Cincinnati gets to the brink of playoffs without Burrow but now faces decisions on many free agents

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CINCINNATI (AP) — After Joe Burrow was lost for the season with a wrist injury in November, coach Zac Taylor insisted the Bengals had been built to win even without their franchise quarterback.

Well, yes and no.

Backup Jake Browning exceeded expectations by winning three of his first four starts, helping Cincinnati get into the heat of the playoff race the week before Christmas.

But then Browning threw three interceptions at Pittsburgh, and the Steelers — behind third-string quarterback Mason Rudolph — shredded Cincinnati 34-11.

The chaos of the AFC playoff race gave the Bengals another chance to stay in it by beating Kansas City. The Chiefs relied on six field goals to win 25-17.

Browning, a former practice squad quarterback, showed he can play in the NFL, but the Bengals had too many other weaknesses to win consistently without the creative Burrow there to rescue his team from dire situations.

Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow (9) leaves the field in the first half of an NFL football game against the Baltimore Ravens
Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow (9) leaves the field in the first half of an NFL football game against the Baltimore Ravens in Baltimore, Thursday, Nov. 16, 2023. [Matt Rourke | AP]
The Bengals had trouble running the ball. Receivers Ja’Marr Chase and Tee Higgins played through injuries. The defense struggled to stop the run. Communication problems among young defensive backs led to receivers running open.

Cincinnati (9-8) was 1-5 against AFC North opponents, finally beating Cleveland in the season finale with the Browns resting most their starters for the playoffs. The Bengals missed the postseason for the first time in three years. The previous two seasons, they reached the Super Bowl and the AFC championship game.

“Their character cannot be questioned. What they went through and what they gave us this year, I’m so proud of them for continuing to stay together,” Taylor said. “You never saw anyone point fingers.”

In the early games of 2023, Burrow’s mobility was affected by a calf injury. With Burrow improving, the Bengals finally started to surge, winning four of five before playing at Baltimore on Nov. 16. Burrow tore a ligament in his right wrist in the first half against the Ravens, ending his season.

“Going in Baltimore, I felt really good about where we were,” Burrow said Monday. “Obviously, it didn’t play out the way we wanted it to. It was a weird year. Never felt like we really reached our potential to what we were. And then obviously, the injury happened right where we usually start to take that jump in the year, where we had in years past, so it was a tough year.”

Burrow’s recovery timeline

Burrow, who had surgery to repair the torn ligament, said it will be a couple months before he can start throwing again.

“I think I should be good by OTAs (in May and June),” he said. “We’ll see, (it’s) pretty early.”

Decisions, decisions

Burrow signed a five-year, $275 million contract extension before the season. Chase, one of the best wideouts in the league, is eligible for an extension, and the Bengals want to lock him down, too.

That leaves the team with decisions to make about its other unrestricted free agents. Topping that list are receivers Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd, nose tackle D.J. Reader, cornerback Chidobe Awuzie and tackle Jonah Williams.

Browning is also a free agent and likely will be looking for more money from the Bengals or another team.

“I think that I’ve established that I’m capable of being a starter in the NFL,” the 27-year-old Browning said. “Obviously, a weird situation where I feel like I’m one of the top 32 quarterbacks in the world, and I just so happen to be on a roster with a guy who’s proven that he’s a top five quarterback in the world. So, what that looks like going forward, I have no idea.”

Mixon’s future

Veteran running back Joe Mixon restructured his contract with a pay cut to stay with the Bengals in 2023. With fleet rookie Chase Brown flashing talent that should earn him more playing time in the future, Cincinnati will have to decide whether to keep the 27-year-old Mixon. He rushed for over 1,000 yards for the fourth time in his career, but his only 100-yard game came Sunday against Cleveland’s backups. The Bengals’ run game was the second worst in the NFL.