Sam Hubbard, Joe Mixon showed why they're the Bengals' future

CINCINNATI -- The Cincinnati Bengals' fan base made no secret that they were tired of what was happening to the team in the present. Sunday seemed more of a day to look into the future.

Fans made their message loud and clear during the Bengals' final home game of the season. The announced crowd was 44,568, but even less than that showed up to watch the game.

Bengals fan Jeff Wagner, who has been hanging banners at Bengals games since the 1990s, had apparently given up, too. During the last home game, he hung up a blank banner. This week, the banner simply read: "I like pizza!!!"

As the Bengals (6-8) limp to the finish of a once-promising season, their 30-16 win against the 3-11 Raiders will be little more than a blip on the radar. The Bengals snapped a five-game losing streak that dates back to Nov. 10, but let's face it, the future of the coaching staff is in doubt, and they're simply playing out the string.

That's why Sunday was mostly about the stars of tomorrow.

Wide receiver Tyler Boyd caught a touchdown, honored Chad Johnson's infamous Riverdance celebration and hit the 1,000-yard mark for the season before exiting with a knee injury. Running back Joe Mixon had a career-high 129 rushing yards and two touchdowns and is now just 5 yards away from his first 1,000-yard season.

"All of our newest core pieces stepped up today," said defensive end Carlos Dunlap. "Not looking into the future, because we're still trying to finish this thing strong now, but this is what we've got."

Rookie defensive end Sam Hubbard had two sacks, three quarterback hits and a forced fumble. Hubbard sacked Raiders quarterback Derek Carr for a 9-yard loss on third-and-9 midway through the first quarter, forcing the ball out of Carr's hands. Dunlap was able to come out of the pile with it.

"That was a crazy play," Dunlap said. "I was there pressing the pocket, and the next thing you know, it was like a scary movie with Sam coming around the corner, and boom: I saw the ball down and tried to tear off my guy to get to it. You know how it is on the bottom of the pile."

Added Hubbard: "I didn't know the ball came out. I didn't see it. I hit him in the back, so it was hiding from me, and I guess I saw the pile. Good thing Carlos went in there and wrestled it out for us."

Hubbard also played fullback on offense and lined up for a potential touchdown pass, which was batted away in the end zone.

"I got one touchdown on the season [on a fumble return] and wanted another one. I think if [the defender] didn't get his hand on it, that would've been a touchdown for sure," Hubbard said.

The Bengals have deployed Hubbard as a fullback many times and have worked red zone plays with him in practice frequently, but he was never targeted in a game until Sunday.

"I just thought with his athleticism, he gave us something," Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said. "He's another big guy that can run. He's a big athlete, he can run, he's smart enough to handle the insertion of the offense they give him each week, and he embraces it. He's done a great job of it."

Hubbard outshined his mentor Michael Johnson, a captain who is in the final season of his contract and could be on his way out after this season.

Hubbard currently has six sacks this season and has an outside shot at tying or beating Dunlap's rookie sack record of 9.5, which Carl Lawson just missed last year. It's a record that has remained important to Dunlap.

"It would be a bittersweet thing," Dunlap said. "But at the end of the day, it will help me, too. They will have to pay more attention to him, so that is one less series, one less snap that might be going his way instead of mine, and I like my chances in that situation. That would be great for him, I would be happy for him, and I couldn't think of a more deserving guy."

If Hubbard, Boyd and Mixon have more days like Sunday, 2019 looks brighter than 2018 has looked most of the time.