The Cincinnati Bengals almost won a Super Bowl two seasons ago. A questionable defensive holding call helped ruin that.

Last postseason, the Bengals lost the AFC Championship game in the final game to the Kansas City Chiefs. For the second time in two seasons, the Bengals appeared to be just one or two times away from a title.

When a team is this close, we all expect them to eventually take the next step and win a championship or two. This could have happened to Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls, but it’s rare. Typically, these teams hit a few bad breaks, the rest of the league catches up with them and overtakes them, and the championship window slams shut.

The championship window hasn’t closed for Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow — he said that window is his entire career, and he might not be wrong — but Thursday night showed how fragile everything in the NFL is. Burrow threw a touchdown pass to take the lead against the Baltimore Ravens, but at the end of the pass he grabbed his wrist in pain. He hasn’t returned and the Bengals will be hoping it’s not the type of injury that keeps him out and completely ruins their season. Jake Browning, who went undrafted in 2019 and threw his only regular-season NFL pass in Week 1 of that season, took over. Browning struggled to move the offense and Baltimore cruised to a 34-20 victory.

After the game, Bengals head coach Zac Taylor told the media that it “appeared” that Burrow had sprained his wrist, but did not provide any information about the severity of the injury or whether his quarterback could ever be sidelined .

Even if Burrow is doing well and returning this season, the loss left Cincinnati in a poor spot in the AFC North. A lot has to go right to win a championship, and the Bengals have to ask themselves where this season’s magician is coming from.

The Ravens are clearly ahead of the Bengals

The Bengals are 2 1/2 games behind the Ravens and lose the direct tiebreaker to Baltimore due to a season win. The Ravens are 8-3 and the Bengals have fallen to 5-5.

Even if the Bengals are great from here on out, they need to be four wins better than the Ravens the rest of the season to overtake them in the division. And the fight for AFC wildcard spots will be tough. It will be difficult for the Bengals to make the playoffs with Burrow, and it seems very unlikely with Browning.

Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Jake Browning (6) is tackled by Baltimore Ravens defensive tackle Travis Jones (98) and Baltimore Ravens defensive tackle Justin Madubuike (92). (AP Photo/Nick Wass)Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Jake Browning (6) is tackled by Baltimore Ravens defensive tackle Travis Jones (98) and Baltimore Ravens defensive tackle Justin Madubuike (92). (AP Photo/Nick Wass)

Part of the Bengals’ problem is that they are chasing a very good team at the top of their division. The Ravens had a disappointing loss to the Cleveland Browns on Sunday, but before that they seemed to be the best team in football and they looked really good on Thursday night too. Baltimore QB Lamar Jackson was outstanding with 264 passing yards and two touchdowns. He will re-enter the MVP discussion after Thursday night. The Ravens had 21 points at halftime due to good defense from the Bengals and the Ravens’ victory was never in doubt in the second half.

Most notably, the Ravens saw the Browns lose Deshaun Watson to a season-ending shoulder injury this week, and the Bengals potentially lost Burrow as well. Nobody mourns injuries, but these two could pave the way for the Ravens to a division title.

The Ravens are closing in on the division title

The Ravens had their own injury problems. Tight end Mark Andrews was ejected from the game due to an ankle injury sustained during a hip drop tackle on Baltimore’s first drive. Head coach John Harbaugh said after the game, “It looks like a season-ending injury.”

Later in the first quarter, Jackson injured his ankle during a tackle but did not miss any plays. Then in the second half, Odell Beckham Jr. left the game with a shoulder injury after passing for 100 yards on the night.

Jackson played pretty well despite the injury. He limped a little after catching his leg in the turf in the third quarter, but otherwise you wouldn’t have known that Jackson was anything but his normal self.

The teams no longer meet this season and appear to be on different paths. The Ravens didn’t win the division because the Pittsburgh Steelers (6-3) keep finding ways to win, the Browns (6-3) have a fantastic defense that could handle a scary quarterback situation, and no one knows what happens next with the Bengals. But if the Ravens don’t win the AFC North after this week’s events, it will be a surprise.

Cincinnati can only dream of a position like this. The Bengals’ best-case scenario for the rest of the season is chasing a wild-card spot with a quarterback who has already suffered two serious injuries this season. The worst-case scenario is doing this with a backup who was around the league for four-plus seasons before finally attempting an NFL pass. Maybe Browning is the next Brock Purdy, but it’s hard to count on that.

For Cincinnati, regardless of what news Burrow has on his wrist, it could have seen its championship dreams come to an end on Thursday night.

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