CINCINNATI — The Cincinnati Bengals dropped their first two games last season, and then made it all the way to the AFC championship game.
This time feels a little different.
The biggest concern is the health of Joe Burrow, who threw two touchdown passes in the second half of Sunday's 27-24 loss to Baltimore. The strong finish was a sign of progress for an offense that looked completely out of sorts during a Week 1 loss at Cleveland.
But Burrow, who missed most of training camp because of a strained right calf muscle, was limping at the end of the game against the Ravens. He said he “tweaked” his calf injury, and he wasn't sure about the seriousness of it.
“I’ll give it a couple nights and a couple sleeps,” he said after the game. "We’ll go from there.”
Coach Zac Taylor didn't know much more on Monday.
“He's still sore today," Taylor said. “He did it really one of the last three plays of the game probably, so it's just sore. We haven't done anything on the field yet.”
After throwing for a career-low 82 yards against the Browns, Burrow got off to another slow start. He had just 35 yards passing at halftime against the Ravens, who led 13-10 at the break.
Burrow found Tee Higgins for two short TD passes in the second half, but Lamar Jackson directed Baltimore on a couple of clock-eating drives. Burrow also threw a costly interception right in front of Baltimore's goal line.
Burrow, 26, was recovering from an appendectomy at the beginning of last season, and that played into an uneven start for Cincinnati's offense. The Bengals still finished with a 12-4 record and won the AFC North for the second straight year.
With the continuity with the roster and coaching staff, Burrow and the Bengals could put together another turnaround this season. But both of this year's opening two losses were against AFC North teams, and Burrow's calf injury is quickly becoming a lingering issue.
“This is exactly where we were last year, and this team is only going to get better with every game that passes,” Taylor said. “When you stumble early, you have to learn from it. So many years in the past, we’ve learned from early-season losses that have propelled us in November and December. This will be no different. I’m very confident in that.”
Rookie Charlie Jones gave Cincinnati a big lift on Sunday. The fourth-round draft pick from Purdue fielded a punt, cut left through an opening and streaked down the sideline untouched for an 81-yard touchdown that tied the game early in the second quarter. It was Jones’ first NFL score and the first punt returned for a TD by a Cincinnati player since 2012.
WHAT NEEDS HELP
Cincinnati fell behind early on in each of its first two games. It trailed 10-0 at halftime against Cleveland. It was down 7-0 when Baltimore kicker Justin Tucker missed a 59-yard field goal, and then Jones' punt return tied it up.
A stronger start could help Cincinnati with its confidence level. The Bengals are still looking for their first lead this season.
“The beauty of this team is we know it’s a 17-game season,” Taylor said. “There’s no overreaction on our end. We have to be prepared for stuff outside our locker room, which is natural."
After going without a reception in Week 1, Higgins had eight catches for 89 yards.
The defense allowed 26 first downs and 415 yards to Baltimore. Jackson threw for 237 yards and a pair of touchdowns. He picked up another 54 yards rushing and wasn't sacked once. The inability to get Jackson off the field severely limited Cincinnati's offensive opportunities.
Safety Nick Scott was being evaluated for a concussion.
4 — number of Bengals first downs in the first half.
Cincinnati will have an extra day to regroup before facing the Los Angeles Rams (1-1) on Monday Night Football on Sept. 25. The Rams lost to the 49ers 30-23 on Sunday.
“Stay patient with us," Burrow responded when asked if he had a message for the team's fans. “I know that’s hard to say and listen to. They want wins, there’s a lot of excitement going into this season. We have a lot of excitement, and we still do.”