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NFL's playoff offenses show why Bengals believe they're on right track with Zac Taylor

CINCINNATI -- The common trend among the four teams remaining in the NFL playoffs isn't hard to spot.

Green Bay, Tampa Bay, Kansas City and Buffalo all like to score points. Lots of them.

All four teams were among the top six scoring offenses during the regular season and in the top five in offensive expected points added, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

And in a weird way, it might explain why a team that hasn't won a playoff game in 30 years retained a coach with six wins in two seasons.

When the Cincinnati Bengals hired Zac Taylor as their coach in 2019, they had the NFL's offensive revolution in mind. Winning at a high level means scoring at one, and that aligns with Taylor's football philosophy.

As he enters a critical third year, Taylor's success hinges on the ability to deliver on something he said during his introductory news conference.

"I think we'll bring an exciting brand of offense, an attacking creative brand of offense," Taylor said in February 2019. "I think people will be pleased with what they see."

Historically, the AFC North has been a division known for old-school, smash-mouth football. And almost immediately, it was clear Taylor's offense was not going to look like that.

In each of Taylor's first two seasons, the Bengals used the pass-friendly "11 personnel" -- one tight end and one running back -- more than any other team in the NFL.

As Cincinnati approached the last game in its four-win season, Taylor was asked if the perception that big, physical guys were needed to win a bruising division that includes the Baltimore Ravens, Pittsburgh Steelers and the Cleveland Browns. Over the past two years against the AFC North, Cincinnati is ranked 17th in points per drive among the 24 teams that have faced the Bengals’ division rivals, according to ESPN Stats & Info.

"You hate to say you got to play a certain style," Taylor said on Dec. 30. "But certainly you got to be on top of every detail when you walk into one of these divisional games."

A look at the teams still standing in the AFC shows how a dynamic and pass-oriented offensive approach is pivotal for teams looking to make a Super Bowl run.

The Chiefs and the Bills led the NFL in total yards during the regular season and were ranked in the top three in passing yards. Green Bay and Tampa Bay, the remaining NFC teams, also have prolific aerial attacks. The Packers, coached by former Los Angeles Rams assistant Matt LaFleur, led the NFL in passing touchdowns in 2020

Kansas City and Buffalo are each led by young star quarterbacks, which is what the Bengals believe they have in rookie Joe Burrow. And before the 2020 top overall pick suffered a season-ending knee injury in Week 11, Cincinnati showed glimpses of a sustained offensive attack in Burrow's first year with Taylor.

At the halfway point of 2020, Burrow was on track to break Andrew Luck's record for most passing yards by a rookie (4,374). There was a brief three-week span when the Bengals led the NFL in points per drive. And the offense was catered around the strengths of its future franchise quarterback.

"I think [the coaching staff] did a very good job of understanding what I do well and tailoring it to me early on," Burrow said in January. "And I think I took steps later in the year that allowed us to open up the offense a little bit."

With Burrow out, the flexibility of Taylor's offense was evident in back-to-back wins against Pittsburgh and Houston with two different quarterbacks. Against the Steelers, the Bengals with a run-heavy approach with quarterback Ryan Finley. When Brandon Allen was under center a week later, he threw for a career-high 371 yards in Cincinnati’s first road win since 2018.

After two years, Taylor knows that is critical to whatever success he'll have in Cincinnati.

"Some guys have some strengths that maybe I haven't been around in the past," Taylor said. "So it's just important for any coach to evolve over the course of a season, over the course of multiple seasons. And that's what we do."

Taylor's ability to help the Bengals ride the wave of the league's offensive revolution was one of the anchor points of his hiring. If Burrow returns fully healthy for all of 2021, Taylor will have an opportunity to show if he can live up to that expectation and bring the Bengals their first postseason berth since 2015.

There's more to winning than having a great offense, but a look at the remaining teams in the playoffs shows it's hard to win at a high level without one.