Sign of progress under Zac Taylor is also biggest obstacle in Bengals' rebuild

CINCINNATI -- Sixty-six seconds.

That's all that separated the Cincinnati Bengals from a big win on Sunday. But the moment that Cleveland Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield wriggled out of a tackle and threw a pass with a defender yanking his left leg, the inevitable felt bound to happen.

It did. Mayfield threw a touchdown pass with 11 seconds to spare and the Browns pulled off a 37-34 victory over the Bengals.

What happened in Week 7 was an indicator of the improvement the Bengals have shown under second-year coach Zac Taylor and yet how challenging it will be to overcome a massive obstacle.

In five of seven games this season, Cincinnati (1-5-1) has led heading into the fourth quarter. However, that has produced only one victory. The sooner the Bengals change that, the quicker the team will accelerate the rebuilding process under Taylor.

"This is a team that believes it can put together a winning streak -- one game, two games, three games, four games, five games. We believe in it," Taylor said. "We just we just haven't done it yet."

The Bengals have zero winning streaks in Taylor's two seasons, and the overall metrics aren't great. The Bengals are winless in 20 of the 23 games during his tenure. In one-possession games, Cincinnati is 1-12-1 over the past two seasons -- the worst in the NFL.

And yet, despite the lack of victories, Cincinnati has improved in Taylor's second season. In 2019, the Bengals had four games in which they led entering the fourth quarter. With one week until the bye week, Cincinnati has already exceeded that mark.

On Sunday against the Browns (5-2), the Bengals appeared destined to squeak out a close win that could have had a lasting impact on the direction of the season. Rookie quarterback Joe Burrow engineered a go-ahead touchdown late in the game. On fourth-and-1, Burrow threw a 3-yard touchdown pass to Giovani Bernard to give Cincinnati a 34-31 lead with 1:06 remaining.

The Browns had no timeouts when they got the ball back, and it didn't matter. Mayfield's touchdown pass to Donovan Peoples-Jones sealed another win that slipped away for Cincinnati.

As much as closing out games is important for a team that is trying to take the next step, Bernard said the need for victories is simpler than that.

"We just want to win, just to freaking win," Bernard said. "It's not we want to win just to [say], 'Oh, we're working our tails [off].' No. We want to win because we're competitive and that's just in our DNA."

When Taylor was hired in 2019, the Bengals were on the verge of hitting rock bottom. A 2-14 season netted Cincinnati the No. 1 overall pick that landed Burrow, who turned in the best performance of his young NFL career on Sunday. He was 35-of-47 passing for 406 yards with three touchdowns and one interception.

After the game, Burrow referenced Taylor when asked about sticking together as a team during the rocky start.

"We have a bunch of great guys in the locker room and a great coaching staff," Burrow said. "Zac is going to get us to where we want to go."

That remains to be seen, even if the Bengals have been much more competitive in Taylor's second season. Taylor is still looking for tangible results to support the optimism he has regarding the franchise's outlook.

Learning how to convert late leads into victories is the next step for Taylor's Bengals. For wide receiver A.J. Green, the blueprint to turning the corner is not complex.

"Just got to make the plays," he said. "Simple as that."