ANALYSIS: 5 takeaways from Bengals’ loss to Browns in regular-season finale

The Cincinnati Bengals closed the regular season with a loss in the Battle of Ohio, but the backups got playing time and many of the starters will now go into the playoffs well-rested.

With the AFC North title already secured, Bengals coach Zac Taylor elected to sit most of the starters that were available. But the gamble that the backups could carry the momentum didn’t pay off in a 21-16 loss to the Browns on Sunday.

Backup quarterback Brandon Allen threw a 4-yard touchdown pass to Chris Evans with 2:26 left to cut into a 21-10 deficit, but the Bengals narrowly missed recovering the onside kick and the Browns sealed the win to finish their season 8-9. Cincinnati (10-7) saw a three-game win streak end.

Here are five takeaways from the game...

1. Resting starters right call

The Bengals weren’t going to be able to get the first or second seed since Kansas City and Tennessee both won, but the difference in the No. 3 and 4 seed wasn’t worth the risk playing starters. They wind up with the No. 4 seed since the Bills won (they would have had the tiebreaker over them with a win at Cleveland).

Taylor is banking on the rest for starters giving the team the best shot a playoff win. Cincinnati will take whatever is thrown its way after that. Going into the Sunday night game, the Bengals were set to play either the Raiders or Patriots in the first round next weekend at Paul Brown Stadium.

2. Chase sets another record

After the draft, wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase said he wanted to “break every record” in the book, and he’s doing what he set out to accomplish in just his first year.

The No. 5 overall draft pick added another record to his collection Sunday when he caught a 24-yard pass from Allen in the first quarter, his second and final target of the day before exiting the game. That reception put him at 1,455 yards this season, breaking Chad Johnson’s single-season receiving yards record of 1,440 yards set in 2007.

Last week, Chase finished with an NFL rookie single-game record of 266 yards and became the first rookie to record multiple 200-yard receiving games in the same season. He also topped Johnson’s team record of 260 receiving yards in a game.

3. Backups step up

Even though they didn’t get the win, the backups kept the game close. The Browns were starting backup quarterback Case Keenum and had a few starters unavailable, while limiting others, but the Bengals used just three starters on offense – Chase, right guard Hakeem Adeniji and right tackle Isaiah Prince – and Mike Hilton was the only regular defensive starter to play.

Chase played just long enough to get his record, but the others had to play out of necessity. The Bengals have seven starters on the Reserve/COVID list and wanted to play it safe with the others. Joe Burrow and D.J. Reader didn’t even travel with the team.

Both teams struggled to move the ball early, but the Browns took a 14-0 lead on touchdowns by Jarvis Landry, on a 26-yard pass from Keenum, and De’Ernest Johnson, on a 4-yard run.

Late in the second quarter, Wyatt Ray sacked Keenum to force a fumble, which Trayvon Henderson picked up and returned 29 yards for a touchdown to make it a 14-7 game going into halftime. The Bengals’ Elliot Fry kicked a field goal in the third quarter to close the gap further, but the Browns extended the lead on a Demetric Felton touchdown reception before Allen’s touchdown pass to Evans ended the scoring.

4. Burrow’s worth unquestioned

The Bengals knew how valuable Burrow was before Sunday, but with him not playing it was even more obvious how different the offense is with him. Allen didn’t have the weapons and protection Burrow normally gets, so it’s not a completely fair comparison, but Cincinnati managed just 182 yards of total offense, including 65 yards in the first half, and finished with just 51 offensive plays.

The Bengals benefit from resting Burrow, though. He’s already banged up, nursing a sore right knee and dislocated pinky, and the win last week against the Chiefs enabled him extra time to heal before the playoffs. Burrow also avoided further injury that could have occurred playing on a rainy, cold day in Cleveland, where he would have faced defensive ends Myles Garrett and Jadeveon Clowney.

Burrow already has been sacked 51 times this season. Allen took four sacks, behind an offensive line featuring backups on the left side and at center.

5. Defensive line ups and downs

The Bengals’ starting defensive line has been the most improved part of the team this season and maybe doesn’t get enough credit for that. Without ends Trey Hendrickson and Sam Hubbard and tackles Larry Ogunjobi and Reader, the defensive front had its ups and downs Sunday.

Mike Daniels got some good pressure on Keenum and finished with one tackle for loss, Ray had the sack and forced fumble and defensive end Noah Spence got two quarterback hurries, but the Browns finished with 205 yards rushing – and Nick Chubb accounted for only 58 yards on nine carries. Johnson rushed for 123 yards and one touchdown on 25 carries.

The Bengals defensive line should be ready for the playoffs. Ogunjobi and Hendrickson were placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list this week and are expected back in time. Hubbard was resting a thigh injury, and Reader was simply rested. Reader especially has been key in the run defense this season.

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