If Sunday's 25-22 overtime loss to the Packers is supposed to be what the pundits like to call "a measuring stick game," then head coach Zac Taylor's third-year version of the Bengals is agonizingly inches away from contending with the NFL elite.
In a game of inches where there wasn't much room to maneuver at packed Paul Brown Stadium, the Bengals came-this-close to knocking off the two-time NFC finalist Packers despite two Joe Burrow interceptions, just 10 cautious carries for running back Joe Mixon's sprained ankle and another batch of That's Incredible plays from Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
"I think we're learning about ourselves. It's going to be great film to correct, but I think everybody is looking in the right direction," said cornerback Chidobe Awuzie, one of the many new faces that put the Bengals in this game of 3-1 division leaders. "We're learning how tough we are. Obviously this is a young team, a new team. A lot of pieces were brought in. We're starting to find out who we are.
"That's one thing we know we are. We're a tough team. Teams are going to get our best shot. That's one thing I know for sure about us. I think it's starting to come down to execution. Explosive plays. On defense those things we frown upon. Just communicating. We're starting to find out our weaknesses and things we can definitely improve upon."
It was a conflicted, emotional team that tried to grapple with their second overtime game of the young season. So much good and yet the feeling was so bad.
Rookie Evan McPherson's club record field goal attempt to win it with 21 second left in regulation hit the right upright from 57 yards, a spot from where he hit in the preseason.
His 49-yard field goal try with 4:14 left in overtime grazed the flag on the left upright.
Ja'Marr Chase, the Bengals' marvelous rookie wide receiver having a historic season at 21 years old, is wise enough to know what he just saw.
"I think we can go really far with this team. Our defense is playing great ball right now. I want to say that, because they're keeping us in a game with great teams," Chase said. "Like on the road in Pittsburgh, this game. Our defense is holding it down for our offense. They're giving us the ball back and opportunities, making plays. We've just got to capitalize on stuff like that. We have the ball, we have to take advantage of it. Put a dagger in them and kill them and go home happy."
The toughness is personified in Burrow and on a day he bobbed and weaved and brought the Bengals back in another fourth quarter and was good enough to beat the wily Hall-of-Famer without his best stuff, he ended up in the hospital instead of with his third game winning drive of the season.
There was a sense of optimism that Burrow would be back for next Sunday after getting his throat checked for a possible contusion absorbed during a bruising game he got hit eight times, sacked three times and scared the crowd of 64,000-plus into silence when he got decked on a scramble late in the first half. He was cleared for a concussion and came out to fire another last-minute first half touchdown to Chase, but he never got comfortable in a busy pocket.
The early close misses started right away and they never got a handle on Chase's dagger. On the Bengals' third snap of the game, the offensive line failed to give Burrow push and he got stoned on a third-and-one sneak. That began a frustrating day of nine plays of third-and-four or fewer in which just three were converted.
All were converted on passes, including Burrow's ice-cold-nervy-21-yard go ball to Chase on third-and-two that gave the Bengals' one last shot in overtime.
"I expect to throw a go ball in every moment," Chase said. "I mean, that's one of the reasons why they got me. I'm a deep threat. So, whenever they say we're going deep, that's something I get happy for. That's my job."
On the last one, Burrow and Chase again showed their LSU chemistry on Chase's back shoulder in a devastating connection that is accounting for about 20 yards per throw. The Bengals made no bones about going after a Packers secondary without Pro Bowl cornerback Jaire Alexander.
"We had a bunch of opportunities to take advantage of the go ball. I think I had about four downfield today," Chase said. "One of them the DB caught back up to me, he was beat, he was thinking slant. The other one just a hard adjustment to get to it. The other two were back shoulders. I caught one and the other one was out of bounds. We had a lot of opportunities to hit gos. We were trying to mix it up on what we wanted to do Stops, gos, ins, outs. Just mixing it up to get the defender to compress us so we could go over top."
They can go over the top, but not underneath. The Packers sagged into their two deep-zone much of the day, but the Bengals couldn't dent it with the run the way the numbers suggested they should. They've got the big play, but it is the mystery of the short yardage they need to solve.
