Witness the Cincinnati Bengals, who have amassed 68 points through two games after posting their second straight 34-23 victory in a span of five days by knocking off the Baltimore Ravens on Thursday.
Sure, it’s only two games but the impressive performance against division rival Baltimore, in which the Bengals bolted to an early 21-point lead, was a start contrast to a year ago.
Cincinnati scored just nine points in the first two games of 2017 and was flattened at home by these same Ravens 20-0 in the season opener as quarterback Andy Dalton threw four interceptions and was sacked five times.
On Thursday night, Dalton threw four touchdown passes in the first half alone — three to wide receiver A.J. Green. More importantly, he did not throw an interception and was not sacked behind an improved offensive line that held its ground even after starting center Billy Price exited with an ankle injury.
“They preach about Baltimore being so physical. I think our guys brought it to them tonight,” said rookie safety Jessie Bates, per the team’s official website. “I feel really good about what this team is capable of.”
The Ravens have long been known for their physical play, but the Bengals showed plenty of toughness of their own. Second-year running back Joe Mixon had to leave the game after hurting his knee but returned after Baltimore whittled a 28-7 deficit to 28-23.
Even though he was limping, Mixon broke off a 21-yard run for a critical first down that led to a field goal and bumped Cincinnati’s lead to eight points.
“I had to talk myself to going back in,” Mixon said. “It’s mental toughness. It was real hard… It felt weird. The knee was hurting. The mental side of it is you always want to play 100 percent. When it’s bothering you, it’s hard mentally. I just had to check back in mentally and tough it out physically.”
A second-round pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, Mixon had an underwhelming rookie season with 626 yards rushing in 14 games. He’s off to a strong start this year with 95 rushing yards in the season opener and 84 yards on 21 carries against the Ravens.
Mixon, who admitted he would not have returned to the game if Cincinnati had a bigger lead, also drew the respect of his teammates for confronting Ravens cornerback Tavon Young for what he considered an unnecessary shot on Dalton.
“It’s great. I love the way he did it. They’ve got my back,” Dalton said. “That’s how we want to play. Everybody playing for each other. Obviously it was great. Nothing stupid happened. I love he reacted that way.”
Many observers were surprised the Bengals elected to bring back Marvin Lewis for a 16th season following back-to-back losing campaigns, even though Cincinnati made five straight postseason appearances from 2011-15 and won two division titles in that span.
Much of the blame has been directed at Dalton, who has yet to win a postseason content. But he already has six TD passes versus one interception in the first two games.
Four of those scoring strikes went to Green, who provided a new wrinkle for opposing defenses by lining up in the slot for all three first-half TD passes on Thursday night.
“It’s hard to double me in the slot. It’s hard to take me away in the slot when I have so much freedom because I have much have so much freedom to run all over the place,” Green said. “We were gashing them a couple of times. We just played sound offense in the first half and made the plays in the second half were what we needed.”
Cincinnati will get a better gauge on the team over the next two weeks when they play a pair of road games against Carolina and Atlanta.
“A lot of people probably underestimate us still,” said Mixon. “It doesn’t matter. We just try to play week-by-week.”