Taylor: Bengals still ‘have a lot left to play for’ despite missing playoffs

Cincinnati hosts Cleveland on Sunday in regular-season finale

CINCINNATI — The Cincinnati Bengals already have been eliminated from playoff contention, but coach Zac Taylor’s message to the team Monday was that they still “have a lot left to play for this week.”

A disappointing loss at Kansas City on New Year’s Eve, coupled with other results around the AFC not going in Cincinnati’s favor, officially ended the Bengals’ playoff hopes. They host the Cleveland Browns in the finale at 1 p.m. Sunday with a chance to finish with a winning record for a third straight season. The Browns are expected to rest starters with the No. 5 seed locked up in the AFC.

Taylor said a winning record “is better than the alternative,” but more importantly, the Bengals want to end on a high note.

“Our fans that supported us, we get a home game, chance to reward ourselves with a hard-fought win,” Taylor said. “We’ve got to find a way to get that done, momentum to finish the season and some positivity that’s there. ... The fans that have continued to support us and cheer for this team and put their heart and soul into supporting us, get a chance to watch us play hard in a home game and find a way to win. So (there’s) a lot left to play for.

“The encouraging thing is ... we got a roster of guys that I know are going to put their best effort forth all week in practice and in the game. So we’re going to have a great plan. We’re doing everything we can to win this game and end the season on a high note.”

The Bengals have had several players fighting through injuries this season, including Ja’Marr Chase and Tee Higgins. Both played at less than 100 percent at Kansas City when a playoff berth was on the line. Chase informed the staff as they were boarding for the trip Saturday that he wanted to play but told media after the game he was only at 70 percent. Higgins tweaked his hamstring in the first half and ended up checking himself back into the game in the second half.

Taylor said he appreciated that Chase and Higgins wanted to help their team, like many others who are dealing with lesser-known injuries. Asked if anyone already has been declared out for the finale, Taylor said it’s too early to know, but he made one thing clear: The Bengals aren’t looking at this game as a chance to throw in a bunch of backups and see what they’ve got for the future.

“The No. 1 thing for us is to win the game,” Taylor said. “Whatever we gotta do to win the game. I think that’s something we have done because we have a lot of young talent on the team, is find roles for these guys, whether it be special teams or offense or defense as the season has gone. These guys have played a lot for us. So, when you just overall, over the course of the season, look at young guys and what are their roles as they get more experience as the season goes, a lot of those guys play significant roles for us. It’s not like there’s a lot of guys out there who haven’t done anything for us. But our No. 1 objective is to win this game by any means necessary. However, that looks is however it looks.”

Taylor said he was proud of the effort the players gave Sunday, despite coming up short.

The Bengals had a 17-13 lead at halftime and didn’t score in the second half, while the defense struggled with explosive plays that led to field goals on six drives and eventually piled up to a 25-17 win for the Chiefs. Taylor believed the game would have gone differently if Willie Gay Jr. hadn’t blown up the fourth-and-1 run attempted by Joe Mixon at the Kansas City 6-yard line. He believed it was the correct call but the Chiefs’ defensive front deserved credit for the stop.

“There were different things we thought we were putting ourselves in decent position, but a play sets you back and got yourself in a situation where its third-and-long, which we’d done a good job of avoiding all game,” Taylor said. “That’s really when they teed off on teams and had a lot of success and that’s the game in the fourth quarter. That became tough.”

It’s been a roller-coaster kind of season for Cincinnati, which started 1-3.

Prior to Burrow’s wrist ligament tear, the Bengals had a stretch of four wins in five games where it seemed things were starting to head in the right direction. Even after a three-game losing streak that included Jake Browning’s first start, the Bengals won three straight and were in position for the No. 6 seed before dropping back-to-back games at Pittsburgh and Kansas City. Now, they are left wondering “what if.”

“Life in the NFL is you’re not always gonna have all your guys, and you just have to find a way, and there were stretches where we found ways,” Taylor said. “We obviously came up short the last two weeks in two critical games. That’s tough to swallow for all of us because of the work that’s put in and the expectations we have for ourselves.”


Browns at Bengals, 1 p.m., CBS, 700, 1290, 1530, 95.7, 102.7, 104.7

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