If you want to know what kind of day the Bengals and their fans had at sold-out Paul Brown Stadium against the Broncos on Sunday, just look at the ecstacy and agony enjoyed and suffered by the oldest player on on one of the NFL's youngest teams in a span of 12 minutes.
Tough. Resilient. Close. Good. Bad.
With his team left for dead on the side of the road at 17-3 when the opening kickoff of the second half went against the Bengals for 105 yards, cornerback Terence Newman picked off the un-pickable Peyton Manning at each end of the field late in the third quarter to stake the Bengals to a 20-17 fourth-quarter lead.
But then he barely missed finishing a tackle on third-and-three to lead to one touchdown before a flag he was sure he was going to get blew the other way on an another touchdown as the 36-year-old Manning posted yet another fourth-quarter victory in his MVP-like season that has gone bitter for the 3-5 Bengals with their fourth straight loss.
"Sometimes it goes your way and sometimes it doesn't. It's been that way the last couple of games for us," Newman said. "A lot of times teams get bounces to go their way and sometimes they don't. I think today we got it both ways. At the end of the day, they did a better job executing plays and doing them when it mattered."
That may be the epitaph for the 2012 season unless the Bengals can string together a miracle second half. As Newman said, there's hope because the Super Bowl champion Giants had a bad start last year. Well, the Bengals will see it up close because those same Giants are up next at PBS this Sunday at 1 p.m. and they're hurting after a loss to the Steelers. Tom Coughlin's hard-boiled crew travels well and hasn't lost two straight since last Dec. 4.
This one was particularly tough. The Bengals said they had a tremendous week of preparation. Defensive tackle Domata Peko said there was training camp intensity with "backs against the wall." Coordinator Mike Zimmer told his defense it was the best week of practice his group has had.
"If we can come out with the effort and the commitment we had in this game and the way the guys played this game," left tackle Andrew Whitworth said, "if we can do that week to week, we're going to put together a streak of wins. We just keep coming up short in the fourth quarter over and over again."
"Have to finish" is the mantra. The Bengals have lost the last four games by an average of seven points and have been outscored in the fourth quarter by eight points, 69-61.
All three phases are still looking for a complete game.
The Bengals defense offered a compelling day, giving its offense the opportunity to outgain Manning (366-359) by holding running back Willis McGahee and his 4.5-yard rush average to 2.9. But they let Manning convert nine of 14 third-down tries.
The offense racked up 366 yards against a defense that gave Drew Brees just 252 the week before and the Bengals got a bounce-back game from wide receiver A.J. Green on 99 yards as well as tight end Jermaine Gresham's first career 100-yard game. But the Bengals allowed five sacks and committed the bulk of a season-high 83 yards in penalties.
Special teams got two clutch second-half field goals by Mike Nugent and big kick returns by Brandon Tate, but Nugent missed a 46-yarder at the halftime gun and they allowed Trindon Holliday's killer return.
Head coach Marvin Lewis showed the contradiction postgame, praising his team's grit while also picking out each mistake.
"Those kind of corrections, you have to keep making and make sure those things don't creep in and hurt you in a close football game," Lewis said. "We are playing good football teams, and we know these games are going to be close. We just have to keep firing at them. There is nothing to be satisfied with. They played hard, they played physical, but we have to make more plays with the game on the line.
"We settled for a field goal early on. We got an opportunity inside the 10 on first down; we have to find a way to make a play. We have to find a way to get open, make a play, convert and get a touchdown. We stopped them once in the red zone and then we need to stop them again. We had third down, and we need to get them stopped. We hold them to a field goal and it's a different game at the end."
Much was made about Lewis's challenge earlier in the week when he said quarterback Andy Dalton and middle linebacker Rey Maualuga had to take control of the team by becoming "jerks." But it caused barely a ripple in the locker room.
"Nobody paid any attention to that. Andy does a great job being a leader. I think everybody looked at that as fly-by," Whitworth said. "I think it got misinterpreted what (Lewis) was saying. I think he's endorsing those guys. They are the guys and they've just got to continue to lead this team the way they've been leading them and guys have to follow. That's more what was said. I think that's what he meant because both of them do a great job of being committed and working their tails off."
Both rallied on Sunday. Dalton bounced back from a miserable first half with a 10-yard touchdown pass to Green, a 52-yard scramble play to Gresham, and a 34-yard laser to rookie wide receiver Mohamed Sanu on third-and-seven through the tightest of windows. Maualuga led the charge against McGahee with seven tackles.
But in the end, it just wasn't enough. Four of Dalton's first seven victories were fourth-quarter comebacks. He hasn't had one in nearly a year (Nov. 27) while Manning finished off his NFL-record 48th fourth-quarter comeback.
Enter Newman, 34, and in his 10th season, first with the Bengals in a reunion with his first NFL mentor, Zimmer. He had been energized by Dalton's microwave drive of 3:16 that came in the smoke of Holliday's 105-yard return, which included the plays to Green and Gresham and cut the lead to 17-10.
"That was the pivotal point of the game," Newman said.
But suddenly Manning was at the Bengals 9 again on second down and Newman was lined up across from wide receiver Eric Decker. Manning had been intercepted just once since the three in Atlanta on Sept. 17, but Newman got him here when the Bengals really needed it in the end zone. Manning tried a slant and Newman beat him to it when he saw Decker with a slow release.
