CINCINNATI (AP) — The first eight games of the season brought panic, disappointment, bewilderment, hope and elation for the Cincinnati Bengals and their fans.
Often, it was a combination of all those things.
At the center of all that, as usual, was superstar quarterback Joe Burrow. His play usually dictates the fortunes of the Bengals.
The 26-year-old Burrow started the season rusty because of a lingering calf injury that caused him to miss all of training camp. The Bengals looked rusty too.
Cincinnati lost its first two games and got off to a 1-3 start on Oct. 1 after a 27-3 rout at Tennessee.
As Burrow's calf got better, so did the quarterback, who now was more mobile in the pocket, able to scramble and turn broken plays into positive yards.
Behind a strong, experienced, turnover-forcing defense, the Bengals beat Arizona and the outlasted Seattle 17-13 before their bye.
They roared out of the break and — with Burrow now completely healthy — beat the 49ers 31-17 before showing a national TV audience they are still AFC playoff contenders with a 24-18 victory over the Buffalo Bills before a record crowd on Sunday night in Cincinnati.
“There's a lot more out there for us,” said receiver Tee Higgins, who had eight catches for a season-high 110 yards against Buffalo. “I feel like we still haven't gotten to our peak yet.”
In the past four games, Burrow has thrown for 1,113 yards and 10 touchdowns. In the first four, he had 728 and two TDs.
“The character of this team, these are the stages they want to be on,” coach Zac Taylor said after Buffalo game. “They don't shy away from it. That confidence is earned. It's not anything phony.”
The Bengals are playing complementary football. The Buffalo game was a great example. Cincinnati allowed 258 passing yards and a late touchdown, but also picked off quarterback Josh Allen and forced a red zone fumble to keep the Bills playing from behind.
WHAT NEEDS HELP
As hard as Joe Mixon runs, the Bengals are still struggling to move the ball on the ground. Cincinnati's featured back is averaging just over 61 yards per game. He had 37 yards against Buffalo, a season-low per-carry average of 2.6 yards. However, his 2-yard touchdown showed his power as a runner.
Cornerback Cam Taylor-Britt, a second-round draft pick in 2022, has helped to spark the Cincinnati defense in the first half. His interception of Allen was his third in four games.
The offensive line has struggled for enough push to get Mixon to the second level of the defense. Three different linemen drew penalty flags Sunday night.
Plus-9 — Bengals turnover ratio, the best in the NFL entering Monday.
Re-establish dominance in the AFC North. How the Bengals play in their four remaining division games will be critical to their hopes of getting back to the playoffs for the third consecutive season.
Asked Sunday if the Bengals were a championship contender again, Taylor brushed it off.
“We don't need to worry about that right now,” he said. “We have a team we trust and believe in. We have a huge game next week against the Houston Texans, and that's all we're worried about.”
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