Joe Burrow had a calf injury through the first month and a half of the season that severely limited his abilities as a quarterback, and the Bengals got off to a slow start for the second straight year before rattling off consecutive wins against the San Francisco 49ers and Buffalo Bills to get to 5-3.
They proceeded to get seemingly blindsided by a Houston Texans team that has taken the league by storm and fell to 5-4 on a last-second field goal after a potential game-winning touchdown was dropped by Tyler Boyd, forcing Cincinnati to settle for a field goal on the previous drive.
Then, with their backs against the wall in hopes of avoiding a season sweep at the hands of the Ravens, as well as trying to stay above .500, the last thing the Bengals could afford was another injury to their star quarterback. Lo and behold, though, that’s exactly what happened as Burrow exited the game with just over five minutes to play in the fourth quarter with a wrist injury and would not return.
Now at 5-5, and facing a potential reality of Burrow missing time, things look grim in the jungle. However, if Burrow is healthy enough to play and not miss time, all hope is not lost, and there is somewhat of a precedent, and parallel, to this situation that resulted in a Super Bowl win.
In 2005, the Pittsburgh Steelers were coming off a season in which they went 15-1 and made it to the AFC Championship Game before being eliminated by the New England Patriots, who went on to appear in (and win) their third Super Bowl in four years. They came into the season full of expectations and momentum from the year before, and were expected to pick up where they left off. Then Ben Roethlisberger got hurt. He suffered a hyper-extended left knee, as well as a bone bruise, in the team’s Week 4 game against the San Diego Chargers on Monday Night Football.
The injury would keep the then-second-year quarterback out of the team’s Week 5 game against the Jaguars, which they lost in overtime. Roethlisberger played in the next two games, both wins over the Bengals and Ravens, respectively, but injured his other knee against Baltimore. The Steelers held their own without Roethlisberger, but when he came back, things were clearly out of synch. They lost three of their next five games, putting them at 7-5 and needing to win out to get in the playoffs. Bad knees and all, Roethlisberger helped the Steelers win their final four regular season games, and the ensuing four post-season games and the Steelers became the first team to win three road playoff games en route to a Super Bowl win.
While this year for the Bengals may not be a copy and paste of what the 2005 season was for the Steelers, the parallels are there, nonetheless. Like the Steelers, the Bengals are coming off a year in which they won the AFC North, made it to the AFC Championship Game, and were eliminated by a team who advanced to their third Super Bowl in four years. And like the Steelers, their young star quarterback has suffered multiple injuries, putting the season in doubt and leaving very little room for error with a daunting schedule remaining.
Is it probable that the Bengals can climb this mountain with a beat up quarterback in a conference full of leviathans? But if Burrow can go, and this a large “if,” there’s few guys you’d take the bet on making it happen over him. So while the tunnel is currently at its darkest, a light remains at the end- no matter how dim.