CINCINNATI -- There's a sign outside the Cincinnati Bengals' locker room that the players walked past Sunday on their way out to the field to play the Kansas City Chiefs. It's a glowing orange rectangle with a cat-scratch mark at the bottom of it, and it reads, simply, "THEY GOTTA PLAY US" with the "US" in bold letters.
It's hard to think of a phrase that better encapsulates what the Bengals are all about right now. Sunday, they walked past that sign and beat Patrick Mahomes, Andy Reid and the Chiefs for the third time in the past calendar year. A Kansas City team that came into the weekend with the best record in the AFC and a lot of leftover anger about losing the AFC Championship Game to this team once again fell short against Joe Burrow's bunch, 27-24. When it was over, I asked star wideout Ja'Marr Chase what it all means.
"It means that Cincinnati's the team to beat now," Chase said.
There's no denying the defending AFC champions' confidence. After starting the season 0-2 with a pair of brutally tough losses to the Pittsburgh Steelers and Dallas Cowboys, they've won eight of 10, including the past four. They are tied with the Baltimore Ravens atop the AFC North, and they're bringing a roster and a mindset to December that makes them as dangerous as anyone.
"Our team knows how to win these types of games," Burrow said. "It's that time of year now. It's December/January games. This is where teams start to separate themselves."
The Bengals have a lot of work to do to separate themselves yet. They still have to pass Baltimore to win the division, since the Ravens hold the tiebreaker by virtue of having beaten them head-to-head. They wouldn't mind running down the Buffalo Bills for the AFC's top seed, and they get to play Buffalo on "Monday Night Football" in Week 17. Everything the Bengals want, including a return trip to and better result in the Super Bowl, is right in front of them. And the best part might be that they know exactly how to manage the emotions that come with playing NFL games this time of year. Two weeks ago, a tough win over division-rival Pittsburgh. Last week, a tough win in Tennessee. Sunday, another tough win over Kansas City. Next week, the Cleveland Browns, whom Burrow has yet to beat.
"We're just dialed in," Burrow said. "We know the mistakes we made today, we know the corrections we have to make. There's a lot of celebration in that locker room right now. It feels good to win. But everyone knows what we have to do to improve. The character of these guys, that's what wins games."
Having covered their past two games, I wanted to start the Week 13 overreactions column with the boisterous Bengals. So here you go.