With two minutes left in the game and a 20-point lead, the Cincinnati Bengals only needed to run out the clock to take sole possession of first place in the AFC North. But quarterback Joe Burrow – the No. 1 pick who changed the trajectory of the franchise with his talent and his confidence – saw one more opportunity within reach.
He lined up under center. Even though Bengals head coach Zac Taylor specifically told him not to, Burrow scrambled out of the pocket. On the run, Burrow dropped a 52-yard pass down the field to running back Joe Mixon. With the Bengals 41-21 win over the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday, Burrow did even more than make the Bengals the overwhelming favorites for the AFC North title.
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With the pass to Mixon, Burrow set the franchise record with 525 passing yards, which is also the fourth-most passing yards in a game in NFL history. After making the throw, Burrow channeled Michael Jordan, looked at the sideline and shrugged.
“I was really excited about how aggressive we were after we got up,” Burrow said. “We stayed aggressive today, and we were able to score (nearly) every time we touched the ball.”
On Sunday, the Bengals looked like a team that can have it all: a blowout win over a division rival, a record for Burrow and a postseason berth that’s now looking likely.
The Bengals scored on their first seven drives of the game, wide receiver Tee Higgins had a career-high 194 receiving yards and Burrow completed 37 of his 46 passes. In a game where the Bengals' passing attack couldn’t be stopped, they had a chance to celebrate a franchise-altering season.
“We’ve gotten beat up by them over the last couple years,” Taylor said. “Our guys have all the confidence in the world right now, and we’re not done yet... It’s our time."
It was the most important game of Burrow’s NFL career and the most important game the Bengals have played since 2015. At times on Sunday, including during Burrow’s shrug, the Bengals players showed what the win meant to them.
Early in the second quarter, Mixon and wide receiver Tyler Boyd sprinted stride-for-stride next to each other down the field. Boyd carried the ball as he finished a 68-yard touchdown that gave the Bengals a 10-point lead, and Mixon was Boyd’s lead blocker.
When it became clear Boyd would score on the play, Mixon pointed one finger in the air and spun in a circle. Then Boyd flipped into the end zone.
This was a moment Mixon and Boyd had waited a long time for.
“Over these last few years, people have been doing that to us,” Mixon said. “It’s a great feeling that roles are reversed now.”
Since Boyd was drafted in 2016 and Mixon was drafted in 2018, they both waded through losing seasons and December games in front of empty stadiums. They witnessed a coaching change and a near dismantling of a team that played in five straight postseasons between 2011 and 2015.
When the Bengals hired Taylor in 2019, he identified Mixon and Boyd as the two players on the offense who could be featured pieces of the next Bengals playoff team. On Sunday, Mixon and Boyd were rewarded for their patience.
The Bengals faced an undermanned Ravens team that was missing starting quarterback Lamar Jackson, backup quarterback Tyler Huntley, two starting offensive linemen and most of its secondary. But for a Bengals team that clinched its first winning season since 2015, the win over the Ravens was still a long-awaited moment for the franchise.
Burrow took over the game in the first quarter. With the Bengals down 7-3, Burrow completed four passes to open receivers to set up a touchdown run by Mixon. The Bengals got the ball back three minutes later, and Burrow delivered the 68-yard touchdown throw to Boyd.
On the play, two Ravens defensive backs covered Bengals tight end C.J. Uzomah and two of them covered Higgins. Boyd cut up the middle of the field, and Burrow found him wide open for another long touchdown pass.
It was the best throw of the best game of Burrow’s career.
“I really don’t think about the yards too much,” Burrow said. “I’m just as happy throwing for 130 yards (in Week 11) against the Raiders and winning the game. Today, it took throwing for 525 yards."
The Bengals virtually clinched the victory in the last two minutes of the first half. On third down, Burrow showed his confidence in Higgins and threw a jump ball into double coverage. Higgins made the highlight reel, leaping grab for a 42-yard pickup. Then Higgins caught a 1-yard touchdown to give the Bengals a 31-14 lead at halftime.
“This showed people what we can do,” Higgins said. “Now that we have seen it, that’s our standard now."
The Bengals offense kept the ball in Burrow’s hands throughout the second half. Instead of running out the clock, Burrow continued to spread the ball around to his best three receivers. Higgins had a career-high 194 receiving yards, wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase had a 125-yard game and Boyd caught the biggest touchdown pass of the day.
In the fourth quarter, Burrow was still dropping back to pass, Higgins was still lowering his shoulder to get to the first down line and Taylor was still calling for deep passes down the field. Burrow had one of the most efficient games in NFL history as the Bengals solidified their spot as the favorites in the division.
“They stepped up to the challenge,” Taylor said. “We needed those guys to have a big game, and they rose to the occasion.”