Exactly one year ago Monday, Joe Burrow lay writhing in agony on the turf in Landover, Maryland, his ACL shredded and his promising rookie season done. Burrow, the No. 1 pick in the 2020 NFL draft, rolled into the league atop a wave of anticipation based on the way he’d guided one of the most formidable offenses in college football history the year before. But there he was, story done for the season and, perhaps, the arc of his career shortened.
Today, a recovered Burrow is leading a rejuvenated Bengals team that’s 6-4, deep in the AFC playoff chase and just a single game out of first place in the AFC North. The Bengals haven’t won more than seven games in a season since 2015, haven’t won a playoff game since 1990. But with Burrow under center again, the team’s starting to believe that the past doesn’t need to be precedent.
Take Sunday’s 32-13 win on the road against the Las Vegas Raiders. Burrow wasn’t anywhere close to great, throwing for a career-low 148 yards and making uncharacteristic mistakes throughout the game. But for once, he didn’t need to be the hero; the rest of the team rallied, picked him up, and gave Cincinnati yet another decisive victory.
“That was fun. It was a hard-fought game,” Burrow said afterward. “We knew with the kind of defense they were, we had to stay patient.”
The Bengals hung on through a wild 26-point, five-score fourth quarter that began with a 13-6 lead. The Raiders drew as close as 16-13, but Cincinnati scored a touchdown and forced two turnovers to ice the win.
“I’m really proud of the way our guys have responded,” head coach Zac Taylor said after the win. “It shows the maturity of our football team, after a bye to go out and get a big road win.”
That “road win” line is a significant one, both for Taylor and for the team as a whole. Cincinnati has now won four games on the road this year after winning just one in each of the last two seasons, the mark of a team that’s learning to win in adverse conditions.
"We lost 15 games in a row on the road, I don't know if you remember that, I do," Taylor said. "We needed to win this game a certain way. We had to get that lead no matter what it looked like so that we could keep leaning on the run game and get after the quarterback a little bit."
Cincinnati’s other Joe — Mixon — shouldered a heavy load on Sunday, carrying the ball 30 times for 130 yards and two touchdowns. That’s the kind of bruising Midwestern offense that serves AFC North teams well, and Mixon is thrilled that he’s running with more at stake than his own numbers now.
"The weather turns and to be real, man, with the history of me being in Cincinnati, usually November and December become them games where they lean on me," Mixon said after the game. "I'm ready for it ... I definitely look forward to playing November, December, because like I said, we have everything and every team that we need to get in the playoffs."
Playoffs? We’re talking about playoffs? Yes indeed, but Cincinnati’s got one hell of a road to travel before the postseason arrives. Cincinnati’s bye came last week, so the Bengals have a seven-week stretch without a single gimme on the slate.
Next week, the Bengals will host the Steelers, who will be playing for their playoff lives the rest of the season. Further on, Cincinnati still has dates with their other two AFC North rivals, as well as Super Bowl hopefuls in the Rams and Chiefs, and teams that have recently obliterated Super Bowl hopefuls in the Broncos and 49ers. Tankathon ranks that as the fourth-toughest strength of schedule remaining in the NFL; the only bright sign is that the three teams ranked above the Bengals are their three divisional rivals.
Opportunity is there for Cincinnati to be a force in the AFC North for years to come, in large part because the Bengals hold a winning hand at quarterback. The Ravens have Lamar Jackson, but will be paying considerably more for his services whenever he signs his extension. The Steelers appear to be at the end of the Ben Roethlisberger era, with no immediate replacement on the horizon. The Browns remain in a maybe-yes, maybe-no limbo with Baker Mayfield, which in turn keeps the entire team treading water.
That’s for the future, though. For now, this Cincinnati Bengals team is headed in the right direction. Quite the change from a year ago.
Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter at @jaybusbee or contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.