The Cincinnati Bengals spent the first six weeks of the season searching for the offensive punch that sparked them to 10 consecutive wins and a second consecutive AFC Championship Game appearance last year.
Sunday’s trip to San Francisco to play another team that has been to back-to-back conference championships should provide some clarity on where the Bengals stand and what they are capable of accomplishing.
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Can the Cincinnati Bengals Find Their Identity in San Francisco?
“I guess we’ll find out, won’t we,” quarterback Joe Burrow said. “We historically have been really good after the bye. When your backs are against the wall and you’ve got to come out fighting, that’s when we’re at our best. We’ll find out if we’re the same team this year.”
The Bengals are 3-3 coming off their bye. The phrase “must win” isn’t floating around the facility the way it was before each of the last two games, but no one is running away from the importance Sunday’s game will have on the standings, the psyche, and the threat level the rest of the league perceives the Bengals to be.
“We’re not worried about what the naysayers say and the media say, but this is statement game for sure,” wide receiver Tyler Boyd said. “They’re a Super Bowl-contending team. They’re coming off two losses, so we know we’re gonna get their best, and they’re for sure going to get our best.”
The Bengals have been nowhere near their best all season, at least offensively. Burrow’s calf injury, Tee Higgins’ rib, short yardage, third downs, red zone. There are more issues than the team would care to count.
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They failed to score a touchdown in two of their first four games, and waiting for them on Sunday is a 49ers defense that is ranked second in DVOA, third in rushing yards allowed per game, and eighth in total yards per game.
“We talked about this as November football,” Bengals head coach Zac Taylor said. “I don’t care what the date says, this is that type of game on the road where we got to be at our best going forward and is a great opportunity starting off.”
The Bengals are 17-4 after their bye the last two years in games when Burrow starts at quarterback.
Of those 17 wins, 11 came against playoff teams.
San Francisco, despite its two-game losing streak, currently sits as the No. 3 seed in the NFC. The 49ers are expected to be without quarterback Brock Purdy and wide receiver Deebo Samuel, and All-Pro left tackle Trent Williams might miss his second consecutive game.
The Bengals are likely to have all 11 of their starters available, with Orlando Brown Jr. returning to practice Wednesday and wide receiver Tee Higgins not even being listed on the injury report with a fractured rib.
Orlando Brown Jr. was limited today. Pretty clean sheet otherwise coming out of the bye. pic.twitter.com/YbMopk2I1U
— Jay Morrison (@ByJayMorrison) October 25, 2023
But that offense, while healthy, currently ranks 32nd in yards per game, 31st in rushing yards per game, and 26th in points per game. The 2021 and 2022 teams that staged second-half surges were nowhere near that bad heading into their break, but they still faced steep tests coming out of the bye.
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The 2021 team went on the road to Las Vegas to face a playoff team after the bye and won. And the 2022 team went on the road to Pittsburgh to face a playoff team after the bye and won.
This 49ers team, however, is on a different level than those teams. But Bengals center Ted Karras said the importance of this game is more about what is at stake than who is in the way.
“It’s not that 49ers are the barometer of who we are, but this is to get above .500 this year,” he said. “That’s a really, really good football team over there with a lot of talented players. We’re gonna go into Levi Stadium on Sunday. I’m sure it’s going to be rocking. And we need to get a win.”
Burrow said he can’t wait.
“We relish going on the road and playing those kinds of environments,” he said. “It’ll be a big challenge. We’ll find out a lot of ourselves on Sunday.”
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