It was obvious it would take some time for Joe Burrow, the No. 1 pick in the 2020 draft, to change the Bengals’ stripes from losers to legitimate contenders. It figured to take more than a year, maybe several years.
If the playoffs started this week, Cincinnati (5-2) would be the top seed in the AFC, only 17 games into Burrow’s NFL career. Of course, the playoffs do not start this week and the Bengals will be playing the Jets, who were eliminated from postseason contention during the preseason.
A team’s fortunes can change quickly, for better or worse, and the Bengals’ rise from the bottom to the top of the AFC North has happened in two months. With 10 games left in the regular season, this is not even half the story, but Burrow is turning oddsmakers and skeptics into believers in the Bengals.
“First of all, Burrow is legit, and there’s no question about that,” said Vinny Magliulo, VSiN oddsmaker and Gaughan Gaming sportsbook director. “The biggest surprise to me about the Bengals is their defense, and their defense is good.”
No team made a bolder statement Sunday than the Bengals, who were 6-point underdogs in a 41-17 blowout of Baltimore. Burrow passed for a career-high 416 yards and three touchdowns, and the Cincinnati defense put relentless pressure on Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson while sacking him five times.
In the offseason, BetMGM posted the Bengals’ season win total at 6.5, and Cincinnati’s odds to win the division ranged from 20-1 to 30-1 at various sportsbooks. The oddsmakers are occasionally wrong, and the betting market does not always correct the errors.
Remember when the AFC North was considered a three-horse race and the horses in the running were the Browns, Ravens and Steelers? The Bengals have two losses, each by three points, and own double-digit victories over Baltimore and Pittsburgh. It might still be a three-horse race, excluding Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers.
The Jets (1-5) hope quarterback Zach Wilson, this year’s second overall pick, can work a Burrow-like franchise turnaround in the future, but that’s not happening anytime soon. Wilson left Sunday’s 54-13 loss at New England with a knee injury and is out two to four weeks.
The Bengals were listed as 3.5-point road favorites against the Jets on last week’s lookahead line. With Mike White starting in place of Wilson, combined with the teams’ disparate results in Week 7, the current line is Cincinnati -10.
It’s a role reversal for the Bengals to be cast as big favorites, and the adjustment might be too much. At the same time, bookmakers are not bracing for an avalanche of Jets action this week.
Burrow started 10 games as a rookie, and the Bengals went 2-7-1 in those games before a knee injury ended his season. He has 17 touchdown passes in seven starts this season, two years after he totaled 60 touchdown passes and led LSU to the 2019 national championship. His favorite receiver on that undefeated Tigers team was Ja’Marr Chase, who had eight catches for 201 yards Sunday as Burrow and Chase embarrassed the Ravens like they were Vanderbilt.
After facing and presumably face-planting the Jets, Cincinnati will get into the teeth of its schedule against the Browns, Raiders, Steelers and Chargers. Las Vegas (5-2), the current No. 2 seed in the AFC, hosts the Bengals on Nov. 21.
The Raiders know all about fast starts and slow finishes to a season, so there’s a long way to go to decide the Bengals’ playoff fate. Cincinnati’s final three games will be against the Ravens, Chiefs and Browns. Kansas City, the preseason favorite in the AFC, is 3-4 and tied for last in its division. It’s chaos in the AFC.
“I like what the Bengals are doing with Burrow,” DraftKings sportsbook director John Avello said. “Do I believe in them? I still think Baltimore or the Browns end up winning that division. If (injured quarterback) Baker Mayfield is physically capable, I think the Browns are better than the Bengals.”
On the NFL MVP futures board, DraftKings lists Burrow as the 11th choice at 35-1. Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes, the preseason favorite, is 12th at 40-1. There is value in Burrow at those odds but little to no value in Mahomes.
“I’m not sure the Bengals are a playoff team,” Avello said. “You have got to take the Chiefs into consideration. If the Chiefs aren’t going to be in the mix, it opens it up for a few other teams. The Raiders are an OK team, and I feel similar about the Chargers. When it’s all said and done, who is going to win the AFC West? I think nine or 10 wins is enough to win the division. I can’t write the Chiefs off yet. It could turn around real quick.”
Mahomes is the prime example of how quickly things can turn for the worse. Maybe it’s a complacency issue with the Chiefs — or the so-called Super Bowl hangover — but it’s obvious Mahomes is making mistakes because he’s pressing in an attempt to cover for a dreadful defense.
Burrow is beginning to attract comparisons to Tom Brady, who’s 20 years older at 44. It’s more accurate to line up Burrow next to Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray, the top pick of the 2019 draft. Murray is the second choice on the MVP board at + 450.
The most appealing showdown of the Week 8 schedule should be Thursday night. Arizona (7-0) opened as a 3.5-point favorite against Aaron Rodgers and the Packers, who are riding a six-game winning streak. But some of the intrigue faded Monday when Green Bay’s top receiver, Davante Adams, was placed on the COVID-19 list, and the Cardinals moved to -6.
The NFC has another marquee matchup Sunday night, when the Cowboys (6-0 ATS) come off the bye as 2.5-point favorites at Minnesota. The Vikings opened the season with a 27-24 loss at Cincinnati, and that was considered a bad loss at the time. In reality, it was just the beginning of the rise for Burrow and the Bengals.
Still, hyping Cincinnati as a Super Bowl contender is a stretch. It’s one step at a time for a young team, and reaching the playoffs would be a big first step for the Bengals.