DENVER -- The Cincinnati Bengals are built for explosive plays and highlight-reel moments. Their quarterback was the first overall pick in his draft class, their rookie wide receiver opened this season torching opposing defenses and they've scored at least 30 points five times in the last eight games. It's that offense that first got the Bengals dreaming about what they might become. Now it's the Cincinnati defense that might ultimately dictate how far this team actually goes in the coming weeks.
Cincinnati's 15-10 win over the Denver Broncos on Sunday was precisely as ugly as the score indicates. There were only two touchdowns in the entire game and one of the most exciting sequences involved a 58-yard field goal by Cincy kicker Evan McPherson right before halftime. This was a contest that was all about the defenses, with first downs and chunk plays being especially hard to come by. It was the kind of contest the Bengals will likely find themselves in if their defense continues to deliver.
Cincinnati's offense managed just 249 total yards on Sunday. Its defense countered by only allowing 292 to the Broncos, while forcing the only turnover of the game. The end result is that the Bengals now sit in first place in the AFC North, courtesy of that victory and a 31-30 loss by the former division-leading Baltimore Ravens.
"Our defense played their tails off today," Bengals head coach Zac Taylor said. "They really sent a message to the league that we have a hell of a defense. We talk about these other defenses, but our guys step up and make the plays when they need to. They really enabled us to play the way we had to play to get this win."
The larger sentiment behind Taylor's words is that this is a young team that has to have some grit to it. The Bengals haven't enjoyed a winning season since 2015, which also is the last time they won their division. They've invested heavily in offense through the draft lately, as quarterback Joe Burrow was the first overall pick in 2020 and wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase was the fifth overall selection this past April. The defense has blossomed with the assistance of key veteran acquisitions, including defensive end Trey Hendrickson, defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi and cornerback Mike Hilton.
When Cincinnati's D has been on, the Bengals have beaten up on playoff contenders like the Ravens, Raiders and Steelers (twice). When it's been off, it's been a different story, as the Browns and Chargers both scored 41 against them and the lowly Jets went off for 34. This is why Taylor was so ready to tout what happened on Sunday. Even a strong showing against an offense as limited as Denver's means Cincy is moving back in the right direction defensively.
The Bengals' hopes of claiming the division crown hinge heavily on what happens on that side of the football. They're about to host the Ravens in a rematch this coming week. The Chiefs are coming to town after that, and Kansas City already has taken hold of the top seed in the AFC playoffs. Then there's the Week 18 visit to that same Browns team that beat Cincinnati, 41-16, on Nov. 7. Every one of those teams will be fighting for something. The Bengals -- who entered Sunday with a defense that ranked 17th in the NFL in points allowed and fourth in rushing yards allowed -- need to be ready to match that level of aggression.
"We just have to continue to play together," Ogunjobi said. "The biggest thing is just pounding that rock. Sometimes things don't go your way when you're playing close games, but just find a way to get that win. That's the biggest thing and we did that today."
Sunday's victory was especially crucial for the Bengals because they'd lost their previous two games. A defeat against Denver wouldn't have merely hurt their chances of overcoming Baltimore for the division title -- it also would've left them in a more precarious position on the wild-card front. An 8-6 record gives them a lot more breathing room, given the gauntlet they're about to take on in the final three weeks of the regular season.
The Bengals gave up 133 yards on the ground Sunday, but the Broncos had little success throwing the football. Denver quarterback Teddy Bridgewater only completed 12 of 22 passes for 98 yards before being knocked out of the game midway through the third quarter. (Bridgewater was taken to the hospital after Bengals linebacker Joe Bachie and defensive tackle B.J. Hill tackled him at the end of a scramble.) Bridgewater's backup, Drew Lock, didn't fare much better. Lock did throw a 25-yard touchdown pass to Tim Patrick, but the third-year pro finished with just 88 passing yards, completing six of his 12 attempts.
In fact, Lock was involved in the biggest defensive play of the game, when Bengals DE Khalid Kareem stripped the ball from him on a read-option play early in the fourth quarter. Denver had driven to Cincinnati's 9-yard line, but the turnover gave the Bengals the ball at their own 15. It also effectively extinguished the last good scoring opportunity the Broncos would have on the day.
That's the kind of play that can make a huge difference in defining what a team like Cincinnati actually is: a young group going through growing pains vs. a burgeoning contender actually going somewhere.
"I knew the Broncos had a really good defense and it would be tough for us to put points on the board," said Burrow, who finished with 157 passing yards, 56 of which came on a touchdown to Tyler Boyd. "Just like the Raiders game a couple weeks ago (a 32-13 win), I knew I'd have to take care of the football, be smart (and) take opportunities when they were there. Obviously, some games you come in thinking that way and then it turns out different and you have to win the game in the fourth quarter. You just have to be adaptable as a quarterback."
The same can be said for this entire Cincinnati team. You'd be hard-pressed to find anybody who thought the Bengals were drifting under the radar at the start of the season, just waiting for the chance to reach their current position in the division. Cincy won four games in 2020. Most Bengals fans likely would've been pleased if Burrow merely played well after a return from major knee surgery and all these new faces showed promise. This group is far beyond that point now.
"I continue to say this week in and week out: If we play right, like we did this week, the sky's the limit (and) I don't think we can be beat," Boyd said.
The Bengals have been through enough ups and downs this year that there's plenty of truth in that statement. It's even more accurate when that defense is coming around at the right time of year.