Heading into Bye, Bengals Appear Ready to Rejoin AFC’s Elite

Scott Engel
Last Updated: Oct 20, 2023

The Cincinnati Bengals will come out of their Week 7 bye with a very daunting task when they travel to San Francisco to take on the 49ers. Yet they can certainly feel better about their chances in Week 8 and for the season overall after winning two consecutive games before the week off.

“Having a two-game win streak going into the bye is big,” said Bengals cornerback Mike Hilton.

Beating the Arizona Cardinals was something Cincinnati simply had to do after losing three of its first four games. Good teams must dispatch bad teams to maintain respectability.

Winning a hard-fought 17-13 matchup with a Seattle Seahawks squad that came into Cincinnati with a 3-1 record was a clear signal that the Bengals may be on a path to regaining contender status in the AFC. Cincinnati has the seventh-best odds to win the AFC at +1500 on DraftKings Sportsbook and now may be a good time to take a shot on them with such a wager.

After Seattle scored 24-plus points in its three straight wins, the Bengals held the Seahawks to 13 points and kept them out of the end zone with four late chances to win the game, starting from the Cincinnati 11-yard line. There were signs that the offense should soon round into form, and the defense continued to look solid.

“At the end of the day, we just have tremendous confidence that our defense is going to figure it out, and they did. And they had a huge stop there at the end,” head coach Zac Taylor said.

The Bengals rank sixth in the NFL with 19 sacks and are tied for third with eight takeaways. Cincinnati ranks in the top 10 in red zone defensive TD percentage and has allowed a total of 49 points in their last three wins, which have come in the last four games.

“The story going into the bye week is our defense is elite like they’ve been for a long time,” said center Ted Karras.

While the Cincinnati defense might not fly in the rarefied air of the 49ers, New York Jets, or Cleveland Browns despite Karras’ declaration of the unit being elite, the Bengals have nonetheless played very well on that side of the ball recently. The defense has definitely been a crux of success after a slow start to the season.

The offense has averaged just 16.7 points per game, tied for 27th in the NFL. In 2022, the Bengals averaged 26.1 points per game. But Taylor is just thankful that the defense has led the charge back to winning ways, and he surely expects the offense to regain more of its better form soon.

“We kind of stubbed our toe starting this race off,” Taylor said. “And we’re going to continue to pick up steam.”

“There’s days where our defense is going to lead the charge and lead us to victory. There’s times where the offense is going to reciprocate that.”

Regular NFL observers well know that a lingering calf injury stunted the early-season production of Joe Burrow. Yet over the past two games, there have been true signs that the issue has hindered him less, and he also had the bye week for more needed rest.

Burrow passed for a season-high 317 yards with three touchdowns against Arizona, looking much like his better self. He also threw two first-half TD passes vs a formidable Seattle secondary.

But the Bengals only managed a field goal in the second half, leaving Burrow to feel like the offense was still not performing optimally heading into the week off.

“[We’re] not where we want to be,” Burrow said. “We’ve had moments, but we just have to put it all together.”

Taylor liked what he saw early against Seattle but will push for more complete performances going forward. Offensive improvements should be expected after the bye week.

“We did a better job on offense, starting strong and getting some points that we can play with a lead,“ Taylor said. “That’s the difference from those first couple of weeks.

“We certainly want to score more than 17 points. We should score more than 17 points.”

After a week off, we should anticipate the Bengals scoring more than 17 points consistently. The San Francisco matchup will obviously present a major test to see how much the offense has progressed after looking good against Arizona but inconsistent vs. Seattle.

The 49ers allow a league-low 14.5 points per game. As any NFL fan knows, San Francisco is also very potent on offense, as the Niners average 30.7 points per game.

The Bengals are glad to be back at .500, but the schedule ahead is very tough, with Buffalo Bills and Baltimore Ravens after San Francisco and a matchup with the Jacksonville Jaguars in Week 13. Getting back into the mix with the top contenders in the AFC won’t be easy.

“It’s back to 0-0, how I look at it,” said cornerback Cam Taylor-Britt. “It’s a fresh start, and we’ve got to come back after the bye and keep on our feet on a lot of people’s necks because, as you can see, it’s not going to be easy like it wasn’t {in Week 6} and we’ve got the 49ers coming up right after the bye.”

