Strong finish by offense just what Bengals need going into 2021

CINCINNATI -- With the Cincinnati Bengals needing a touchdown in the fourth quarter, the odds should have been stacked against them Sunday.

The Bengals, who were winless in their previous 20 road games, took the field without their top quarterback (Joe Burrow), running back (Joe Mixon) or wide receiver (Tyler Boyd). Instead, they didn't even come close to seeing a third down on their game-winning drive. The Bengals scored with almost two minutes to spare in a 37-31 victory over the Houston Texans and put up 540 yards, their fourth-highest game total since 2001, according to ESPN Stats & Information data.

More importantly, the victory capped a seven-day stretch that might be the strongest endorsement of coach Zac Taylor's offense. Against Houston and in a win over the Pittsburgh Steelers on Dec. 21, the Bengals won with two different offensive approaches. In a year centered on building for the future, the two victories are reasons for optimism in Taylor's offense in 2021 and beyond.

"All the things that I say [to the media] through the course of the season I've believed every step of the way," Taylor said Monday. "These wins help validate that a little bit."

For a brief stretch this season, Cincinnati's beleaguered offense was finding its rhythm with Burrow, the top overall draft pick in 2020. For Weeks 6-8, the Bengals led the NFL in points per drive (3.29). But after a rough game against Pittsburgh in Week 10 and Burrow's season-ending knee injury in Week 11, the offense sputtered and raised serious questions about the Bengals' direction.

When things looked their bleakest, Cincinnati (4-10-1) found the necessary answers.

Against Pittsburgh, the Bengals were heavy underdogs and were forced to rely on third-string quarterback Ryan Finley because No. 2 Brandon Allen was out with a knee injury.

Up until that point, Cincinnati quarterbacks had dropped back 575 times, the third most in the NFL at the time. Finley had 13 attempts on 15 dropbacks against the Steelers, which was 29.2 lower than their weekly average, according to ESPN Stats & Info research.

Finley's 23-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter proved to be the difference that helped the Bengals snap an 11-game losing streak to Pittsburgh. It came on an option play that allowed Finley to read the defense and keep the ball instead of handing it off to a running back. It wasn't something Cincinnati practiced all week.

"That's not even a play that normally is a read, but [Taylor] just tagged the word 'read' on it," Finley said. "He said if everything crashes, just pull it. That's pretty much what happened, and I walked it in."

Six days later, Allen was back under center. At the beginning of the season, Allen's primary role was to be available in case of emergency because of COVID-19. By Week 16, he was required to keep pace with the Texans, who scored on all but one of their drives in the second half.

Allen was 28-of-37 passing for a career-high 371 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions. Allen's Total QBR of 85.1 was the highest by a Bengals quarterback since Andy Dalton posted an 87.4 in a 2017 win over the Cleveland Browns.

Allen learned the basics of Taylor's scheme during their time together with the Los Angeles Rams in 2017 and 2018. The 28-year-old quarterback said that knowledge, along with the system itself, helped him in his transition to Cincinnati.

"There's so many things you can do with this offense," Allen said after Sunday's win. "It's very quarterback friendly. If you can run it, you find completions, and the completions are going to get you moving down the field, which you kind of saw [Sunday]."

Bengals offensive coordinator Brian Callahan said the injuries to top playmakers forced Taylor and the coaching staff to adapt to different strengths. But ultimately, the core of what they want to do offensively was still consistent, even with different players in key roles.

Burrow, Mixon and Boyd eventually will be on the same field again in 2021. These two games are proof that the Cincinnati offense could be capable of doing the things Taylor and the organization have wanted for the past two seasons.

"For us, we've really unwavered in our approach and our scheme and how we want to do things." Taylor said Monday. "Winning two games is great, but we feel like we've made good strides in a lot of areas and the future is bright for this whole team."