PITTSBURGH — This seems eerily familiar.
It’s sort of like we’ve seen these Bengals before.
Perhaps last year?
Cincinnati’s “must-win” victory over Pittsburgh was more than a cliché’.
It was the epitome of a must-win game.
The Bengals’ 37-30 revenge-win over the Steelers at Acrisure Stadium on Sunday was vital as the team heads into a brutal closing portion of the 2022 adventure.
In the season and home opener on Sept. 11, Pittsburgh stunned the Bengals 23-20 in overtime.
The Who Dey faithful were hyped up and expected a potential blowout after coming off the Super Bowl run that ultimately ended in disappointment in February.
But the town was excited with the potential.
Plus, the fans had good reason to anticipate a whoopin’ of Pittsburgh in the first game after all the offseason moves to “improve the front line.”
But that has taken some time to develop.
In the first two games, quarterback Joe Burrow was sacked 13 times and ran for his life a dozen more.
Since then, he’s been dropped only 19 times, has piled up 2,890 yards passing with 22 TDs, and is in the top five in the NFL in about every major passing category.
“Everything runs through 9,” center Ted Karras said. “Everything.”
But his main target, Ja’Marr Chase, has been out a few games with a hip injury — and is anticipated playing against Tennessee or Kansas City.
In the meantime, others have stepped up.
Joe Mixon set a franchise record against Carolina with five touchdowns.
Tee Higgins exploded with nine catches and 148 yards against Pittsburgh, and running back Samaje Perine hauled in three touchdown passes against the Steelers.
“I feel like we have good momentum,” Bengals head coach Zac Taylor said, after the win against Pittsburgh. “The team’s in a really good place. And so, again, we feel like we played really good football most of the last several weeks we’ve had.”
Before Mixon’s historic performance, he took the offensive line out to dinner to become a tighter unit.
“Success breeds even more camaraderie and when we continue to win games that will continue to grow,” Karras added.
But the Bengals (6-4) and the fans continue to have hope going into what I can describe as the NFL’s version of the Clint Eastwood classic movie The Gauntlet.
This week they travel to the Music City to take of the Tennessee Titans, then host the powerful Kansas City Chiefs on Dec. 4.
Then, what used to be a gimmie win with Cleveland is no longer the case.
Quarterback Joe Burrow is 0-4 against the Browns, which will have controversial QB Deshaun Watson back under center.
On Dec. 18, the Bengals travel to Tampa Bay to face the Buccaneers and the GOAT Tom Brady, travel to face the New England Patriots on Dec. 24, host the AFC favorite Buffalo Bills on Jan. 2, then wind up the season with division leader Baltimore in week 18.
That lineup could go really well for the Bengals, or it could be a catastrophe.
Every game is a tough matchup.
“They’re all trench games,” Bengals right tackle La’el Collins said. “We’re so much better than we were week one. We have the guys; we just have to execute.”
And team did execute plays on Sunday.
The Bengals have put together back-to-back impressive wins as they roll into the gauntlet.
But there is some more good news.
Chase may return to action next week against Tennessee. Plus, defensive lineman D.J. Reader is already back.
“We’re playing as good as anybody,” Burrow said. “We’re hitting our stride offensively. But the last couple of weeks, apart from the Monday Night game, we’ve been pretty lights out.”
Oddly enough, the Bengals had a similar stretch last season, although it was a bit easier.
They ended up stunning the No.1 seed Titans in the second round of the playoffs, and then advanced to the big show after knocking off the Chiefs in dramatic fashion to win the AFC Championship on the road.
Despite the odds, they ran the table and made the improbable playoff run all the way to Los Angeles to the Super Bowl — only to lose to the Rams.
The Bengals need to go at least 10-7 to have a shot at the playoffs.
Right now, they have the edge to capture a wild card.
And since the 2020 NFL playoff expansion, the No. 7 seeds average 9.4 wins on the year.
Cincinnati cannot afford more than two losses the rest of the season.
I’m still holding to my preseason pick of 12-5.
But the team is making me nervous.
Could this be a Who Dey Déjà vu of last year?