BALTIMORE — Now it's a race.
The Bengals had a chance to send the Super Bowl champion Ravens and their struggling offense circa 2000 packing into the offseason Sunday while taking unquestioned control of the AFC North.
But not even a miracle and one of the more miraculous efforts in defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer's memorable six-year tenure that featured a patchwork front seven could bail the Bengals own struggling offense out of a 20-17 overtime loss that left the North staring at another November logjam. After losing 138 minutes of frantic come-from-behind football in 11 days, the Bengals had to remind themselves they still have the hammer at 6-4.
"I think we're still in first place; is that true?" asked defensive tackle Domata Peko. "We gave up two games in a row. It's all about next week."
The 4-5 tie between the Ravens and Browns gets tested next Sunday when the Bengals host Cleveland in a 1 p.m. mustering of what is now truly the Battle of Ohio.
"We let them down again," said Bengals wide receiver A. J. Green, the Miracle Man himself, of his defense. "They played great. They played great again and we continue to let them down. We've got to make this better."
Sure, the Ravens offense looks more like the 2000 edition that went five games without scoring a touchdown on the way to the Super Bowl title than the sharp big-play unit that won it all last season. But without cornerback Leon Hall, tackle Geno Atkins and middle linebacker Rey Maualuga, the Bengals held Baltimore to just 189 yards, the fewest they've allowed in four years going back to the 169 allowed to the Browns on Nov. 29, 2009.
With Zimmer using a bevy of players to replace Atkins's Pro Bowl pass rush up the middle (second-year tackle Brandon Thompson, left end Carlos Dunlap, right end Wallace Gilberry, SAM linebacker James Harrison), the Bengals went on the road to hold the Ravens on 13 of 16 third downs, forced Super Bowl MVP Joe Flacco to turn it over three times with a miserly 60.0 passer rating, and sacked him five times.
It makes you scratch your head trying to figure how the Bengals lost until you go to the next column. The Bengals, who whiffed on 10 straight third downs at one point, suffered at least three turnovers for the fourth time this season, quarterback Andy Dalton threw three interceptions for the second straight week, they allowed five sacks and 10 knockdowns, and they didn't score a touchdown until running back Giovani Bernard added another clip to his rookie highlight reel on an 18-yard run off a screen pass with 8:22 left in the game.
"We really had our chances," said safety Chris Crocker. "We had chance upon chance upon chance."
Eleven days ago in Miami, the Bengals got beat on a walkoff safety with 6:38 left in overtime after erasing a 17-3 fourth-quarter deficit. On Sunday they saw their fourth straight road game end on the last play when Justin Tucker hit a 46-yard field goal with 4:59 left in OT as the Bengals scrambled back from a 17-0 halftime hole.
That's back-to-back losses consuming nearly 140 minutes and encompassing some of the grittiest comebacks in head coach Marvin Lewis's 11 seasons. But cornerback Terence Newman, whose pick set up the first touchdown, thinks his team's psyche is just fine.
"If you look at the score when we came out for halftime and what it was when we ended it, the mindset is pretty good," Newman said. "We fought back pretty well. We know what we have in front of us."
The epitome of the grit turned out to be the team's youngest player. Bernard, who turns 22 next week, went the whole way depsite missing most of the fourth quarter and overtime in Miami with a rib injury. He got the Bengals into OT that night wirh a reverse-the-field 35-yard TD. On Sunday when he tried to do the same thing on fourth-and-two from the Ravens 33 on a screen, he lost 11 yards and gave the Ravens great field position.
The emotional 11-day surge had the Bengals making sure of the standings because at the moment it may feel more like 4-6.
"We did have a great shot to kind of put the hammer down, but we still control our destiny," said center Kyle Cook. "We still play them again. We still have three division games left. Two at home. We'll be all right. This team is going to be OK. We're far from the end of the season."
Cook admitted he's been on some teams down 17-0 in one of the NFL's most hostile environments … well, they may not have had the resolve to stage Sunday's comeback.
"I think Marvin mentioned it just goes to show the toughness of this team," Cook said. "A weaker and lesser team would have quit. A lot of things have happened. Three overtime games this year? This team is fighting to the end. I think we'll learn from it and move ahead from it and it will make us a better team."
Peko, who saw his record in Baltimore drop to 2-6, took heart in the defeat.
"To come back from 17-0, that shows guys aren't throwing in the towel and the kind of guys we've got on this team," he said.
No one has had a tougher 11 days than the head man. Lewis was still getting roasted for leaving too much time in regulation in Miami and then passing up a 57-yard field goal in overtime when he came out of the box Sunday and went for it on fourth-and-one from the Ravens 47 on his first series. When that attempt failed, the Ravens, a team that hadn't scored a touchdown in the first quarter since the opener, took two minutes to take advantage.
Of course, if the Bengals convert that fourth down and go on to get points, Lewis is hailed for being aggressive and putting the Ravens back on their heels instead of being criticized for letting Baltimore take control in its building.
"Then we kind of got sideways there for a second," Lewis said. "I thought in the second half, we came out of things and really played like the guys they are. We got the life to them and started doing the things we needed to do."
Crocker said the Bengals rebounded from that stop.
"Sometimes as a coach you go out on a limb. We've got to ride with him. We weren't saying that was a bad decision to go for it. We just didn't get it," Crocker said. "There will be times like that this season where we go for it and we do get it. It just happened today they made a play. The first half wasn't pretty. But as far as the second half, you can't play any better on defense."
No matter the era, no matter who is playing for middle linebacker or safety for the Ravens, one truth did hold up Sunday. The opposing team faces almost certain extinction in the din of M&T Bank if it falls behind by double-digits to the third-best pass defense in the league. The Bengals gave up all five of their sacks in the second half with rush linebacker Elvis Dumervil knifing over the left side for 2.5 of them. With Dalton throwing it 51 times and the Bengals running 31 times, the ravenous Ravens pass rush had plenty of chances.
"It gets hard on the tackles. We're trying to change the cadence up," Cook said. "It worked a little bit toward the end with two offsides. You get down by that much you know what you're in for. But we came back and gave Andy some time."
And as the Bengals left, that was the message: There is still time.
"We've got plenty of season left; six games," Cook said. "We can still write our own destiny."