'This isn't the Bengals of the past': Cincinnati poised to be AFC North's top cats after win vs. Ravens

BALTIMORE -- Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Tyler Boyd made his team’s intentions clear as it prepared to take on the Baltimore Ravens in Week 7.

“It’s time to flip the script,” Boyd said three days before the Bengals looked to snap a five-game losing streak to Baltimore. “It’s time to take over the throne.”

After a 41-17 victory Sunday, the Bengals are the ones holding the scepter in the AFC North. In the span of seven games this season, Cincinnati has gone from the division’s worst team to the ones holding a share of the best record.

All of a sudden, Cincinnati is posed with a new challenge -- learning how to be the team being hunted instead of the one chasing down wins.

“We’re starting to earn respect, but we still have a long way to go,” Bengals coach Zac Taylor said following the victory at M&T Bank Stadium. “Just winning one road game against a divisional opponent, that’s what you have to do if you want to compete in this league.”

Cincinnati (5-2) has spent the bulk of the past two years revamping its identity on and off the field. Examples of that include uncharacteristic spending on free agents and adding a ring of honor to recognize past greats, which debuted earlier this season.

But all of those improvements were merely cosmetic until the on-field product improved. The first indicator that was happening was a Week 3 victory on the road against the Pittsburgh Steelers, another AFC North rival who had dominated the Bengals in recent years.

Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow, who completed 23-of-38 passes for a career-high 416 yards and three touchdowns Sunday, compared the victory over the Steelers to the one against Baltimore on Sunday.

Burrow noted the offense, which scored more than 40 points for the first time since 2013, was significantly better than it was in Pittsburgh. He said while it’s good to win both games against key divisional opponents, he’s aware that a rematch will be looming on the schedule.

“We’ve got to play those guys [Baltimore] again later in the year, so we know that they’re going to be ready as well as Pittsburgh,” Burrow said. “So really we’ve got to just keep getting better.”

There’s no doubt both of those games will be circled by both foes. Boyd accused Pittsburgh of quitting late in their game, while Bengals cornerback Eli Apple poked fun at Baltimore’s “Big Truss” catchphrase on his way to the locker room.

But those types of comments are the byproduct of a team feeling a confidence that hasn’t existed the past two seasons -- a squad more than happy to be the imposing force in the division.

“We are trying to establish who we are as a team and put the league on notice that this isn’t the Bengals of the past,” said Bengals tight end C.J. Uzomah, who had 91 receiving yards and two touchdowns against Baltimore.

However, that territory comes with different difficulties these Bengals aren’t accustomed to, namely maintaining a level of excellence and facing teams who certainly won’t be overlooking Cincinnati.

Taylor, who has steered the team to seven wins in its last 10 games, is aware of that challenge.

“We just can’t let this week carry over and have our guys getting fat and happy,” he said. “That’s not what good teams do.”

Cincinnati will visit the 1-6 New York Jets (Sunday, 1 p.m. ET on CBS) before another divisional game against the Cleveland Browns (Nov. 7, 1 p.m. ET on CBS). If the Bengals win that Week 9 contest at home, they will sweep their first round of AFC North games for the first time since 2015, the last time the Bengals reached the postseason.

Before the season started, Cincinnati talked about reaching the playoffs, something that seemed improbable following a combined 6-25 record the previous two years. But after seven games, that chatter no longer sounds like wishful thinking.

“You know, the goal wasn’t to go 5-2,” Burrow said. “We have bigger aspirations.”