CHARLOTTE, N.C. - At various times Sunday for the Bengals wide receivers it was a grinding and yet giddy afternoon that in the end amounted to a galling 31-21 loss to the Panthers. For the final 2:53 of the third quarter and the first 11:27 of the fourth the Bengals had three drives to tie it at 28 and if it wasn't one thing it was another conspiring to make them come up empty.
"We still had a chance to take it down there and tie it," said wide receiver Tyler Boyd after his career 132-yard day. "That's what really hurts me. That's what upsets me."
The buzz was about the two improv catches Boyd made to save a scrambling Andy Dalton and the two catches John Ross didn't make that turned into Dalton interceptions. And the vintage toe-tap catch A.J. Green made and all the ones he would have made if he hadn't left the game with a groin injury on the third play of the third quarter. It was a Red Badge of Courage Day for Dalton with his fifth best passing yardage ever with 352. He tied Boomer Esiason with the most 300-yard games in team history despite a 64.8 passer rating.
"They started to get comfortable. They started feeling they had us where they wanted us," Boyd said of the Panthers when they saw Green exit. "I still believe in the other guys. We still had a chance to win it and tie it, regardless. That's definitely our guy. He's a huge changed in our game."
Before Green left (and he's saying he thinks he can play next week and that he didn't hear anything pop), he added to his side-line legend. On the first play after Carolina tied the game at seven late in the first quarter, Dalton, as he did all day from the rampaging Panthers' D-tackles, backpedaled and chucked it deep off his back foot where only Green could get it. Apparently he threw it so well that when Green made one of those how-did-he-do-that-acrobatic-move-despite-donating-his body-to-geometry-catch, the official didn't get it, either, because he waved it off. Until Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis challenged and the 31-yarder stood.
"He is so good at it," Dalton said. "There are not very many people that can do that, if there is anybody else that can make those type of plays, then yeah but it doesn't surprise me. I feel like on the throw either he's going to have a chance to make a play on it or it's going to end up out of bounds, for him he made an unbelievable catch. How he got his feet down, I don't know."
But that was the beginning of the end. On the next snap from the Panthers 44, left tackle Cordy Glenn allowed penetration that forced center Trey Hopkins back and when running back Giovani Bernard collided with Hopkins for a seven-yard loss, Dalton ended up with a third-and-17. He had Ross one-one with rookie cornerback Donte Jackson down the right sideline and from the left hash Dalton lofted it up for Ross to make a play. But while Ross approached it tentatively, Jackson aggressively played like the receiver and picked it off at the Panthers 33 for the first of Dalton's four interceptions.
But was Ross also responsible for Dalton's third interception? After Dalton got sacked by back-up end Efie Obada when tight end Tyler Kroft couldn't fend him off Dalton's blind side, Dalton launched a ball to Ross with 3:40 left at midfield. But Ross appeared not to finish his route and Jackson picked it again.
Lewis declined to discuss Ross (he wanted to watch the tape), but his teammates suggested he'll learn. It was a tough day for Ross. In the first half he also appeared to misjudge a Dalton bomb as got separation.
"I believe in him. I believe in his game," Boyd said. "I think he can overcome this … Every guy here. That's our guy. He's got to spend the rest of the year with us. We're going to see him every day. I trust him. He's just got to break the shell. That's all it is. He's got to stop worrying about all the other stuff and just play football. It's going to come. That's what I told him, 'It's going to come, bro. Just relax. It's going to come.'"
Green didn't see all of the last play.
"I just saw the end of it. Like I said, Andy's giving us a chance, so we have to go try to protect the throw the best way we can," Green said. "You've just got to learn. If Andy's going to throw the ball to you, he has the confidence in you to go make the play. It's either going to be incomplete or it's going to be a catch. You just have to go fight for those balls. 50-50 balls, he's giving you a shot. We'll work on that and go from there."
Between the pressure of two sacks, two more QB hits and some of the picks (his pass to wide receiver Josh Malone got batted in the air for one), it didn't look like Dalton had a lot of help to prevent the third four-interception game of his career. But he took some of the blame, too.
