The Cincinnati Bengals season started bad, with Joe Burrow nursing a sore calf, and it has just gotten a lot worse, with Burrow lost for the season with a wrist injury.
What are the Bengals without Burrow?
Before he arrived, four years ago, the Bengals could be counted on to finish in last place in the AFC North Division, unless, and sometimes this was true, the Cleveland Browns had an even worse season. Now the Bengals and Browns are in similar positions again, but this time it is not for being two of the worst teams in the league but the two teams that have spent more money on quarterbacks without expecting any returns for the rest of the 2023 season.
Burrow is the highest paid player in the league, and he will collect the rest of his 55 million dollar salary this season watching from the sidelines. The Browns sidelined signal caller, Deshaun Watson, has a guaranteed contract worth about a quarter of a billion dollars over five years. He too will collect nearly 55 million this year without taking another snap for the Browns in 2023.
With the Bengals and Browns missing their field generals, does that leave the division up for grabs between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens?
The Browns come into play this week a game ahead of the Steelers and a half game off the pace set by the eight and three Ravens. Cleveland’s defense is good enough to keep them in the hunt for at least a Wild Card berth if not the AFC North Division title. But, what could have been a special year for Kevin Stefanski’s squad has been greatly diminished with the loss of two of their offensive stars. In addition to Watson sidelined, earlier this year the Browns lost one of the best runningbacks in the league, Nick Chubb, to a season ending injury.
Someday, the Browns are going to get a break, but this year looks like another one in which they remain one the few teams left in the league to never have cracked a Super Bowl appearance.
The Bengals, who have won this division the past couple years and were AFC Conference Champions in 2021 and participants in the AFC Championship Game last season, appear more troubled by the loss of Burrow. With him just hobbled with the calf injury early in the season, he didn’t play at all in the preseason and then struggled physically during the first part of the season, the Bengals lost three of their first four games.
After wins against the Arizona Cardinals and Seattle Seahawks entering their bye week, Cincinnati came out of their week off with Burrow appearing at full strength and his team responded with wins over the San Francisco 49ers and Buffalo Bills. Two weeks ago, they absorbed a surprise home loss to the surging Houston Texans and then were poised to take on the Ravens in Baltimore needing a win to close the gap in their division.
On his last play of the season, Burrow completed a touchdown pass to put the Bengals ahead, but after throwing that touchdown he grimaced in pain while holding his right wrist. The injury, which was suffered a week earlier and not reported on the injury report, was aggravated by his final throw and the Bengals were helpless to fend off the Ravens charge and ultimate win a week ago Thursday. Baltimore’s victory kept them perched on top of the division and for all practical purposes eliminated the Bengals for the 2023 season.
On Sunday, the Bengals meet the Steelers after having ten days to prepare for this meeting. With a loss, Cincinnati gives further ground in their division race, and with a win the Steelers will stay in striking distance of the Ravens.
The Steelers are a most interesting group. They are the first team in NFL history to have a winning record after ten games, 6-4, while being outgained in every one of their contests.
How are they doing it?
Consider it a combination of luck and design. Led by a coach who has never suffered a losing season, a record 16 consecutive winning campaigns to begin his pro coaching career, Mike Tomlin is often the reason for a win and seemingly never makes a decision that is the cause for a loss.
But, this is a tough one for the Steelers. Last week, in a game against the Browns without Watson, Kenny Pickett simply couldn’t move Pittsburgh’s offense against the Browns stop unit and lost the game, 13-10. While the Steelers have a winning record and are in the hunt for a division title, Pickett has been a major disappointment in his sophomore season.
In his rookie year, Tomlin turned the reins over to his first-year quarterback after it was determined that Mitch Trubisky was what the Chicago Bears discovered after they made him their first round draft pick in 2017 … incapable of moving an NFL team. Pickett was the Steelers first quarterback chosen in the first round since Ben Roethlisberger, and it appeared it was going to work out nearly as well.
Then, 2023, and Pickett appears to have digressed from his rookie season success. Which leaves us with this, a Bengals team unlikely to win without Burrow and a Steelers team consistently winning no matter what the stats say.
I’ll take the winner.
Qoxhi Picks: Pittsburgh Steelers (-2) over Cincinnati Bengals