Moral victories are just a dressed-up way of saying “losses.” So, no, I don’t take a whole lot from the Bengals’ comeback last Sunday, coming from 14-0 down to lead 17-14 late in the game only to lose 21-17 to Buffalo, dropping the Stripes to 0-3 and virtually dead in the postseason chase, even in a stumbling AFC. (Just skip ahead to Pats-Chiefs already…)
Still, it would have been much easier, in a way, to swallow a game that continued for 60 minutes on the path it took for the first 30. The Bengals had an execrable start, the fast and furious Bills defense shattering their blocking—or what passes for it in Cincinnati these days. But the stunning comeback that put the Bengals ahead with just under five minutes to play had us all dreaming of an unlikely, stirring first win of the Zac Taylor Era.
Alas, it didn’t happen. I go back to the two plays immediately before the go-ahead field goal, where on second-and-6 Gio Bernard was flattened for a two-yard loss and on third down Andy Dalton threw incomplete under duress. Ugly. Right there and then I felt—and I assume most of Bengal Nation felt similarly—that Cincinnati’s best chance to win had slipped away. A touchdown in that spot was almost a must, given the likelihood of the classic Bengals defensive letdown in the big spot; after dominating the second half (forcing three punts and an interception on the four prior possessions), of course the defense let Buffalo go down the field for the eventual winning touchdown. Dalton’s game-ending interception was almost as predictable, particularly the detail about the tip from a pass thrown too high.
That’s the pessimistic view of the contest. The more favorable take concerns the comeback. The game couldn’t have started worse. The first nine Cincinnati possessions featured exactly three first downs and all of 90 yards. Whew. So when Josh Allen, who otherwise took a licking and kept on ticking despite a beating from Bengals defenders, gave Cincinnati life with an awful pick, the fact that the Bengals capitalized with 17 unanswered points to stun a voluble Buffalo crowd was certainly a positive sign. In a classic case of “that’s the NFL for you,” the game completely flipped on a dime. In large measure, the reason the Bengals remained competitive at all after the first half’s horrid offensive display was a game defensive effort, mainly thanks to the front line. The game could easily have been 21-0 or 24-0 at halftime, and it would have been over. Instead, the team remained in touch and seized the contest when it was offered to them.
Taylor said afterwards that the team could stand to be more aggressive in the passing game and to establish Joe Mixon, the offense’s best player, with more consistency. But that’s dependent on an offensive line that allows for downfield patterns to emerge, for second-level players to be blocked, for the team not to lead the NFL in stuffed percentage (getting tackled for loss), etc. etc. We all knew the line would be a major hindrance, but on Sunday, down to a Smith-Price-Hopkins-Miller-Hart front five, the game plan changed by necessity. It wasn’t particularly surprising that, playing a tough D before a howling crowd in the opponent’s home opener, Cincinnati would struggle to move the ball. Not to that degree, perhaps, but simply weathering the storm was surely part of the thinking going in.
That’s why the “holding” call on Auden Tate that wiped out Darius Philips’ sensational kick return after the Bills opened the scoring was so important. Complaining about calls is lame: That’s not why the Bengals didn’t play well, it tends to even out, and most calls are actually at least defensible on second look. But when it was so clearly a bad flag and affected such an important play (in retrospect, obviously, but even at the time), it lingers like a splinter. It was clear the Bengals were going to need some asymmetrical scoring on the day, and they actually got it—only to have it yanked away for no good reason.
The lack of calls on Buffalo tight end Dawson Knox on the game’s biggest play, the 42-yard throw and run to set up the winning touchdown, also grates, though not as badly. Knox clearly yanked down Shawn Williams by his facemask, then lowered his helmet to slam into Jessie Bates’ helmet. Both were clear violations but seldom get called, especially against the road team with as minuscule a national brand as the Bengals (yes, sadly, that’s a factor). Cincinnati still had a good chance to keep Buffalo from going ahead after the play. The worst part is everyone worshipping Knox postgame, with the supposed “trucking” of the safeties, when they were obvious penalties.
While there were some good things to come out of the Bengals’ comeback, the fact remains that they’ve lost two imminently winnable road games to open the season. They have also now lost 10 of 11 games dating back to last season. Six of those 10 losses were one-score games (counting an 8-point loss to Cleveland), an alarming number of “close but no cigar” Sundays.
“Knowing how to win” may be a cliche, but it isn’t some false construct. “Finding ways to lose,” the corollary, also applies, and right now (and for a while now) the Bengals seem to be looking around for ways to lose at crunch time. A pair of wins versus Seattle in Week 1 and Buffalo wouldn’t make the team’s issues any less severe, but it would show that the new Bengals regime had at least instilled some newfound pluck in a beaten-down squad.
Still, in some ways, I’m glad the Bengals lost. Let’s face it, it’s not like these guys are challenging for the Super Bowl or even postseason play. When you win, all manner of stink gets deodorized, and it gets hard for a young staff to coach a young team through its obvious weak points. By losing, then, Taylor and his minions actually get to pound home all the ways the team can get better, without any subconscious “Yeah, but we won, didn’t we?” thoughts cluttering up the players’ heads.
Still, the OL, LB and secondary issues aren’t the sort of thing that can be coached up mid-season. The problem is a lack of speed, strength and ability. If you spent the first half of Sunday’s game as I did brushing up on draft-eligible players in abject surrender of 2019, then you were probably a step ahead of Duke Tobin and the scouting staff (what there is of it, that is). With no plans to actively participate in free agency, the upcoming draft is too crucial for Cincinnati to flub as they have in recent years. Being out of any wild-card chase so early on could be a blessing—maybe this way they can put some extra time into planning a roster overhaul for 2020.
Robert Weintraub heads up Bengals coverage for Cincinnati Magazine and has written for The New York Times, Grantland, Slate, Deadspin, and Football Outsiders and authored three books. You can follow him on Twitter at @robwein.