After hot start, Bengals facing identity crisis following blowout loss to Browns

CINCINNATI -- The Cincinnati Bengals spent the first seven weeks of the season upending preseason expectations and becoming an unlikely contender to win the AFC North.

In the span of two weeks, all that progress was unspooled with a ripcord. One week after a massive upset loss to the New York Jets, the Cleveland Browns smoked the Bengals in a 41-16 win at Paul Brown Stadium.

As Cincinnati enters its off week, the Bengals are facing an identity crisis. The past two weeks have shown that Cincinnati might not be as good as its early burst indicated. But this is still a team that trounced divisional foes Baltimore and Pittsburgh on the road.

Now, the Bengals are left trying to split the difference.

“We gotta look at ourselves and see what team we’re really made of these last weeks,” Bengals defensive end Sam Hubbard said after the game.

What the Bengals witnessed on Sunday wasn’t pretty. Cleveland outplayed Cincinnati on both sides of the ball in a game Bengals coach Zac Taylor said his team didn’t deserve to win.

The Browns’ offense, which was freed of the Odell Beckham Jr. saga after the team agreed to terms to release the receiver, scored on all three of its first-half possessions. The defense hit Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow 12 times and ultimately forced three turnovers, including a 99-yard interception return for a touchdown that foreshadowed the rest of Cincinnati’s day.

After their Week 7 win in Baltimore, Cincinnati positioned itself to have a hold on the top of the AFC North standings after five wins in its first seven games. That was before the Bengals (5-4) squandered an 11-point, fourth-quarter lead in an upset loss to the Jets last week and the Browns, as slight underdogs, handed Cincinnati its worst loss of the season.

“We just feel like we let an opportunity slip through our hands today,” Taylor said.

During the first seven weeks of the season, the Bengals capitalized on opportunities when presented. They shellacked the Steelers in Week 3 and beat the Ravens like the Browns smacked Cincinnati on Sunday.

Bengals running back Joe Mixon said he didn’t feel like the team became too complacent after the statement win over the Ravens. However, Mixon added that in the losses to the Jets and Browns (5-4), Cincinnati didn’t start the game fast enough.

“We've got to play with more intensity,” Mixon said. “Just got to play Bengals football. These last two games, we ain't been able to do that.”

On top of that, many of the things that were clicking early in the season sputtered on Sunday. Burrow said he didn’t play well, and rookie wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase went from a record-breaking start to just six catches on 13 targets, with one of those missed connections a dropped touchdown in the end zone.

Perhaps most alarmingly, a defense that ranked as one of the best in the league has been uncharacteristically bad. Hubbard, who had a sack and three quarterback hits, said some of the same concepts that hurt the Bengals against the Jets were also successful for the Browns.

“This is a tough league,” Hubbard said. “People are going to figure you out. We gotta adjust and make the plays when we’re in the position to make the plays and get off the field.”

Add it all together and it makes for a perplexing view of where the Bengals stand through nine games.

Cincinnati went from one of the hottest teams in the AFC to the bottom of the division standings. Throughout the postgame news conferences Sunday, Taylor and the players who spoke conveyed a sense of calm despite the recent struggles.

The final nine games will say volumes about where the franchise is headed. Three weeks ago, Cincinnati seemed destined to end a playoff drought that stretches back to 2015. On Sunday, the Bengals had a chance to win their first three divisional games since that season.

Instead, the Bengals are on a two-game losing streak and are tasked with figuring out which type of team they will be when the season resumes against the Las Vegas Raiders (4:05 p.m. ET on CBS) in two weeks.

“When we play there, we gotta go out there and take it,” Mixon said. “Because nothing’s given.”