The Cincinnati Bengals looked like they were back in 2018.
That’s the season they won five of their first eight games and then closed out the year losing seven of their last eight games to finish 6-10.
This was supposed to be a storybook Sunday.
Jake Browning — the Bengals back-up quarterback who had been thrust into the starting role with the season-ending injury to Joe Burrow 10 days ago in Baltimore — was finally getting a chance to return to the record-setting glory he once knew in high school and college, before these past five seasons in and out of the NFL and always in the shadows.
But fairy tales don’t happen in the NFL when you can’t run the football; you can’t stop the other team’s tight end; and when you put your inexperienced quarterback — with none of the diversion that comes with at least a semblance of a ground game — against the Pittsburgh Steelers defense led by game wreckers T.J. Watt and Cam Heyward,
Browning summed it up best after the Steelers overcame Cincinnati, 16-10, handing the 5-6 Bengals their third straight loss.
“The overarching themes of the season, those kinds of story lines are big for your jobs, but for my job, it’s just day to day and trying to get consistently better,” he told the assembled postgame press.
Although this was the first football game he’d started since he quarterbacked his Washington Huskies in a 28 -23 loss to Ohio State in the Rose Bowl in January of 2019, the 27-year-old Browning refused to lean into that kind of thinking.
He called that “a cop out.” He defined his outing as “some ups, some downs…It was not my best game.”
He did make a bad decision on a red zone interception early in the third quarter with the Bengals leading 7-3. The pass, intended for Ja’Marr Chase, was picked off by Steelers strong safety Trenton Thompson, who anticipated the pass and jumped the route.
That turnover ignited the Steelers, and they went on a long drive that ended with a 5-yard touchdown run by Najee Harris that put Pittsburgh in the lead for good.
But this loss was not Browning’s fault. He completed 19 of 26 passes for 227 yards and an 11-yard TD pass to tight end Drew Sample early in the second quarter.
“He did a good job out there,” an otherwise numb Chase said afterward. “You can’t ask for much, he’s a replacement for Joe Burrow. You can’t rely so much (on him.) …You just let him play his game and be the dog (good player) he is.”
The problem was the Bengals were one dimensional.
They ran for just 25 yards against the Steelers. Only twice in franchise history — 2000 and 2012 — have they rushed for fewer yards in a game.
Running back Joe Mixon carried eight times for 16 yards. It was his lowest output in four years.
Meanwhile, Pittsburgh ran for 153 yards, including 99 on 15 carries by Harris.
Steelers quarterback Kenny Pickett threw for 278 yards, 120 of them to tight end Pat Freiermuth, who had 11 catches.
Browning was hoping to rekindle some of glory moments from the years when he piled up yards and touchdowns like he was a pinball wizard.
As a high school quarterback in Folsom, California, he was the Gatorade Player of the Year as a senior. That year he threw for 91 touchdowns and 5,790 yards. For his career he set an all-time record in high school football, throwing for 16,775 yards and 229 touchdowns,
At Washington, he set program records with 12,296 yards and 94 passing TDs.
But he wasn’t drafted out of college and, though the Minnesota Vikings signed him as a free agent, they cut and resigned him three times and never elevated him above the practice squad in two seasons.
By September of 2021 he was out of football and back home in Washington, planning to coach as a volunteer at Oregon State.
That’s when the Bengals called and for much of the past three seasons, he’s still had a tenuous grasp of the NFL. He was cut twice by Cincinnati. Each time he was picked back up, he was mostly relegated to the scout team and spent his NFL weeks pretending to be the opposition’s quarterback.
That changed this preseason when he finally won the backup job. He finally got in a game for mop-up duty in the opener against Cleveland and threw one incomplete pass.
Then 10 days ago he was brought in after Burrow was lost for the season with a wrist injury. Browning completed eight of 14 passes, including a late score to Chase in the 34-20 loss.
After Sunday’s game he was asked if he could appreciate the moment or would the loss cloud everything for him:
“I think over the next 24 hours maybe or at some point, I will not feel just (PO’d) that we lost. Or maybe it will take a year or two.
“But I think we just lost a close game where you feel you didn’t play your best and we didn’t play well enough on offense. We only gave up 16 points on defense and we lost. That’s kind of the primary thought in my head.”
The way Jake Browning saw it — and the relit scoreboard stated it — this was not a day for football fairy tales.