CINCINNATI -- After the Cincinnati Bengals dropped a second straight game to open the season, they regrouped in the locker room, and the message, according to quarterback Joe Burrow, was they had two games coming up over 10 days to get things right.
The Bengals did just that.
Thursday night’s 27-15 win over the Miami Dolphins put them back at .500, four days after they beat the New York Jets on the road Sunday. And the fashion in which they won in primetime Thursday, in front of the largest crowd in Bengals history, was reminiscent of how their Super Bowl run played out last season, a sign to Burrow the team is getting back to that level.
Cincinnati’s defense bailed out the offense with consistency and big plays, like Vonn Bell’s second interception of the night, which put the ball back in Burrow’s hands with about three minutes left. Burrow did what he does best and stepped up in a pressure situation to lead a game-sealing touchdown drive, as the Bengals handed the Dolphins their first loss of the season.
Here are five takeaways from the game:
1. Defense continues making plays
The defense extended its streak of drives without a touchdown allowed to 25 before Miami reached the end zone late in the second quarter. Until then, the Dolphins had settled for a pair of field goals, and Jason Sanders added another one in the second half for the team’s only points.
Bell, who had just two career interceptions going into the game, picked off Tua Tagovailoa on a deep ball intended for Tyreek Hill in the first quarter, then added another timely pick late in the fourth quarter to help protect a five-point lead. His 46-yard return on Teddy Bridgewater’s thrown interception also put the offense in a good position to add to the cushion and kill off the game.
“We kept feeding off one another – you (could) feel the energy,” Bell said. “We trust one another, we believe in (each other), and we just kept going out there feeding off each other and making plays. The sky’s the limit with this defense.”
Hill finished with 160 yards on 10 catches but no touchdowns. Jaylen Waddle, who Chidobe Awuzie often matched up with, had just two catches for 39 yards.
2. Offense still seeking consistency
The Bengals made plays when they needed to on offense but still lacked consistency they seek. They scored on their opening drive for the second straight game with Joe Mixon pushing the pack for a 6-yard touchdown on third-and-inches, but the next three possessions ended in punts or a turnover on downs.
Tee Higgins picked the offense back up with a 59-yard touchdown catch for a 14-6 lead with 2:50 left in the second quarter, but Cincinnati went into halftime with just a two-point cushion and punted its first two drives of the second half while Miami briefly pulled ahead on a field goal from Sanders.
Cincinnati relied on Evan McPherson’s leg to get the lead back, but Burrow led a five-play, 45-yard drive to finish the game off with a 2-yard touchdown pass to Hayden Hurst.
“I mean on offense we’re finding our stride, defense has been great all year,” Burrow said. “We’re starting to click on all cylinders. We keep getting better on offense. There was a spell halfway through the game right there that we didn’t put any points on the board but I thought we responded well, and we score points when we needed to. Defense is going to keep playing great, that’s what they do.”
The running game continues to sputter. Mixon had 24 carries for just 61 yards for an average of 2.5 yards per attempt.
3. Explosive plays changed the game
The Bengals had five plays over 20 yards. Higgins’ 59-yard touchdown was one of those, but the others were key plays on scoring drives. Boyd caught a 43-yard pass to open the fourth quarter on a drive that ended with a McPherson 19-yard field goal for a 17-15 lead, and two plays before that reception, Boyd converted a third-and-11 with a trick-play pass to Ja’Marr Chase for 23 yards.
Burrow found Higgins on a 22-yard pass to get to midfield later in the fourth quarter, helping set up McPherson’s 57-yard field goal to make it 20-15, and Burrow connected with Ja’Marr Chase on a 36-yard pass on the final drive to put the Bengals on the 6-yard line.
Higgins finished with 124 yards on seven catches.
“It’s boosts us when we have those explosive plays, whether it be me, T.B., Joe Mix(on) or Chase, anybody, Hayden,” Higgins said. “Any explosive play, it gives the whole team a boost you know even when the defense get on the field, so we were able to do that today and come out with a W.”
Burrow credited the offensive line for giving him time on those throws. After taking 13 sacks over the first two games, Burrow has seen better protection the past two games. He had one sack on Thursday and two on Sunday in New Jersey.
4. Concern for Tagovaioloa
Tagovailoa left the game on a stretcher with less than six minutes left in the first half, after he was slammed to the ground on a sack by Josh Tupou. It was a clean play for Tupou’s first career sack, but the back of Tagovailoa’s helmet hit the ground and his hands froze in front of his face, indicating a possible severe neurological injury.
The third-year quarterback had been evaluated for a concussion Sunday against the Bills, but missed just three snaps and returned after halftime. He was reported all week as dealing with a back and ankle injury, but started as expected, and after the game Miami coach Mike McDaniel insisted he had been cleared by a neutral party and the team “would never fudge something like that.”
The Dolphins announced Tagovailoa was being discharged from the University of Cincinnati Medical Center late Thursday night and flying home with the team.
“It’s always scary when somebody goes down like that,” Burrow said when asked about Tagovailoa. “We play a dangerous game, you know something like that could happen at any time, but it’s always scary when it does. They told me he’s flying home with the team, so that’s great news. Hopefully he has a speedy recovery.”
5. Big-game performers
Higgins said the Bengals “play well when the lights are bright,” and that has proven to be the case since last year when they won their Thursday Night game against the Jaguars and their biggest games leading up to the Super Bowl.
They stepped up in their first primetime appearance of the season and fed off an energetic crowd that embraced the “White Out” and provided an incredible atmosphere, despite all the talk of the first two weeks of the team failing to meet expectations.
“I love everything about this team,” he said. “They didn’t hesitate for one second, after those first two weeks when all the noise was getting out about expectations. They didn’t let that affect them for one second. They just came out and answered the bell and responded for two consecutive weeks. Just really proud of them on this stage, against that team.”