CINCINNATI (AP)With an unsung, next-man-up defense and an unshakeable quarterback, the Cincinnati Bengals find ways to just keep winning.
Their sixth straight victory on Sunday was their most improbable and, coupled with Baltimore’s loss to the Browns, put them alone in first place in the AFC North with three games remaining. The No. 1 playoff seed in the conference is within their grasp.
They can clinch a playoff spot as early as Thursday if the Jaguars beat or tie the Jets.
”We’re still not where we want to be,” receiver Tyler Boyd said. ”We want to be No. 1 in the whole AFC. That’s our goal. We got to keep winning out and take care of business. We got to finish.”
In a 34-23 win over Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Cincinnati (10-4) came back from a 17-3 halftime deficit without a trace of panic.
Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow went from having one of the worst halves of his career to outshining Brady with four touchdown passes in the second half.
The injury-depleted defense took advantage of Bucs’ mistakes, recovering two fumbles and picking off Brady twice. Three of those turnovers led to short-field touchdowns.
”We had no rhythm on either side of the ball, and our guys at halftime took a deep breath and said that we can take over this game,” Bengals coach Zac Taylor said. ”Just an awesome team effort.”
It was, however, another costly day for the Bengals in terms of injuries. With defensive lineman Trey Hendrickson (wrist) already out, Sam Hubbard had to leave the game in the second quarter with a calf injury. Rookie cornerback Cam Taylor-Britt, pushed into a starting role because of injuries, left with a shoulder injury in the second half. Practice squad cornerback Allan George was promoted and played in the game.
Burrow finished 27 of 39 for 200 yards and an interception. The Bengals scored on drives of 13, 31, 13 and 39 yards after halftime. He threw TD passes to his Big Three – Ja’Marr Chase, Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd – and also to tight end Mitchell Wilcox, the first of his career.
Even with all the injuries, the Bengals defense rose to the challenge in the second half. Coordinator Lou Anarumo mixed in blitzes and fake blitzes to keep Brady guessing. Tre Flowers, who had slipped down the depth chart, became the first Bengals cornerback to get an interception this season. His pick of Brady was the first of four straight takeaways by the defense in the second half.
”Nobody wants to acknowledge what we’re doing on defense in this six-game stretch,” Bengals cornerback Eli Apple said. ”We know what the difference has been. We just want to keep it going.”
WHAT NEEDS HELP
It’s hard to find fault with wins. At the same time, it’s hard to grasp how a team that was so ineffective in the first half can suddenly figure it out in the second.
Granted, Cincinnati was able to make adjustments and got a lot of help from Brady, who was uncharacteristically careless with the ball in the second half. Burrow specializes in playing from behind, but the Bengals will try to avoid falling in such a deep hole to start.
”We’re never out of it,” Burrow insisted. ”We’ve been in these situations before, and we always come back and make it a game.”
Linebacker Logan Wilson has been the heart of Cincinnati’s under-the-radar defense all season. Against the Bucs he combined for 15 tackles, including a strip-sack of Brady. The fumble, recovered by DJ Reader, led to a Bengals touchdown.
Running back Joe Mixon couldn’t get anywhere as the Bengals run game stalled again. Mixon averaged just 1.9 yards per carry in rushing for 21 yards. His backup, Samaje Perine, was only a bit better, picking up 24 yards on seven carries.
Hubbard may miss a couple of weeks with a calf injury.
74 – total number of offensive plays by Tampa Bay and the number for which Cincinnati safeties Jessie Bates and Vonn Bell, cornerback Eli Apple and linebacker Logan Wilson were on the field.
Cincinnati plays at New England (7-7) on Christmas Eve before finishing the regular season with a pair of tough home games that could determine playoff seeding, against Buffalo on Jan. 2 and Baltimore on Jan. 8.
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