They ran it three times on third-and-two or third-and-one for no yards. After the bomb to Chase they faced third-and-two from the Packers 33 and running back Joe Mixon barely missed getting it even behind a six-man offensive line. Then McPherson hit the flag instead of the winner.
So close that Taylor was asked about being more aggressive at that point to get McPherson closer. Actually, the Packers answered that on the next series when Rodgers got sacked out of field-goal range and needed a 15-yard Houdini job to wide receiver Randall Cobb to get Mason Crosby his own 49-yarder to win it
"At the end particularly, when it's a game-winning field goal, that's the difference," Taylor said. "Had it been in the normal part of the game, we'd be more aggressive because we want to go score the touchdown. We just felt Evan was going to give us an opportunity to win, so let's put him in a good position to do it. It just didn't go our way today."
But Taylor was feeling the same thing Awuzie and Chase were feeling. They were short all day. Yet just close enough to validate they're thinking they're on the right track.
"I know exactly what kind of football team we have now. If there's any questions about what type of fight we have, what type of energy we have, what type of love we have for each other," Taylor said. "I know that the people that were at the game today, the people that are watching on TV, they should be proud of this team. It will come down to some last-second plays, and sometimes we'll make them and sometimes we won't. But this team's got fight to the end against great teams, great quarterbacks. I believe in our guys, and this going serve us well over the course of the season. We're battle-tested."
Rodgers won this battle converting only four third downs, none in the final 33 minutes. But a 34-yarder to his crazy good receiver Davante Adams on third-and-12 led to one touchdown and a 15-yarder to Adams on third-and-six led to the other. Despite a second half he got a 59-yard bomb to Adams running through the double team of Awuzie and free safety Jessie Bates III and a 57-yard bolt from running back Aaron Jones, Rodgers couldn't put the Bengals away with a red zone touchdown. The defense gave up a season-high 466 yards, but just two touchdowns.
In the second half, the Packers got minus yardage on eight red-zone snaps. Strong safety Vonn Bell had back-to-back stops of Jones for minus five yards to set up Crosby's overtime miss while the line took care of 247-pound back A.J. Dillon.
"I think it's just relying on your brother. We have a tight group on defense," said edge Trey Hendrickson. "We trust each other on our assignments. We trust each other to do the job, and to do the job well, especially up front. Can't say enough about Sam (Hubbard), DJ (Reader), Larry (Ogunjobi), BJ (Hill), Josh Tupou, guys like that. Wyatt (Ray), Cam (Sample). It's a special group that I get to play with, and study film with."
How about on the next to last play from scrimmage, Hendrickson beat a double team and sacked Rodgers at the Bengals 48, taking the Pack out of field goal range? Then on the last snap, Hendrickson bearing down on Rodgers again from the other side and forcing him to throw as he back-pedaled to the turf and somehow floating it to Cobb for 15 yards to get Crosby close?
"That's one of those things that maybe I need to get one more step to get him down, but he's a professional too, he's been doing it for a long time," Hendrickson said. "It's disappointing."
As big of a day as Davante Adams had with 206 yards, the Bengals showed they finally have faith in a cornerback they can travel with the foe's top receiver in Awuzie. He had a huge play early when Adams tried to double move him and Awuzie stayed close to get his first Bengals interception. Awuzie traveling could be the way it goes now, especially with Trae Waynes limping off after the last play when he apparently re-aggravated his hamstring. And here Sunday was the first time the Bengals had their starting cornerbacks since Oct. 13, 2019.
After giving Rodgers just 25 points and two touchdown, Awuzie thought about defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo's boxing videos he likes to show of the great fights. He doesn't remember the exact bouts, but he knows the message.
"Their core players were there and we were able to stand up and go toe to toe," Awuzie said. "He showed us a lot of boxing clips and historical fights. That's what it is every time we are out there. And that's what it seemed to be, like it's going to be for the rest of the season. We are just bowing our chin up and one of these games against a really good team we are going to have our knockout punch."
It was a split decision they hope earns them a rematch against the powers that they can close out the next time. But before they get the great welterweight Lamar Jackson in Baltimore in two weeks, they have to go to the home of Joe Louis in Detroit.