This was 27 seasons of NFL acumen at work with 15 of it Manning's and 12 of it Newman's.
"They're not a team that does a lot of back pylon fades. I was just kind reading the release of the receiver," Newman said. "The pop pass is kind of a big play around the league, so when he came off kind of slow, I just jumped inside thinking it was going to be an inside pass and it was … the coaches did a good job preparing us for that play."
It was the first interception by a Bengals cornerback all season and the 33rd of Newman's career, and it set up Nugent's 49-yarder that made it 17-13.
But here was Manning, who hadn't thrown two picks in five games, throwing two on back-to-back throws.
When the Broncos muffed the kickoff, Manning was looking at dropping back in his own end zone on third-and-eight from the Broncos 3.
Manning got hit just once all day and it was on this play on a corner blitz from Nate Clements. But Manning still had time to step into it on a deep throw to Decker down the sideline. But it looked like Newman was the intended receiver as Manning overthrew it and Newman caught it over his shoulder on the next-to-last play of the third quarter to set up Cincinnati's go-ahead touchdown at 20-17.
"They hadn't given me that same route with the double move all day, so coming off the goal line I just had it in my head I was probably going to get the double move in that situation," Newman said. "They're backed up. It's third down, so I just reacted when he gave the double move and I just opened up and looked for the ball in the air."
But Manning and Decker would get the last word in the fourth quarter by the closest of margins. Think it's a game of inches? Of Manning's successful nine third-down conversions, six came on third-and-three or less and the biggest of the game came on third-and-three from the Denver 27 with 13:05 left.
Manning shoved a pass into Decker slanting across the middle right in front of Newman, but he and Maualuga couldn't stop him at the first-down stick and Decker turned it into a 30-yard gain. It was all Broncos the rest of the way.
"They were in what we call kind of a drive concept and I was going to break up the ball. I left my feet to make a play and I think Rey and I just knocked each other off the guy. They executed the play," Newman said.
"Peyton put the ball where he had to put it: inside. I think the ball was kind of high, which made it tough for me to make a play on it. I think it was one of those where I had a chance to make a play; I just didn't."
It sums up the four-game losing streak. So did Manning's third and final touchdown pass on a four-yarder to Decker on which Newman thought he got pushed.
"I thought it was going our way," Newman said. "I did a good job turning and looking for the ball, trying to get into position. I guess he said I pushed him off."
The big call, though, was on cornerback Adam Jones as he worked on Demaryius Thomas in the end zone after Manning's play-action fake. Jones had him well covered and ended up knocking the ball away after he grabbed the front of Thomas's jersey, but the ref thought those few inches of cloth were enough and the 29-yard interference penalty put the ball on the 1 and set up the go-ahead score.
Newman: "Iffy. Those guys have a tough job making those calls … it's called, it's called. You can't do anything about it. It's just a bang-bang play ... sometimes it goes your way. Sometimes it doesn't."
Talk about this season. Four straight losses after three straight wins.
"This is the NFL," Whitworth said. "One touchdown, one field goal separates NFL games every season. That's why it's just absurd when people say stuff about Alabama and Oregon and them being able to play NFL football. They wouldn't stand a chance. They'd get beat by 50."
Don't get carried away by the picture of Dalton exulting with a series of fist-pumps after running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis scored from two yards out to give the Bengals the lead with 14:10 left. NFL Network has been showing the exact same clip all season so it's not like he just picked up the passion. And that wasn't what Lewis was talking about, anyway.
"Every week we go in with (No.) 14, I'm happy. He fought. He went toe-to-toe and he really showed what we knew all along. He's got a great future," Whitworth said. "I thought he played great. I thought he played poised. I thought he played passionate. He's the same way every week. When we get a chance to throw the ball effectively and catch it and have a running game, he's going to be a great quarterback."
And, indeed, 50 seconds into the fourth quarter, CBS's Dan Dierdorf was saying how Dalton was winning the duel against Manning. But the critics want him to be great now. At least as good as he was last year. Not Sunday's 81 passer rating. Not bad. Not great. His 11 interceptions are just two off last year's total. They want the future Sunday against the Giants.
But there's no question Dalton kept the Bengals in this one with some big plays against heavy pressure. With the Bengals able to only get 3.6 yards per 25 lugs Sunday, everybody is sitting on the pass.
"I'm being myself — I'm being me out there," Dalton said. "On my game days I've got a fire, I've got a passion, I'm a competitor and want to win every single time I am out there. It shows in the way I am on the sideline, huddle and things like that.
"It's a big game. Losing three in a row and then you put a lead on the Broncos, it's clear passion."
And he has calmly brushed off the mid-week buzz.
"The coach challenged us; he expects big things out of us," Dalton said. "It was a good week of practice and we did some good things. We've just got to keep that going the rest of the season."
But just like the 34-year-old pro corner, the 25-year-old franchise quarterback is finding out just how close the bounces go.
"It comes down to a couple plays. We played hard and played well at times, but we still have to put more drives together, score more points and get more stops," Dalton said. " We have to make one more play — two more plays. We have to do whatever it takes to win these games. We were close today, but we fell short."