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Wait, the Cincinnati Bengals are good?
Well, the NFL regular season is about to celebrate its first full month, and the Bengals have a chance to cap it off with a 3-1 record if they can beat the winless Jacksonville Jaguars at home on Thursday night.
If that happens, as the oddsmakers suppose, the Bengals will be off to their best start since 2018. And that makes Thursday night’s game against the Jaguars a matchup of former No. 1 overall picks rather than a game to determine the next No. 1 overall pick.
But it’s not necessarily about the team’s start that is encouraging the good people of southwestern Ohio and northern Kentucky. No, Bengals fans have in the past seen hopeful seasons open with a lovely flurry and then turn to slush.
The difference this year is the Bengals are playing well…
…With great potential for playing better.
“We’re just going to keep getting better and better,” second-year quarterback Joe Burrow said Tuesday. “We’ve got a lot of reps under our belt in practice, we’re just accumulating throws and everyone’s going to keep getting better all season. So we’ve just got to keep having great days of practice and go from there.”
Burrow is obviously a major, if not the major reason for optimism within the Bengals organization. His rookie season in 2020 was cut short after only 10 games when he tore the ACL and MCL in his left knee.
That happened last December, which made his return in time to start this season something of a feat. But as he prepared for Thursday game, Burrow made a significant announcement about his knee based on how he felt during Sunday’s victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers.
“I felt,” Burrow said, “like my old self again.”
That sanguine statement probably needs context because the statistics suggest it’s not totally accurate.
If Burrow’s old self was those first 10 games, then he’s understating because he’s producing better through the first three games this year than his old self did last year.
Burrow threw 13 TD passes in 10 games last year. He’s got seven in three games this year. His completion percentage is better, his QB rating is higher, and his yards per attempt has improved.
Yeah, he’s already thrown four interceptions compared to five last year, but as the club improves he won’t be asked to do as much, which will lower the risk of errant throws.
“When you only throw the ball 18 times it usually means you’re winning the game,” Burrow said. “When you have to throw the ball 65 times, you’re probably not going to win the game very often. So, the W is all I care about.”
The Bengals have three good receivers: Tee Higgins, Tyler Boyd and Ja’Marr Chase. And while Boyd leads the team in receptions, it’s Chase who is drawing attention as a rookie with a 20-yard per reception average and four touchdowns.
And, again, the logical expectation is that the Burrow-to-Chase combo, new to the NFL but not new because they played together at LSU, can build on what they’re already doing.
“The relationship between a quarterback and receiver has a lot to do with experience and accumulated reps,” Burrow said. “And we’ve got hundreds, if not thousands, of accumulated reps together over three years.
“So I know exactly how he’s going to run routes and the speed with which he’s going to come out of his breaks and the speed in which he’s going to run by people. So I would attribute that to that.”
The Bengals offense is not among the league leaders. It’s been middle of the pack statistically.
But the possibilities nonetheless excite offensive coordinator Brian Callahan, who believes his unit is on the cusp of better things.
“As things move along, you start to get a better feel for what your guys are and what you’re going to be as an offense,” Callahan said. “And I think our guys are growing into that mold of starting to play well together. All these guys are starting to make plays. They’re getting comfortable playing together again.
“I’m excited about the direction we’re headed.”
Amid all that, it’s impossible to lose sight of the fact the Cincinnati defense is actually the unit leading the charge to success so far.
Defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo’s unit is No. 6 in scoring defense so far, having allowed only 54 points. The Bengals are No. 8 in overall defense and No. 8 in run defense.
And if you consider their first three games, it’s obvious they’re trending in the right direction. They allowed 24 points in the opener, 20 points the second week, and 10 points to the Steelers on Sunday.
“So far, so good,” Anarumo said. “I’m happy with the way the guys have been handling everything. We’re not perfect by any stretch, but when you play as hard as the guys are playing right now that overrides some mistakes … So, so far, so good.”
This didn’t just magically happen. This defense showed Anarumo signs for months things were going to be good before showing it on the field.
“I got a good feeling ever since we got here in April about how they were going about their business with all the little things — walk-throughs, preparation, meetings,” Anarumo said. “It’s carrying over right now.”
Things are looking up for the Bengals.
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