Now while the outside world, and especially those around the local community, are talking about the possibility of the Bengals getting their first playoff win since the 1990 season, the players say they are talking about starting a run.
They’re focused on the Wild Card game against the Las Vegas Raiders (10-7) on Saturday at Paul Brown Stadium, but hoping that’s just the start. Here are five storylines to watch going into the game…
1. The “Curse of Bo” coming full circle
The last time the Bengals played the Raiders (the Los Angeles team), Cincinnati was coming off a huge first-round win against Houston and little did anyone know that would be the team’s last playoff victory in more than three decades.
Cincinnati has long been cursed – as fans believe – for Bo Jackson’s career-ending hip injury that occurred in the third quarter of the game vs. the Raiders, and now 31 years later, it can be broken against his former team. The Bengals didn’t make the playoffs again until the 2005 season and they’ve lost eight straight playoff appearances.
Fortunately for this team, most of the key contributors are 27 years old or younger and weren’t alive when Jackson’s career ended, and they weren’t even aware of “the curse” until reporters started asking about it last week. They aren’t concerned.
“Our players have always just had a belief that the sky’s the limit for us, that on our best day, we can beat anyone in this league,” Bengals coach Zac Taylor said. “I think that’s what has motivated us throughout the season that as long as we go out there and we play our best football, we’re always going to have a chance at the end of the day.”
2. Repeating success
History isn’t on Cincinnati’s side if you’re looking back through the years, but the more recent past is reason to believe the Bengals can be successful Saturday. The Bengals beat the Raiders 32-13 in Week 11 after they were coming off a bye following two straight disappointing losses, and that game proved to be a turning point for the team.
The Bengals clinched the AFC North in Week 17 and rested starters in the finale, while the Raiders needed a last-second field goal in overtime Sunday Night to beat the Chargers and secure their place as the No. 5 seed. So, Cincinnati is coming in fresh and hoping that pays off on the field Saturday.
Las Vegas is without safety Johnathan Abrams, but the only active player who is questionable is defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins (back/knee).
In the first matchup, the Bengals got two takeaways in the final five minutes and blew open the game with a 19-point fourth quarter. Joe Mixon got off to a slow start, but Cincinnati stuck with the run and after changing cleats to better deal with the slick turf in Vegas, Mixon broke free for one of his best games. He finished with 123 yards and one touchdown on 30 carries.
3. Stopping the run
While Derek Carr has been responsible for a lot of big plays through the air, running back Josh Jacobs has stepped up over the last few games and could be more of a challenge this time for the league’s fifth-best run defense. Jacobs has rushed for more than 125 yards in two of the last three games, putting him at 872 yards this season with nine touchdowns.
Bengals linebacker Logan Wilson said stopping the run first is still the focus, and that should allow the pass rush to do its thing like the first matchup when back-to-back sacks contributed to the first takeaway. The passing game revolves around Hunter Renfrow and tight end Darren Waller, who recorded seven catches for 117 yards in the first matchup.
“I think it always starts up front,” Wilson said. “Obviously defending the run, if a team gets the run game going, then they can open up the pass game and so it starts there. I think that Jacobs is running the ball really well right now and so it’s always tough. And obviously you got Darren Waller and Hunter Renfrow as receivers, those are big weapons. It starts up front. You just gotta be able to defend the run game and then force them into passing situations.”
The Raiders have struggled with turnovers this season with 24. They rank 27th in the league with a minus-9 turnover margin.
4. Holding off the pass rush
Left tackle Jonah Williams said the playoffs are a clean slate for the offensive line, after allowing a league-worst 55 sacks this season.
The Raiders’ have a solid pass rush. Maxx Crosby has eight sacks but applies heavy pressure on opposing quarterbacks, and Yannick Ngakoue has 10 sacks. Burrow was sacked three times in the previous meeting, twice by Ngakoue.
“I’ve got a lot of respect for those two guys and the guys in the interior as well,” Taylor said. “And again, it’s all packaged together. They do a really good job in coverage. Their backers understand, they’ve been in the scheme for a while, (Denzel) Perryman especially and those guys in coverage as well. So it all blends together. They do a good job taking away the easy stuff, making it hard on you and allowing those guys up front to get their one on ones and go attack the quarterback, and it’s as good a group as you can play against. Those two edge guys really bring it and they’re really stout inside and have some good pass rush tackles as well.”
Hakeem Adeniji was making his second start at right guard back in Week 11 and now is preparing for his ninth straight start. Quinton Spain is expected back at left guard following an ankle injury suffered in Week 17, and Isaiah Prince remains at right tackle with Riley Reiff out for the remainder of the season.
5. Burrow’s first playoff game
Burrow has been in the spotlight since he was drafted No. 1 overall in 2020, but now fans are anxious to see what he can do in his first chance to win an NFL playoff game.
The Bengals drafted a confident player who thrives in pressure situations, so Burrow shrugs off any added meaning to Saturday’s game. He won a national championship with LSU in 2019 and never buckled under pressure then.
Burrow says he just wants to do whatever is needed to get the win, whether that means leaning on Mixon in the running game or throwing 50 passes to beat the Raiders in the air. However the Bengals attack this game, Burrow is the leader guiding them.
“I’ve got great people around me and great coaches that prepare me for the moment and just staying even-keeled through the ups and the downs throughout the game,” Burrow said. “Don’t get too excited, don’t get too down on yourself when you make a mistake. Just play this game like you have all year and we’ll get the job done.”
Raiders at Bengals, 4:30 p.m., NBC, Peacock, 700, 1530, 102.7, 104.7