DETROIT — The scene inside Ford Field on Sunday was almost unthinkable a couple of years ago.
The back-ups jogged onto the field. Disgruntled fans trudged toward the exit. And the Cincinnati Bengals were the ones cruising to a 34-11 victory over the Detroit Lions.
It was a sign of how far the Bengals have come in the last three seasons. Two years ago, Cincinnati was the worst team in the NFL. Now, the Bengals are at the stage of their rebuild that even on an OK day, they can thump a bad team.
If each game reveals an attribute about Cincinnati, the illumination on Sunday was that even when things aren’t completely clicking, the Bengals (4-2) are more than good enough.
And it’s not just the wins that matter for a franchise looking to end a postseason drought. Style points count, too.
“We don’t have these record expectations,” Bengals coach Zac Taylor said after the game. “It’s just about how our team is moving along and progressing. And that is all I care about.”
To be clear, the Bengals’ performance wasn’t as flashy as wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase’s chain that featured a gold “No. 1” pendant with “Chosen” down the middle. Cincinnati’s offense, which has struggled with consistency throughout the season, had another lackluster first half that featured three consecutive three-and-outs.
The Lions (0-6) looked every bit like the last remaining winless team in the NFL. Lions quarterback Jared Goff was booed before, during and at the end of the game. The bulk of his 202 passing yards came after the game was out of reach and the Lions were headed to their 10th straight defeat, currently the NFL’s longest losing streak.
Cincinnati didn’t truly kick into gear until the third quarter, when Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow hit running back Joe Mixon for a 40-yard pitch-and-catch touchdown on fourth-and-one. Had the Bengals not converted that, Detroit could have stayed within striking distance and made for another close game.
Earlier this season, Cincinnati needed overtime to beat a Jacksonville team that didn’t get its first victory until Sunday, when the Jaguars beat the one-win Dolphins on a last-second field goal in London.
Bengals linebacker Logan Wilson, who earned another game ball from Burrow after his fourth take-away of the season, was hesitant to look too far forward, especially with division rival Baltimore scheduled for next weekend.
But not only did the Bengals pick up their largest margin of victory since Taylor’s coaching tenure started in 2019, they handed the Lions their worst loss of the season in what looked like a proverbial trap game.
“We came in here and we did what we needed to do, what we were supposed to do, what we planned on doing,” Wilson said.
Cincinnati knows the offense must play more consistently if it wants to make a true run at winning the AFC North. When offered praise after the game, Taylor quickly dismissed the thought and said he was mad with how the Bengals looked in the first half.
It’s a sign of how far the Bengals have traveled since the days of 2019 when any victory was more than welcomed.
And the fact Cincinnati left a lot to be desired and still managed its biggest victory in years is the mark of a playoff team, something Cincinnati hopes to be when January arrives.
“I’m never going to be upset about a 34-point game when you’re winning by as much as we did,” Burrow said, “but we do have to get some things corrected.
“And when we do that, it’s going to be scary.”