"I threw it, tried to give him a chance," said Dalton of the third interception. "I don't know exactly what happened but I feel like for me I have to be smart with the ball. You never want to turn the ball over and we had way too many turnovers today.
"I think everybody is going to look at the tape and see what we all could do different. That's the thing with the tape we have to go look at it, see what we could do better and see the plays that we left out there and fix them."
The one thing they couldn't prevent was Green from getting hurt. It looked like cornerback James Bradberry arrived too soon over the middle and separated Green from the ball when he hit him in the back as Green leaped to catch it with his hands before it hit his chest. He went one way and the ball the other.
"I hurt it as soon as I hit the ground. I just fell awkwardly. I did the same thing in college," Green said. "I feel better. Still a little sore, but I feel better walking, so that's a good sign.
"At first I thought I knocked the air out of myself. I was just trying to catch my breath. Then I got up and ran and I was like 'Oh, a little sore.' I couldn't really lift my leg after a while. But it feels good now. It should be fine. It's just a little sore … I thought I'd just give it like a series or two just to calm down. But after a while it got even sorer and stiff."
So Green was left to sit on the Gatorade bucket and watch the frustration flow. Down 28-21, they just couldn't make a play after Boyd leaked behind the secondary for a 49-yard catch from the running and gunning Dalton with 7:55 left in the game that put the ball on the Carolina 25. After a holding call on right guard Alex Redmond, the pass rush was enough to cause Dalton to miss the next three passes and the drive went for naught when Randy Bullock hooked a 53-yard field-goal try.
"It's tough just sitting there on the sideline not able to play," Green said. "Being the guy on offense and not being able to play. But we fought hard. Turnovers killed us. I think that's one thing that really held us back. You can't win when you have all those turnovers."
Sunday proved that if Ross isn't, Boyd is more than ready to be Green's wing man in the Marvin Jones-Mohamed Sanu mold. In fact, Boyd became the Bengals' first drafted wide receiver other than Green to have a 100-yard day since Sanu four years ago. Speaking of running mates, they go into next week's meeting with the Sanu-Julio Jones Falcons in Atlanta with Boyd leading them in receiving yards, 249-219 yards.
"I just want to help the team and make as many plays as possible with A.J. getting doubled or if the read is coming to me and I do my best to catch the ball," Boyd said. "Keep the chains rolling."
Boyd's 27-yard touchdown catch with 2:53 left in the third quarter came as Dalton was chased out of the pocket to his left and he had to square his shoulders to smoke it to Boyd running away from the safety to the left pylon across the end zone.
"That was my route. I still hit that route," Boyd said. "I continued to work with him. The play is either you hit it and make a throw. We never prolong that long for him to escape. I just did a great job continuing my route."
Boyd did break off a route in a classic scramble play and it was a carbon copy with Dalton throwing across his body. This time Boyd got behind the secondary and Dalton launched it. He couldn't take it to the house, he said, because he didn't have enough momentum when he caught it.
"Scramble play," Boyd said. "I went up field, found a space and Andy did a great job finding me."
If 49 yards sounds familiar, that's length of the Dalton-Boyd-fourth-and-12 TD that ended last season and made them famous in Buffalo and Baltimore. Truth be told, they had a good chemistry before all that. Dalton loves his instincts.
"I think he reacted once he moved. He was running his route but then he reacted to it, great play," said Dalton of the TD. "He did a great job with reacting once I was out of the pocket. I think for him at that point it just ends up backyard football, go get open. He did a great job twice getting open on two big plays.
"I think that's him, he understands the game really well. He understands what we are trying to do, it is natural for him, and it showed with the way he played today."
And Boyd has seen enough ball to know why they got beat. Turnovers, 4-0.
"Andy did a great job keeping it rolling. I don't think he threw a pick that was a blatant interception," Boyd said. "It was good plays by their defense. Whoever gets the most turnovers most likely is the team, team that wins."