There is the story of a long-ago NFL assistant coach on a staff about to get the ax who turned to his colleagues and said, "Well, they can't eat you."
Which is about where the Bengals were after Sunday's riveting and rollicking 24-17 loss to the Steelers at sold-out Paul Brown Stadium that dropped them into a second-place tie in the AFC North with the Ravens team they play in Baltimore this Sunday. Without its top playmaker, its best pass rusher, and best cover man, the team that was supposed to get this year's top draft pick came within 25 yards and 2:27 of tying the team that got last year's 31st pick.
"I think so," rookie quarterback Andy Dalton said when asked if Sunday proved his team could play with the elite. "Pittsburgh was in the Super Bowl last year and we had a chance to go down and tie or win with four minutes left. We played well, we just didn't execute when we needed to."
The Bengals dutifully turned to their script that had produced three fourth-quarter comebacks in the five-game winning streak they brought into PBS. Behind the nerveless Dalton they turned a 14-0 deficit into a 17-17 tie before Pittsburgh took the 24-17 lead late into the fourth quarter.
"Good game, bad game whatever. We weren't scared being down 14-0," left tackle Andrew Whitworth said. "That's for sure. Nobody flinched. Nobody hesitated. We just got an opportunity to go beat them and we were one or two plays from tying it up."
You can start long before the fourth quarter looking at those one or two plays, a fourth quarter the Bengals didn't score for the first time this season.
You can go back to the third-and-10 passes Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger completed on each of the first two Steelers touchdown drives that opened the game. You can go back to the third-and-19 he produced in the last drive before the half that yielded a field goal.
Or you can go to the early fourth quarter and the holding call on Bengals wide receiver Andrew Hawkins during Brandon Tate's 20-yard return to the Steelers 32 that brought it back to the Steelers 47, where the next play that took place was Dalton's first interception of the game.
Or you can go to Cincinnati's next-to-last series, when wide receiver Jerome Simpson caught his only pass of the game with 7:38 left on third-and-four for 13 yards to put the ball at the Steelers 46, but it was wiped out when Whitworth was called for illegal use of hands on Steelers outside linebacker James Harrison that raised some striped hackles.
"We've had that holding before, and it's not holding and it won't be holding when we get the tape on Tuesday, but it was called today," head coach Marvin Lewis said. "Those are things we have to guard against. It's part of the game and we just have to overcome it."
Whitworth shrugged the steam off him.
"Sometimes they dictate the games and sometimes they don't," Whitworth said. "It is what it is."
What it is is that the Bengals didn't allow a sack to Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau's marauding pass rushers and they ran it for 4.2 yards per pop even after losing wide receiver A.J. Green on their last snap of the first quarter.
"We played well, we just didn't execute enough of plays to win," Whitworth said. "I've said this all along: we're contenders and we're going to be contenders."
What it is is that the Bengals, with left end Carlos Dunlap inactive with a hamstring injury, got five sacks against a Steelers offensive line that had played decently the last month. What it is is that the Bengals secondary, without cornerback Leon Hall in the secondary in the second half stopped Roethlisberger's three-game 300-yard streak, didn't allow a pass longer than 13 yards, and stopped all four of Pittsburgh's third-down tries.
"We knew with the way Ben keeps the play alive that the focus this week was staying on coverage a little bit longer than usual and at the end of the day they made more plays that had to be made than we did," cornerback Nate Clements said.
"I don't think anybody lost any kind of confidence. We just came up short."
There was a keen sense the Bengals hadn't played their best game. Safety Chris Crocker fumed, "It was a game of missed opportunities. That was the story of the game."
"I think everybody is positive as they can be," running back Cedric Benson said. "If we have an upset attitude it's just because we knew we could have won."
Because he touched the ball the most, Dalton is going to be the one going through which play would have mattered most. In the first half, wide receiver Andre Caldwell wasn't where Dalton thought he'd be on a third-down throw. On the first fourth-quarter interception, Dalton threw it slightly high to Caldwell and it got tipped. On that killing interception with 2:27 left by cornerback William Gay, Dalton let Gay read his eyes.
"We didn't play our best game, and we were in this game the whole time," Dalton said. "There are some positive things to take away from the loss, but it hurts to lose. There were some good things to take away, but we're going to do everything we can to get ready and get back next week."
If there is anybody that the Bengals can learn from, it is Gay. He spent the past week in Pittsburgh getting villified on talk radio, not to mention everywhere else. He took the blame for Baltimore's winning 92-yard drive last Sunday night, especially the winning throw with eight seconds left.
What a difference a week makes.
Lewis certainly seemed ready for a game against the Ravens, a team that he is 10-6 against since he arrived.
"I don't think this team has to worry about being able to play with the so-called elite in the AFC — we can and we will," Lewis said. "We will go back to work and prepare and go beat the next team we have to play. That's our key now.
"I think they had to listen to what everyone else had to say. I had no worries."
Neither, it seems, do they.
"We knew it," Whitworth said. "We just don't think y'all did."