all but one against in-conference opponents, so pretty much every team in the AFC playoff race owns a tiebreaker over Cincinnati. On top of the troubling math and Burrow’s questionable status, Tee Higgins and Sam Hubbard are out with injuries of their own, and Cam Taylor-Britt left Thursday’s game with a quad injury. Oh, and did I mention that the defense has been one of the worst in the NFL over the past month and just gave up more than 400 total yards of offense to Baltimore?
I’m not sure a healthy Burrow—or any QB, for that matter—could pull the Bengals out of this hole. And Jake Browning, a 2019 undrafted free agent who attempted his first NFL pass this season, damn sure isn’t going to.
To their credit, the Bengals didn’t seem defeated in their locker room after the game. Despite having just been swept by their fiercest divisional rivals and seeing their leader injured, players didn’t act as if their season were over. They spoke confidently about bouncing back from two straight losses. They were clearly bummed about Burrow getting hurt but mostly optimistic that Browning would step up—and that their talented roster and coaching staff would take care of the rest.
Some of that optimism almost certainly has to do with the fact that the Bengals are familiar with digging themselves out of holes—even if the holes were never this deep. They’ve erased deficits in the standings to win the AFC North in each of the past two seasons. They’ve erased double-digit deficits in the playoffs. This team has refused to die in the past, so don’t expect it just to keel over because a couple of math equations say they’ve got a one-in-four shot of making the playoffs.
But the Bengals’ road to success just got a lot harder. While they’re currently just a half game back from the AFC’s final playoff spot, that will almost certainly change after Sunday. Only two AFC teams are guaranteed to have a worse record than Cincinnati by the end of Week 12: the Patriots and Titans. There are six other teams at .500 or within a game of it, so the Bengals would have to outlast several squads (with easier schedules and healthier quarterbacks) just to hold on to the eighth spot in the standings. And leapfrogging the teams currently ahead of them might require a near-perfect record over their final seven games. Even if Burrow can make it back, would it be worth playing him if their playoff odds get any longer? And if it’s Browning the rest of the way, what will this offense, which is designed specifically for its starting quarterback, look like going forward?
After the game, several Ravens denied that Burrow’s early exit had any impact on how they called the game defensively. Coach John Harbaugh, safety Kyle Hamilton, and Queen each said that Cincinnati ran the same plays it typically runs for Burrow, so no changes had been necessary. In a short week, with the starter going down unexpectedly, it makes sense that Cincinnati’s offense wouldn’t have been able to adjust on the fly. But if Burrow misses extended time, that will likely change. It will need to change if Browning will have any shot at keeping the unit afloat. Taylor and Co. will have to put far less on the quarterback in the pre-snap phase than they do when Burrow is on the field, and they’ll need to provide Browning with easy answers after the snap. That will require more play-action passes, more screens, and a more robust menu of run calls.
Making those changes at this point in the season could prove challenging. Taylor and his staff have built this offense to fit Burrow’s unique style of play—a style that forced Taylor to move away from some of the core features he had adopted as Sean McVay’s offensive coordinator in Los Angeles. That meant more shotgun formations, quick game, and spread passing concepts with all five eligible receivers out in the pattern. We’re talking graduate-level passing—not the entry-level stuff Taylor and McVay ran with a young Jared Goff. It’s certainly not the type of offense you’d want to be calling for someone as inexperienced as Browning.
The Bengals drafted Burrow a year after hiring Taylor, so we have seen how Taylor’s offense looks when rigged for another quarterback. And it was much like the offense his former boss ran in Los Angeles—just not nearly as effective without the Rams personnel. Fortunately, talent isn’t an issue for the 2023 Bengals, which have Ja’Marr Chase, Higgins (when healthy), and Joe Mixon, so they should be better suited to run the offense Taylor originally deployed. But that’s still a pretty big downgrade when your first option is Joe Burrow.
Before Burrow’s injury on Thursday night, Taylor had called the game as if he were trying to take some of the playmaking burden off his quarterback’s plate. We didn’t see nearly as many quick dropback passes from Burrow, which the Bengals typically use on first and second down to supplement—or sometimes completely replace—what has been a mediocre and inconsistent run game. Instead, they used more runs, screens, and jet sweeps—plays that ask very little of the quarterback. That varied approach was working (up until Burrow went out) against one of the league’s premier defenses. And if the unit is going to work for Browning, or even a limited Burrow, that’s how it’ll have to function going forward.
The Bengals seem ready and willing to put up a fight over the last seven weeks of the season. Veteran leaders like Tyler Boyd and Ted Karras were adamant postgame that making the playoffs was still an attainable goal, even after the fall to Baltimore. But after they lost their biggest game of the season to date—and potentially so much more, pending the results of an MRI—it won’t be long before that’s no longer mathematically true. Cincinnati players know that. “It’s getting tight,” Karras admitted. “If I stand up here and do this again [after a loss] … not many more times we can afford [that].”