We have not seen the best version of the Cincinnati offense yet this season, but the defense has performed at a level that can help the team’s outlook in the postseason. Tee Higgins missed a game because of rib issues recently and was not a major factor in Week 6, and left tackle Orlando Brown suffered a groin injury against Seattle.

“The bye is coming at a good time — get some guys healthy, come back,” Burrow said. “We have a grind ahead of us, so we have to get better.”

The Week 7 edition of the Bengals can be the most complete one we have seen so far this season. A healthier Burrow, along with Ja’Marr Chase and a healthy Higgins, plus more pass-catching depth with Tyler Boyd, gives Cincinnati its best chances to trade offensive punches with the likes of the 49ers, Bills, and Jaguars.

Defensively, the Bengals have faced the sixth-ranked Rams, 10th-ranked Ravens, and the Seahawks so far, but the bigger challenges lie ahead. So, we will find out just how good Cincinnati is over the next few weeks.

Getting the running game going is essential to success. The Bengals rank last in the NFL in rushing yards per game and ranked 29th last season.

If the Bengals want to truly get back into the conversations with the best in the AFC, then the rushing attack at least has to establish respectability. The team has continually fallen in the rushing ranks over the past three seasons, as Cincinnati was 23rd during the 2021 season.

While Cincinnati was able to win an AFC Championship in ’21 and returned to the AFC Championship Game last year, being at the bottom of the league in rushing can puncture a major hole in their hopes of making another deep playoff run.

Taylor felt good coming out of the win over Seattle but indicated there was a lot to work on during the bye week in terms of getting the offense into a groove more often.

“Any way we can find a win, we’re going to do it, and we’re going to be happy about it,” Taylor said. “And that doesn’t mean that there’s not a lot we can improve on offense.”

Burrow agreed, saying, “There’s still a lot of room to improve and a lot of room to grow.”

If the offense continues to sputter at times, though, Hilton is confident that the defense can key more victories.

“We know they lean on us, and they know we lean on them,” Hilton said. “Some days, we have to pick them up and vice versa. It’s a team game, and [we were] just happy to go into the bye with a win.”

Before the Bengals embark on a very difficult stretch of the schedule, Hilton added that powering down with a week off will allow the team to re-energize as needed.

“It’s a whole reset,“ Hilton said. “Some guys can get healthy, and other guys have a week to take that mental and physical break and get ready for the back half of the season.”

Burrow pointed out that returning to an even record overall generated collective positivity heading into the bye.

“It’s a lot easier to fix things when you’re 3-3 than if you had lost,” Burrow said when reflecting back on the Week 6 victory.

The pieces are still in place for the Bengals to start rolling again soon, and Cincinnati remains very capable of hanging with the Kansas City Chiefs and Miami Dolphins, among the best teams in the AFC. At the very least, they might land right outside those big two in perception, along with Buffalo, which has recently taken a hit to its contender reputation.

With a near “murderer’s row” of opponents ahead, the Bengals will be ready for the most revealing stretch of the season. The prediction here is that Cincinnati will remain among the top 4 teams in the AFC with a healthier Burrow as the key.

A win over San Francisco, though, could vault them into a loftier spot in the NFL power rankings and re-establish Cincinnati as one of the biggest threats to the Chiefs and Dolphins in the AFC.

Taylor said his players are prepared to hit their stride starting in Week 7.

“Right now, we’re at that 3-3 mark going into a bye,” Taylor said. “We get a chance to get healthy and then hit the surge after the bye starting with San Francisco.”

While he stressed that adjustments must be made to perform more consistently, Burrow is optimistic about how the team should fare going forward.

“I feel good,” Burrow said. “Everything’s ahead of us.”


Scott Engel

Scott Engel is a Senior Sports Writer at The Game Day. Previously he was at SportsLine.com and The Athletic. His work is also featured at RotoBaller and on Seahawks.com. Scott is a host on SiriusXM Fantasy Sports Radio. He is an inaugural member of the Fantasy Sports Writers Association's Hall of Fame. Scott is a four-time FSWA award winner and a 13-time finalist. He was an Associate Editor and featured writer at ESPN.com. and his career began at CBS SportsLine, where he was a Senior Writer and Managing Editor. Scott was the Managing Director at RotoExperts.

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