We were this close.

“Editor’s Prediction: Bengals 20, Titans 17.”

Then, the play pictured above happened. Short catch for DeMarco Murray, Titans 24. A lapse in performance from a defense that had to stop one drive in the final two minutes in order to win. Instead, 3-6 on the season. Seven games left to play – nearly half a season and a wide range of outcomes from 3-13 to 10-6 – yet somehow none of them seem to matter. This team’s identity seems clear, and they’re not a playoff-caliber group.


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Four Quick Notes

• A rallying point for the Bengals in the early going of the season was how the defense was quietly among the strongest in the league. That unit allowed the Tennessee offense to be on the field for forty minutes on Sunday. Time of possession isn’t always a significant metric in the outcome of a game, but a 20-40 split is a glaring indictment of one side of the ball. The offense managed to score 20 points in as many minutes, with A.J. Green and Brandon LaFell combining for 210 receiving yards on 11 catches. They weren’t the problem.

• Would the presence of Vontaze Burfict have made a difference on the Titans’ last offensive play (or maybe somewhere earlier in the drive)? We’ll never know – he was ejected earlier in the game for some reason. The alleged crime was ‘contact with an official’, but the contact seemed incidental and the ejection dubious. It’s an easy exhibit-A if anyone were to make the case that league officials hold Burfict to an unfair standard.

Fair or not, Burfict is a prime example in the NFL, and in general, of perception becoming reality. His reputation as a dirty player is so pervasive that people assume dirty intent where it likely doesn’t exist, and the view further entrenches itself. If the Bengals were to ever clean house, hire a new coach and attempt to change the culture, it’s fair to wonder what they’d do with him.

• Barring an incredible renaissance in the second half of the season by Joe Mixon and the line in front of him, the rookie back likely won’t live up to the production expectations some had of him heading into the season, let alone coming out of the draft. Which must be frustrating, considering how Leonard Fournette, Christian McCaffrey, Alvin Kamara and Kareem Hunt have looked in their debut seasons – not to mention guys like Tarik Cohen and Corey Clement.

Still, Mixon had a nice blend of runs in his nine carries on Sunday, going four times over five yards and twice over ten. With Jeremy Hill’s season (and more than possibly career in Cincinnati) over, the coaching staff is finding the balance between Mixon as a feature back and Giovani Bernard as a third-down/passing back. The Saints exhibited earlier this season that three can be a crowd in a backfield – losing Hill is likely addition by subtraction.

• Once again, receiver John Ross doesn’t appear in the Bengals’ box score despite being fully healthy. It’s understandable that the rookie isn’t setting the world on fire after being unavailable for much of the season. It’s fair that the coaching staff is bringing him along slowly. It’s highly questionable that he has no footprint whatsoever on the course of a game as long as he’s available.

 

Stock Up

Andrew Billings: Looking ahead, Billings had the kind of performance Sunday that the Bengals needed to see from him. In 36 snaps, Pro Football Focus clocked Billings with three run stops and two pressures, with a total grade of 82.2 good for fourth on the team. For a team that wants him to be the full-time guy next to Geno Atkins, Billings did a pretty good job making a case for that role.

Stock Down

Josh Shaw: Leading a team in tackles during a game can be either a good or a bad thing. In Shaw’s case – where those tackles come after allowing catches in coverage – it was bad. Shaw was targeted twice in coverage, allowed catches both times for 25 yards between them, and drew penalties three times during the game. In an odd place between cornerback and safety, both positions where the Bengals have younger, better talent with higher upside, Shaw has to be better to remain in the team’s plans.

 

Division/Conference Notes

With Cincinnati and Cleveland both losing and Baltimore on a bye, Pittsburgh now has as many wins as the rest of the division combined. Baltimore’s as much in the underwhelming AFC wildcard race as any team, but it seems more than likely that Pittsburgh alone will represent the North in the playoffs.

The AFC-NFC power balance isn’t close – ten teams in the NFC have a winning record, only six in the AFC do. New England, Pittsburgh, and Kansas City leading the conference surprises no one, while Jacksonville and Tennessee look like locks based on a blend of merit, the current state of the Texans and Colts, and simply not being abjectly bad football teams. Buffalo, at 5-4 and holding the sixth seed currently, is effectively a gatekeeper – they’re an overachieving team that’ll hold the position unless someone below them can actually earn it. Nothing more.

In the NFC, the wildcard slots are currently held by the 6-3 Seahawks and the 7-3 Panthers. The divisions are lead by the Eagles at 8-1 and the Rams, Vikings, and Saints each at 7-2. All six teams could pass for legitimate Super Bowl contenders. The AFC goes maybe half that deep.

 

Looking Ahead

It’s hard to find value in the Bengals’ matchup against the Broncos next week – a team with among the worst and most-discussed quarterback situations in the NFL. The Bengals rising to 4-6 would still require them finding a way to navigate a defensive front featuring Von Miller and Shane Ray, among other pass rushers. Perhaps the most compelling storyline available is the ‘revenge game’ angle for Domata Peko, now the Broncos’ nost tackle.

That last bit was sarcasm. This appears to be a lost season for both teams, the game will simply help dictate which of the two picks closer to the top of the 2018 NFL Draft. For embattled coaching staffs on both sides, however, there’s plenty they stand to lose.

A more detailed breakdown will be included in the Week 11 preview.

– Andy Hammel is the managing editor for cover32/Bengals and covers the Cincinnati Bengals for cover32. Follow him on Twitter at @Andy_Hammel, and the cover32 Bengals team at @cover32_CIN.