The madness continued Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium.
Former Bengals backup quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick threw three interceptions in his first nine passes, but ended up doing what Tom Brady and Peyton Manning didn't do this season in carving the Bengals for 300 yards (316) and four touchdown passes while engineering the biggest comeback victory in NFL history as the Bengals collapsed under their season-long misery, 49-31, to the Bills.
The Jets wait just hours away on Thanksgiving night in The Meadowlands (8:20 p.m., Cincinnati's Channel 12), but the only thing the Bengals have to be thankful for is it is not the old Meadowlands where they never won in 26 seasons and 11 games.
On the play Bengals cornerback Johnathan Joseph picked off Fitzpatrick for a 21-yard touchdown return that gave the Bengals a 28-7 early in the second quarter, he reaggravated the high ankle sprain that took him out of three games earlier this season and out of this one.
On the next snap the Bengals lost their most versatile secondary starter and third starting defensive back for the game when safety Chris Crocker went down with what is probably a season-ending knee injury.
Left tackle Andrew Whitworth was called for a hold to take away a touchdown. Right end Michael Johnson was called for roughing the passer to take away an interception. Running back Cedric Benson fumbled away what turned into a Bills touchdown. Before Sunday, the Bengals had never been outscored 35-0 in a half. Michael Johnson, 10-of-13 in the first half for 132 yards and two touchdowns, went 9-for-21 for 98 yards and two picks in the second half.
"It's hard to put into words," said tight end Reggie Kelly. "I've played 12 seasons, and this has to be one of the more disappointing games I've played in."
The stat sheet said it wasn't only the worst collapse in Bengaldom, but also in NFL annals. Never had a team trailing by as much as 17 points at the half won by 18 points. And the calendar said the shell-shocked Bengals had just 96 hours to pick through the friendly fire of Fitzpatrick's 35-point reminder in the second half that games last 60 minutes.
"This is like a Wednesday for me, so I'm used to staying late," said Whitworth, still not showered a good hour after the last of the 55,654 had voiced their last boo. "Just like San Diego in '06."
Back then the Bengals blew a 28-7 halftime lead here to the Chargers in a 49-41 loss. But the Bengals were still in the AFC playoff picture and head coach Marvin Lewis was in the first year of a five-year contract extension. Now at 2-8 and in the throes of a seven-game losing streak, there are only questions swirling with three-fourths of its starting secondary in traction and Merry Rex Ryan waiting in Jersey with his 8-2 all-world Jets.
But the Bengals know exactly what everyone is thinking and they are already trying to guard against it. Wide receiver Terrell Owens voiced it when he said, "We're terrible."
Now what happens with the Jets in hours, the Super Bowl champs after that, and games still looming in Pittsburgh and Baltimore?
"I hope we don't take the disappointment into a short week into the game against the Jets," Owens said. "They might put 49-plus on us … if we come with the performance we played with today, it's over like that. At this point, we're playing for pride. We're going to see what everybody is made of, me included."
Quarterback Carson Palmer said he wouldn't have used the word "terrible." But he admitted the Bengals are "not very good."
He also agreed with Owens. If they don't button up Thursday, look out below. But he thinks they'll respond.
"If we don't give it everything we've got and prepare as well as we can, especially offensively with all the looks we're going to see on the defensive front," Palmer said, "(and) have the communication we need in that loud environment, crazy environment on Thanksgiving Day, we don't stand a chance if that's the case. I believe in our guys. You may think I'm crazy for saying that. But I believe in our group up front, I believe in our receivers. I believe we're going to find a way to go in and get a win out."
Right guard Clint Boling vowed it would be different in a matter of hours.
"On Thursday, guys are going to be out there with a different mentality," said Williams, one of the offensive captains. "It hurts, but we've got to get our heads up quick or those guys are going to put up 80 on us. But our guys are going to show up and be ready to play. We've got some injuries, but whoever is going to be out there is going to be ready to play."
The disbelief still lingered like Whitworth waiting to get into the shower.
"I'm just still kind of awed," Williams said.
Whitworth was still taking a steam without going into the sauna. He was furious about the holding call that took away Owens' great juggling 31-yard touchdown catch in the third quarter.
"It's terrible. There was nothing I could do," Whitworth said. "I got my legs kicked out from under me and the guy drove me over the top of another guy's legs. I didn't hold the guy. I got pinned and basically fell down. There was no way I could have pulled him down."
Asked if the Bills had done anything differently in the second half, he said no. But the Bengals did.
"We fumbled on the second play of the second half for a touchdown and had an interception after a good drive," he said. "The last couple of games, the early turnovers killed us. In this game, the late turnovers killed us. With a big lead, the only thing you shouldn't do is give the ball back with a turnover. Going three and out would be better … we continue to bury ourselves."
But he says the fight is here. Even if the Bills don't.
"We could have easily folded up out tent and gone out of here with an 'L,' '' said Bills cornerback Drayton Florence. "But to look at those guys on the other side, it looked like they folded their tents and we took advantage of it."
The Bengals denied it.
"We're playing our tails off for most of the game," Lewis said. "They're playing right down to the (last) fibers of their bodies and giving everything they've got. Guys going back in when they're injured, but they're playing their tails off.
"We've got a game here upon us quickly. Somehow we've got to put this behind us and move forward. We can't dwell on this one. Obviously there are a lot of corrections to be made, and we'll see where we are personnel-wise, but we've got to move forward."
Joseph wandered into the locker room holding the envelope of his MRI results for his ankle. He said he had been closeted in a room for most of the fourth quarter, but from what he had seen the backup DBs had fought to the end.
"They competed; they played it all the way through," he said.
In this season of one step forward, two steps back, he was thinking about a swear word instead of joy as headed to the end zone with his touchdown.
"I was thinking, 'Bleep,' " Joseph said. "I knew something was wrong."
Joseph said it was a good call, the backer and safety blitz, and knowing that Fitzpatrick had to unload it to the sideline before he wanted. Joseph jumped the route headed to wide receiver Steve Johnson for his second pick of the day. He said it wasn't because of his local knowledge of the quarterback.
"I was in press coverage; I never saw Fitz once," Joseph said. "I'm looking at my guy and breaking on the ball and I got in front of it."
Joseph handed the envelope to trainer Nick Cosgray. Like everyone else, he's waiting for Thursday's diagnosis.
"You've got to keep pushing forward," he said.