INDIANAPOLIS - It didn't happen the way the Bengals drew it up. But then, they didn't draw up this season to be 2-7, did they?
The Bengals were supposed to hang in Sunday's game against the Colts at Lucas Oil Stadium by stealing the clock from Hall of Famer Peyton Manning with their AFC North ground game and hope their undermanned secondary could hang on for dear life. Their sore-armed quarterback throwing 42 times against the Colts in Indy's stable of pass rushers would mean certain death.
It did, but not until 2:23 left and the Bengals on the Colts 34 with a chance to win until they suffered their fifth turnover of a game as crazy and as disjointed as the season itself.
The Bengals defense pitched one of its finest games in memory, not allowing Manning a touchdown pass and only giving him one touchdown drive. He jacked his record to 7-0 against the Bengals with the 23-17 win, but it was his worst effort of them all with a 69.8 rating and his fewest points. The Bengals certainly didn't count on one of the key players being plucked from the practice squad the day before the game. But with safety Chris Crocker (thigh) and Morgan Trent (knee) out, Rico Murray surfaced in his sixth NFL game to help hold NFL leading receiver Reggie Wayne to just three catches.
The Bengals special teams betrayed them the past two weeks, but on Sunday they came up with a game-winning play on Brandon LaFell's perfectly executed onside kick. But Nugent never walked off the field. He was carried off with what is believed to be a season-ending torn anterior cruciate ligament in his kicking knee.
The Bengals offensive line that has struggled protecting held up against the relentless rushes of end Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis. But the power game could only carve out 1.7 yards per rush for running back Clint Boling against the NFL's fourth-worst rush defense.
Quarterback Michael Johnson out-threw Manning, 292 yards to 185, but the man who not very long ago was the Bengals answer to Manning finds questions surrounding his status as a franchise quarterback after three interceptions that weren't even close. One was returned for a touchdown and only his rolling tackle prevented another.
Maybe the biggest question is if Palmer should have been playing at all with a sore shoulder that needed a shot of painkiller.
"I felt great," he said.
No, not the way the Bengals drew it up in a loss that puts them back at the drawing board as head coach Marvin Lewis wondered if the offense is too varied.
"My fault," Palmer said. "That's my job. I'm the quarterback. I throw the ball. If the other team gets it, it's my fault."
Pick One: Palmer said it was a "miscommunication" with rookie wide receiver Jordan Shipley that turned into cornerback Kelvin Hayden's 31-yard interception return that gave the Colts a 10-0 lead with 2:28 left in the first quarter. The ball was wide of Shipley and although it looked like Palmer took some heat up the middle just as he threw it on second-and-nine, he said he didn't get touched.
Pick Two: Palmer said never should have put the ball inside rookie tight end Jermaine Gresham on third-and-seven from his own 37, where linebacker Tyjuan Hagler was waiting and ran it back to the Bengals 10 to set up a field goal with 10 minutes left in the game.
Pick Three: Palmer looked like he led wide receiver Terrell Owens too far across the middle, where there were three Colts defenders just laying back with a 13-point lead on second-and-six from the Colts 45 with 5:47 left and safety Aaron Francisco was the lucky one.
"All three, they're plays that are completely my fault, plays I can't make," Palmer said. "It was miscommunication on all of them, and I need to do a better job of making sure I put the ball in our guys' hands.
"We're a little bit off. And when you're a little bit off, that's what happens. The passing game is a precision passing game, a timing passing game. When you're not on the same page, bad things happen. Bad things are interceptions like those, especially the first one that put us in a hole early. I need to do a better job of putting the ball in guys' hands of our team."
But his receivers took the blame and while the passing game may be confusing everyone, even the players, it is quite clear that the six-game losing streak is fraying the nerves. The Bengals have the script down pat: Fall way behind early, rally, and, as Owens said after the game, "That's been our Achilles heel, finding a way to lose instead of finding a way to win."
"I'm past the digging down deep part," Benson said. "I'd rather get up big instead of rallying to finish the game. It's exhausting and tough to come back."
One step forward, two steps back. Gresham lived the Bengals season in the fourth quarter. He was immense in the comeback. Not only did he live up to the first-round hype by catching all of his career-high nine passes in the fourth quarter that included a 19-yard touchdown pass, but he helped the tackles keep Freeney and Mathis at bay until the last 25 seconds with frequent chip blocks.
But the fourth quarter also saw the interception and the fumble. Naturally, it was Freeney that got his hand in there, forcing his NFL-leading 40th fumble since he came into the league in 2002.
Gresham took his medicine like a veteran, answering the wave of media types that looked like insurance adjustors cautiously asking about the accident.
"In that last two minutes, you've got to get down," Gresham said. "I was trying to get out of it. Somehow when I was going to the ground, the guy must have hung on and as he got me down, the ball came out. The interception is on me. In that situation I have to turn around and just sit. That's my fault. That's all on me, not Carson. That's a read route."
Palmer then did what the franchise quarterback does: He talked up Gresham on the sidelines and the media.
"I just love Jermaine. I love his attitude and work ethic and the way he is as a person," Palmer said. "He's so humble. He has been given so much talent. He doesn't act that way, he doesn't work that way. He works like an underachiever. I just told him, 'I love everything about you, I love that you're fighting for every single yard. And I love that you want the ball in your hands. But we just have to iron out the small things, the little details.' He's going to be great.
"I love the way he comes out of his breaks, they way he explodes off the ball, the way he blocks guys. There's an absolute never quit mentality in the guy. (The good things are) inside of him. It will come out and I want to see it."
But at 2-7, nobody can see anything. Everything is questioned. Left tackle Andrew Whitworth wondered if the Bengals can get their confidence back. The media wondered if Owens quit over the middle on that final pick.
"I don't know. I don't think so. I've not seen T.O. give up on any plays," Lewis said.
"Guys start to lose their confidence and it makes it tougher to have success," Whitworth said. "We've got to get our confidence back. We've got to get guys smiling and enjoying this game and play it like they know we can play."
"There's no magic potion," said wide receiver Chad Ochocinco.
The questions are now even enveloping the guy thought once to be untouchable. Palmer has never quarterbacked a losing streak longer than four games. Until now.
"I'm just frustrated at where we are right now. It's been a long time since we've won a game," he said. "It's been a long time since we've played well for four quarters, played well as a team. That's what's frustrating."
Not how they drew it up.