The Cincinnati Bengals lost more than just a game against the Baltimore Ravens on Thursday night. They also lost star quarterback Joe Burrow for the season.
Burrow exited the game in the first half and was ruled out after halftime with a wrist injury. On Friday, the Bengals announced that Burrow would miss the rest of the season with a torn ligament, one that will likely require surgery.
The injury doesn't bring an end to Cincinnati's 2023 campaign, but it puts a major damper on the Bengals' playoff hopes—even if they continue to think positively.
"This season is far from over," head coach Zac Taylor said Friday.
The reality is that the Bengals would face an uphill battle even if Burrow could make a speedy recovery. Cincinnati is 5-5, in last place in the AFC North, is winless in the division and is 1-5 in conference play.
Tiebreakers are effectively off the table for Cincinnati, and the rest of the schedule is extremely daunting. The Bengals don't face an opponent that is currently below .500 the rest of the way, and they have pivotal conference matchups with the Pittsburgh Steelers (twice), Jacksonville Jaguars, Indianapolis Colts, Kansas City Chiefs and Cleveland Browns.
On top of Burrow's injury, Cincinnati's record and the remaining slate, the Bengals have other issues. Their defense hasn't been nearly as efficient as it was a year ago—it ranks 30th in yards allowed and 21st in points allowed—while Taylor and the offense have struggled to adapt to adversity.
Burrow's early-season calf injury played a role, but that isn't the only reason why Cincinnati ranks 24th in yardage and 20th in scoring a year after ranking eighth and seventh in those categories, respectively.
Despite the offseason addition of Orlando Brown Jr., Cincinnati's pass protection (27 sacks allowed) hasn't been great, yet the Bengals rank 31st in rushing attempts. That was never an advisable level of balance, and Taylor will have to shift his game plan substantially.
With Jake Browning under center, the shift is highly unlikely to yield improvement. All of this is to say that Cincinnati isn't likely to do a lot of winning down the stretch, which would benefit the rest of the AFC's contenders.
If the season ended today, the AFC playoff picture would be as follows:
- 1. Kansas City Chiefs 7-2*
- 2. Baltimore Ravens 8-3*
- 3. Jacksonville Jaguars 6-3*
- 4. Miami Dolphins 6-3*
- 5. Pittsburgh Steelers 6-3
- 6. Cleveland Browns 6-3
- 7. Houston Texans 5-4
* denotes a division leader.
The Colts, Las Vegas Raiders and Buffalo Bills are also in the mix with Cincinnati at 5-5. If the Bengals are significantly less competitive without Burrow—which is a fair assumption—Buffalo might be the on-the-cusp team that benefits the most.
Buffalo lost to the Bengals in Week 9, meaning Cincinnati would hold the tiebreaker if both teams finished with the same record. The Bills haven't been particularly consistent this season, but they now have a reasonable chance of finishing ahead of Cincinnati.
According to DraftKings, the Bills are now +175 (bet $100 to win $175) to make the playoffs, while the Bengals are +550.
Of the AFC teams currently in the playoff picture, the Pittsburgh Steelers probably benefit the most. Pittsburgh is a game-and-a-half behind Baltimore and won the first head-to-head meeting. Due to the Cleveland Browns losing Deshaun Watson to a season-ending shoulder injury, the Steelers are also set to face backup quarterbacks in each of the next two weeks.
The Ravens lost star tight end Mark Andrews to a cracked fibula and ankle ligament injury on Thursday, according to NFL Media's Ian Rapoport. And while Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson is healthy now, he's finished each of the past two seasons injured as well.
The Steelers (+380) are the next team favored to win the AFC North behind Baltimore (-300).
The Chiefs also stand out as a team that could catch a break with Burrow's injury. Kansas City is jockeying with Baltimore for the AFC's No. 1 seed, and it has struggled against Burrow and the Bengals in the past.
Patrick Mahomes has a 1-3 record against the Burrow-led Bengals. He'll host Cincinnati without Burrow in Week 17, and the Chiefs remain +185 favorites to win the AFC over the Ravens (+400).
The Jaguars, Colts and Browns also get to face Cincinnati without Burrow down the stretch, which ups their playoff chances as well. Cleveland also lost its starting quarterback, but it has the sort of playoff-caliber defense that the Bengals don't, one head-to-head win and a Week 18 rematch in which Cincinnati will likely be playing for draft positioning.
The Ravens have now beaten Cincinnati twice, which leaves the Dolphins and the Raiders are the only two top AFC playoff hopefuls who won't directly benefit from a diminished Bengals squad.
If you include the Minnesota Vikings—who are currently clinging to an NFC wild-card spot—every team left on Cincinnati's schedule is firmly in the playoff mix.
In other words, Burrow's injury is likely to end Cincinnati's playoff hopes, and it's going to have monumental ripple effects across the rest of the league—and not simply because one of the faces of the NFL is now out until 2024.
In the AFC, it could ultimately lead to a team like Pittsburgh winning its division, a team like Houston securing a playoff spot or a team like Buffalo sneaking in when its season recently felt all but over.
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