Joe Burrow proved Sunday he’s not just back, he’s better — and the Bengals might be, too


SANTA CLARA, Calif. — When Joe Burrow walked on the team plane with an alien mask on his head Saturday, Tee Higgins didn’t know who was behind it.

Who would have thought it would be the franchise quarterback?

After Sunday’s vintage Burrow dissection of the San Francisco 49ers in a 31-17 win, Higgins realized he should have known better.

“He is an alien, man,” Higgins said. “He’s not from this world.”

Just as new information about extraterrestrials has altered the possibilities, Sunday proved the same might just be true about Burrow.

Not just because he completed a career-high 19 consecutive passes. Or because he spearheaded another offensive evolution capitalizing on a game-planned move back under center. Not even because he threw three touchdown passes, racking up the most points against San Francisco at Levi’s Stadium in over a year and breaking its 11-game home win streak.

Finally, Burrow showed off part of his skill set he expected to unveil in Week 1 but was forced to shelve for eight weeks in favor of his calf injury.

Sunday, starting with 10 seconds of nightmarish chaos turned miraculous third-down Houdini, he showed off the full complement of his offseason agenda.

“Athleticism, acceleration, explosiveness was really a big focus of mine in the offseason,” Burrow said. “I just haven’t really been able to show that too much. When you see hard work pay off, it’s exciting.”

It paid off in arguably his best game as a pro, leading to the realization that Burrow wasn’t just back but might even be better.

“I told him on the field,” Ja’Marr Chase said, “I was like, ‘Welcome back, bro.’”

Burrow has always used his mobility to make game-changing plays out of thin air. Yet Sunday he took off five times for 44 yards, four earning first downs. All four earned an exclamation point of popping up with attitude. There were ball drops, first-down points and even stomps while slamming his helmet with both hands.

At one point, he audibled into a quarterback draw while in empty on third-and-9. He made a juke on All-Pro safety Talanoa Hufanga and dove for 10 yards.

“I don’t use that word ‘unbelievable’ anymore,” coach Zac Taylor said. “That’s just what you’ve come to expect.”

Well, sort of.

Few expected what happened on third-and-10 on the opening drive, a play that typified Burrow’s alienation. He was swallowed seemingly in the grasp of multiple 49ers before somehow spitting out, sprinting away and hitting Higgins on the run for 10 yards and a first down.

“He makes stuff happen,” Higgins said. “That third-and-10 play, nobody does that.”

The 9.3 seconds to throw was the longest of Burrow’s career. The previous high was 8.4.

“I stopped,” Higgins said. “I’m thinking he’s going down. I’m thinking it’s a sack. Next thing you know, I seen him running. I’m like, ‘Oh, s—. Make a play.’”

When he did, the game changed. On a day that featured the Cincinnati Bengals running 62 offensive plays, it might sound odd to say the third one made that big of an impact. Considering how games have gone this season when playing from behind, however, and that the Bengals desperately needed to avoid that fate against San Francisco, inventing a conversion on the spot to initiate a gorgeous 10-play, 85-yard touchdown drive provided a day’s worth of ripple effects.

“That really catapulted us into the game,” Taylor said. “We sit here and talk about these games that we’ve lost, and it was those plays that we didn’t make early in the game. That’s a play that jump-starts you and you end up scoring a touchdown. That’s really what it comes down to.”

During the calf debacle, Taylor saying Burrow’s body looked as good as ever was thought of as a joke as he evaded elaborating on the injury. But it was rooted in truth. What we saw Sunday, a significant amplification of the first two games on this 3-0 stretch since regaining movement, showcased the vision of the next level in his game.

“This is my standard,” Burrow said.

Check that — the new standard.

He set a career high, going 28-of-32 for an almost impossible 88 percent completion rate. It was fitting he shared a hug with Joe Montana before the game, offering a vintage Joe Cool performance while coming one throw away from Cincinnati’s franchise record of 20 set by Kenny Anderson.

His off-target percentage was zero for the first time in his career.

This came after two weeks of stewing about a multitude of inaccurate throws against the Seattle Seahawks that drew criticism about his play. He felt that, too. Safe to say, it festered.

“Yeah, I think so,” Burrow said, acknowledging his mechanics have cleaned up as his calf improved. “It was a combination of a lot of things a couple weeks ago. When you have the bye, you’re able to sit back and really deeply think about mechanics, routes, timing, footwork, all that. That’s really what I did.”

The attitude and angst left a mark all week. A clear tone set, once again.

“He was on point all week,” Higgins said. “It was a no-brainer he was going to come into this game and do what he did today.”

He did it while ushering in the return of the under-center offense, an element he’s shied away from throughout his career. The Bengals couldn’t use it during his injury, but it returned and caught the 49ers off-guard. Burrow hit three of four passes for 60 yards, all three gaining first downs.

GO DEEPER

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This offered another offensive evolution that has become a hallmark of the Bengals’ success and why Burrow has won 11 consecutive regular-season games from November forward.

“You have to if you want to be good,” Burrow said.

After a dime tossed to Chase for the game-changing touchdown, Burrow’s football soulmate fired off a backflip in the end zone. He laughed about his gymnastics background and getting big air during his first flip in years.

It also reminded him of another aspect of Burrow’s tone that hit a perfect note Sunday.

“When you are out there just playing football, just having fun — that’s something he always used to say that stuck with me,” Chase said. “When you are winning, you have the most fun; you don’t realize what you are doing.”

His feel for the game, finding answers and motivating were all on display. He piled on with career-best accuracy against an elite opponent during a defining crossroads of the season.

Burrow hit every button on his spaceship.

This was a vintage performance.

The scary part for the rest of the AFC, which was put on notice Sunday night, is it might have reinvented what Vintage Burrow means.

(Photo: Josie Lepe / Associated Press)


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