Bengals turn to Tyler Boyd with their season on the brink

CINCINNATI -- It might be cliché to say that Baltimore was the place where it all began for Tyler Boyd.

After all, Boyd’s 49-yard touchdown reception to beat the Ravens in the season finale last year didn’t really mean much for the team in the long run. It didn’t get the Bengals into the playoffs, and it will one day be a blip on the radar in what Boyd hopes is a long career.

Still, that game was somewhat of a turning point for the 24-year-old Boyd, who had a decent rookie season but hit some bumps in the road in his second year. Boyd has proven himself to be exactly what the Bengals envisioned when they selected him in the second round of the 2016 draft.

And with A.J. Green out of the lineup for now, Boyd can prove he can put the team on his shoulders when the Bengals travel to Baltimore on Sunday.

Green has rarely had a problem handling the Ravens, whether it was the three touchdown catches in their first meeting this season or the 10 receptions for 227 yards and two touchdowns in a 2015 matchup. Green is 7-4 against the Ravens in his career and has been the go-to guy on a number of go-ahead touchdowns.

Green caught a 77-yard yard pass from Andy Dalton to help beat the Ravens in Baltimore on Sept. 7, 2014. The next year, he caught a 7-yard touchdown pass with 2:10 left to give the Bengals a 28-24 win in Baltimore on Sept. 27, 2015 (in addition to an 80-yard touchdown reception earlier that quarter). He even once caught a 51-yard Hail Mary pass in 2013 to force overtime in a game the Bengals ultimately lost.

"When I came in and they played all the games that A.J. won in the last minute, I thought, ‘Wow, is this the only team they do this against?’" Boyd said.

But for all the great things Green has done, it was actually Boyd who was the hero in that 2017 meeting. Even though Green was targeted 10 times, he finished with only two receptions for 17 yards.

"Last play of the game, last drive, we wanted to score and we wanted to win," Boyd said. "And we did. ... It’s a memory that will always last for me forever."

Things changed for Boyd quite a bit after that. Because the Bengals put the Bills in the playoffs with their win, donations poured in for Dalton’s foundation and to the charity of Boyd’s choice.

"There’s a lot that came from that play," Dalton says. "Not only did it get us a win, but all the stuff that happened with my foundation and all of that. It was a pretty cool moment. It was one of the coolest moments of my career, with everything that happened on the play and afterwards. We’re just going back to play another game now."

When the Bengals came back the next season after all of that had died down, Boyd looked like a new man.

"It excelled me as a player and my confidence as well. It just allowed me to trust myself more and tell myself I belong in this league and I can compete with the best," he said. "And I’ve proven that."

He added: "That game let me know, ‘OK, I can be the guy. I need to come in and step up and be a true No. 2 or be a threat or a guy that’s on the field every play."

Why that happened at this point, nobody quite knows, but Boyd’s emergence was enough to give the Bengals the confidence they needed to part ways with veteran Brandon LaFell, who was a mentor to Boyd and all the young receivers.

"We said it then, but the things we did were because of Tyler and John [Ross]," Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said. "To give them the opportunity to play. Cody [Core] and Josh [Malone]. Brandon had been a great mentor in the building, but at some point you’ve got to bring the other guys along and give them an opportunity."

Maybe Boyd, with his confidence in himself growing, just outgrew LaFell.

"He took me under his wing and showed me a lot and taught me a lot," Boyd said of LaFell. "He helped me understand a lot about the game. Since he’s gone and I developed, I feel like now I can give that to someone else. I don’t have to attach to another guy to help prepare me. I felt like I was able to instruct other guys."

The stats say it all. It’s Boyd, not Green, who leads the team with 52 receptions, and Boyd is right behind Green with 685 yards and five receiving touchdowns. With Green sidelined, Boyd will likely pass him this week statistically.

As a reward, Boyd will now get the Green treatment, likely facing extra coverage. He already saw some of that against the Saints last week, and he was one of the few bright spots in a blowout loss, with three receptions for 65 yards.

"There were some times they were doubling me and we needed another guy to make plays, but at the end of the day ... I think we just couldn’t get into a rhythm," he said.

It’s a small sample size, but the Bengals didn’t exactly prove they could win without Green last week. Now it’s up to Boyd to be the guy with their season on the brink.

"Us and Baltimore are at that point where we need this win," he said. "They’ve lost three in a row and we’re coming off a loss ... this is a huge game that can make or break a team. We need to go out there and show everybody we’re a better team."