It was lost amid Justin Herbert's great finish to last season, but Joe Burrow was practically even with Herbert before his knee injury. And we've been reminded this season how hard it can be for rookie quarterbacks to play well.
Burrow validated the Cincinnati Bengals' decision to take him first overall in the first half of last season, but the problem was that knee injury. Burrow tore multiple ligaments, making his return less than certain. He'd be back on the field but there was no guarantee he'd ever be the same. Ask a Washington fan about Robert Griffin III sometime.
Those concerns have been erased. Not that there was any lingering doubt after Burrow's solid start to the season, but it was obvious Burrow was all the way back on his first touchdown in a 41-10 rout of the Pittsburgh Steelers. He rolled to his left and took off running, made some moves in the open field and got into the end zone. It was his first rushing touchdown this season. He didn't look like a quarterback coming off a serious knee injury.
The questions about the Bengals coming into the season weren't limited to Burrow's health. Zac Taylor was 6-25-1 through his first two seasons as head coach. The Bengals had some talent but it was hard to predict big things for them. It's the Bengals, after all.
A lot of those doubts are being erased too. Cincinnati looks like a team on the rise. The Bengals are in great position to make the playoffs and maybe win the division. There has been some inconsistency, but a few strong performances as well. The Bengals have already blown out division rivals Baltimore and Pittsburgh this season. They swept the Steelers and were clearly the better team in both games. The skill-position talent is fantastic. Ja'Marr Chase is a rookie of the year candidate. Tee Higgins is good too; he had 114 yards and a touchdown against the Steelers. Joe Mixon had a monster game Sunday. He became the first running back in 20 years to rush for 100 yards in the first half against the Steelers, according to ESPN Stats and Info. Mixon finished with 165 yards rushing and two touchdowns. The Bengals are going to get better in future years, too. They can focus resources on the offensive line, which is an area of potential growth, and reinforcing a defense that has been much better than expected.
And Burrow will get better too. He is throwing too many interceptions this season. Part of that might be playing behind a below-average line. He's also a very young quarterback who will continue to improve and cut out mistakes. Burrow makes enough great plays, like a nice 32-yard touchdown to Higgins on Sunday, that there's very little question he's going to be a good quarterback for many years.
A foundation is in place for Cincinnati to be very good. We've seen what they're capable of in the wins over the Ravens and Steelers. The biggest question for any NFL team is having a quarterback in place. The Bengals couldn't be sure they had that quarterback due to Burrow's devastating knee injury last season. But that box is checked, again.
Here are the winners and losers from Week 12 of the NFL season:
Joe Barry: Barry, the Green Bay Packers’ defensive coordinator, had an interesting plan against the Los Angeles Rams. They rarely blitzed. It worked.
Matthew Stafford struggled as the Packers sat back in coverage, Cooper Kupp had his quietest day of the season and the Packers defense made the key play of the game with a pick-six late in the third quarter of a big 36-28 win.
Barry has had a good season running the Packers defense. That side of the ball has dealt with key injuries and they have continued to play well most weeks. Barry has a lot to do with that. The Packers’ offense is good as usual and the defense might be a reason Green Bay takes the next step this postseason. Sunday's win was a huge step in the Packers' quest to get the No. 1 seed in the NFC and a bye.
Patrick Surtain II: The Denver Broncos’ decision to pick Surtain over Justin Fields will be questioned as long as Fields develops and the Broncos don’t find an answer at quarterback.
However, one thing that won’t be argued is that Surtain is a very good player.
Surtain had two key interceptions, one in the end zone and another that went off Austin Ekeler’s hands that Surtain picked and returned for a touchdown to seal the Broncos’ 28-13 win over the Los Angeles Chargers.
The Broncos have been up and down but they’re hanging around in the playoff race at 6-5. Surtain’s fine rookie season has played a role in that.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers defense: When the Buccaneers brought back all their starters from the Super Bowl championship team, that wasn't just Tom Brady and his friends on offense.
The Bucs have a championship defense and that's what saved them in a 38-31 win over the Indianapolis Colts on Sunday. The Colts had all the momentum, leading 24-14. Then Shaq Barrett had a strip-sack of Carson Wentz, and that was a turning point. Another huge play was safety Antoine Winfield making a great interception on a deep pass to Michael Pittman Jr. For most of the game the Bucs' elite run defense turned NFL rushing leader Jonathan Taylor into a non-factor.
The offense did enough, especially on its final drive. Brady slowly marched the Bucs downfield, and then Leonard Fournette broke a 28-yard touchdown run, his fourth touchdown of the game, with 20 seconds left.The offense did its part. But it was the defense that gave the Bucs a chance to put together that game-winning drive.
New York Jets: Sunday's win by the Jets won't help their draft standing, but it's always good for a young team to experience winning.
Yes, it was just the Houston Texans that the Jets beat 21-14 on Sunday, but it's still a win. Zach Wilson made a few plays, the defense that has been bad this season tightened up after giving up two early touchdowns, and the Jets improved to 3-8.
It's not a win that will go in the time capsule, but it still matters. Maybe the Jets can pick up another win or two before the season is done, against teams better than the Texans.
Cordarrelle Patterson: Patterson may be the most surprising player in the NFL this season.
He was always a good kickoff returner but never did a ton on offense. The Atlanta Falcons beat the Jacksonville Jaguars 21-14, and Patterson was the key player. He had 102 yards rushing, 27 receiving and scored two touchdowns.
Patterson was with four teams his first eight seasons and never had much impact on offense. At age 30, he has finally emerged as a fantastic offensive threat.
Kirk Cousins: Cousins had his chances to lead the Minnesota Vikings to a win on Sunday. He just couldn’t get it done.
Aside from the embarrassing moment in which Cousins lined up under right guard for a key fourth-and-goal in the fourth quarter, causing the Vikings to call a timeout, he misfired frequently late in the game. On the final drive, with a chance to at least tie, Cousins threw wildly on third and fourth down and the San Francisco 49ers hung on to a 34-26 win. Minnesota’s offense scored just one touchdown on five second-half possessions in a winnable game. One of those possessions ended with a bad Cousins interception deep in Vikings territory that the 49ers turned into a short touchdown.
Cousins has had a good season. He gets criticized too often, and fans don’t remember the times he actually has led the Vikings back to a win. But he didn’t play well enough on Sunday.
The Panthers' playoff outlook: It's hard to fault the Carolina Panthers for believing they could be a playoff team. They started 3-0. They traded for cornerbacks C.J. Henderson and Stephon Gilmore, being aggressive in what looked like a promising season.
The hope for the playoffs is fading fast. The Panthers fell to 5-7 with a bad 33-10 loss at the Miami Dolphins. Cam Newton looked really bad. Newton was 3 of 15 with two interceptions in the first half. He was benched in the fourth quarter, with a 5.8 passer rating. His return to the Panthers has been a fun story, but Sunday's game renews questions about what he has left as a passer.
The Panthers could still turn it on and make the playoffs. An expanded playoff field keeps hope alive. But it has been a long time since they've looked like a playoff team.
Jalen Hurts: Hurts can play. He has had enough good games for the Philadelphia Eagles to prove that.
The problem is that his bad games are really bad. Sunday was one. Hurts threw three interceptions and had less than 100 passing yards in a 13-7 loss against the New York Giants. It was an ugly performance. The worst of the interceptions came near the goal line at the end of the first half, when Hurts rolled out and tossed it right to Giants linebacker Tae Crowder. It's hard to tell which Eagles receiver Hurts was even throwing to.
The Eagles still had a shot to win, but on fourth down Jalen Reagor dropped a pass in his hands near the goal line. Reagor is a certified first-round bust, but Eagles fans knew that already. The big question the rest of the way is Hurts and his future with the team.
Hurts has probably earned the chance to be the Eagles starter in 2022. But that's not guaranteed, especially if he has more games like Sunday before the season is over.
Titans offensive coaches: The Titans' best skill-position player is Dontrell Hilliard. Let that sink in. Hilliard was out of football for two months before Tennessee signed him to its practice squad in late October.
It's nearly impossible to figure out how the Titans can generate offense. Julio Jones, A.J. Brown and Derrick Henry are all on injured reserve. The offense was top heavy coming into the season and paper thin without those three stars.
Hilliard had a nice game but the Titans as a whole did little in a 36-13 loss to the New England Patriots. The Titans are still in fine shape in the AFC North, but it'll be a struggle each week to score points.