Posted: 3:55 a.m.
OAKLAND, Calif. - The Bengals lost a Super Bowl with 34 seconds left. On Sunday their chance to match that team's 8-2 start disappeared in the final 33 seconds when the Raiders stunned them with 10 points in a 20-17 loss that left Bengaldom dazed just a week after the delight of the Steelers Sweep.
On this Lost Sunday for the AFC North in which all four teams lost, the Bengals lost the most when they lost two fumbles in the fourth quarter and a chance to take a two-game lead over the Steelers with six games to play.
Like all man-made disasters, this one is easy to explain.
The offense that had committed just three turnovers once this season had four for the first time. And the offense that two weeks ago led the NFL in red-zone touchdown percentage came up with none on its last three penetrations in the last 25 minutes when one would have sealed the franchise's first-ever win in Oakland and its longest road winning streak at six games.
And the nickel defense that had been good 21-for-25 the previous two weeks gave up a huge fourth-and-10 with 41 seconds left to set up the tying touchdown.
While the kids bravely faced the music in front of their lockers, the veterans wanted to make sure they set the right tone for the team's first road loss of the season.
"It's just a loss. We can't look too deep into it. I don't think we have to sit around and talk about it," said Carson Palmer, who has a chance to do what no Bengals quarterback has ever done next Sunday and sweep the division in Cincinnati's last North game of the season at Paul Brown Stadium against the Browns.
"We got beat by a team we expected to beat and we got a team coming up in the same situation. "The point is no matter how good you think the teams you beat are, when it comes down to it you have to make a play and beat teams you're supposed to beat and we didn't do that today."
The team that has been magical in the fourth quarter this season turned to stone. With a chance to go up a lock 14 points with what surely would have been less than 10 minutes left, fullback Jeremi Johnson fumbled it away at the Raiders 15 with 11:31 left.
The defense that has been so stingy with points this season gave up the tying seven with 33 seconds left when Oakland wide receiver Louis Murphy won a battle of rookies and got behind nickel cornerback Morgan Trent for a 29-yard touchdown pass.
The second-year wide receiver who has been so good in the final 22 seconds this year, Andre Caldwell, committed a fatal mistake when he fumbled the ensuing kickoff with 27 seconds left at his own 18 to cough up the winning field goal.
The list of reasons goes on. Cornerback Johnathan Joseph, where foes' second-half rallies have gone to die, missed a chance to sew up another one when he let an interception whizz through his hands the play before the successful fourth down.
"It was a laser and I took my eyes off it," said Joseph, who estimated he catches that ball 10 out of 10 times.
Caldwell caught the last-minute winners earlier in the season against the Ravens and Steelers but he melted Sunday when rookie running back Bernard Scott couldn't return the kick because of cramps.
"I think I should have gone down. I'll learn from it now," said the stand-up Caldwell. "Trying to get some extra when there was nothing there. That's part of being a young guy like me. You live and you learn. I'm going to capitalize the next time I get in that situation. That was a tough feeling. That's the worst thing in the NFL. You win some, you lose some. The next time I come out I'm going to capitalize on the next play."
Trent, one of the heroes last week in a secondary that solved Pro Bowler Ben Roethlisberger, explained how a career clip-boarder named Bruce Gradkowski who came into the game averaging less than five yards per throw beat him deep with the game on the line on second-and-10.
"It wasn't the original call. We checked out of it when they went empty," said Trent when they saw no one in the Raiders backfield. "It was pretty much man coverage ... the back shoulder fade is hard to stop. I guess I should have been in better position from the get-go."
Truth be told, the veterans had a tough one getting their hands around this one, too. Asked if his team could rebound from one of the most devastating losses in his career as the most senior Bengal, wide receiver Chad Ochocinco said, "We'll be fine."
Asked why, The Ocho leaned forward to point to a few lockers down at Palmer and said, "He's pretty damn good."
But The Ocho had some concerns, too. He was flabbergasted that he caught only one more ball after catching three for 55 yards in the first quarter. With Oakland cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha simply challenging him all day in man-to-man coverage by pressing him at the line of scrimmage, The Ocho was surprised he didn't see more than five balls.
"If they throw me the ball, I catch it. That's what I do," The Ocho said. "Nnamdi is the best in the game hands down, period. He will always be, he will always be until someone goes at him on a consistent basis and it seems like no one tries to, not even us."
Palmer lit up the Raiders early, hitting eight of his first nine passes for 129 yards as the Bengals seamlessly scored on two of their first three drives in the game's first 23 minutes to take a 14-0 lead despite a sack and strip of Palmer.
"When we had 'em, we hit 'em, we just didn't have enough of them," said Palmer of the one-on-one matchups.
The Bengals may get second-guessed for running it so much because the Raiders looked so weak against the pass, but the Bengals stayed true to this year's script and tried to salt it away with the run.
While Palmer threw just 13 more times once the lead got to 14-0, the Bengals pounded for 177 yards on 43 carries at a 4.1 per clip. It worked. But the red zone betrayed them. In their last three possessions inside the Oakland 20, they ran five times for five yards and a fumble.
"They brought their safeties in the box in the run game and brought the safeties in the pass game," said left tackle Andrew Whitworth. "They brought the house and said, 'OK, if you're going to (beat us) you have to throw the ball up. ... We got outschemed and outplayed in the end.
"You're going to have a bad week, but it's time to move on and we'll see what this team's got because next week is a big test. ... We'll have guys trying to figure out how to beat the Browns."
The Raiders turned their defensive backs loose on both the run and pass. Safety Tyvon Branch had a game-high 12 tackles and the sack-and-strip. Cornerback Stanford Routt had a huge 18-yard sack of Palmer on third down on the one-yard line that resulted in Shayne Graham's 37-yard missed field goal in the middle of the third quarter.
The Bengals stayed true to the run even without their bell cow, the injured Cedric Benson, and just two runs for the newest Bengal, former Pro Bowl running back Larry Johnson. They got 119 yards from Scott, more than half coming on the longest run in the Marvin Lewis era, a Galloping Ghost-like 61-yard zigzag job out of a sure stop on the left sideline.
Which means that on the other 42 carries they netted just 2.8 yards. Nineteen runs by backs and receivers went for a yard or less. But even though the passing game has managed just one pass of 40 yards in the last four games (wide receiver Laveranues Coles had it Sunday), Palmer is comfortable with the new smashmouth persona.
"That's our identity for the most part. We ran the ball for (177) yards and that's not easy to do against that defense," Palmer said. "It's an eight-man front. They load up in the box. They come in with the mentality we're going to cover you on the outside and not let you run the ball and you go for 150-plus yards. But I think we're very physical and I think we need to keep that mindset because at the end of the year the weather starts to turn and we play at home in Cincinnati with some wet games, some windy games, we've got to keep that mentality once we get Ced back."
But this is now more of a mental game now. How to explain how a team that has been so clutch in its division games folds down the stretch against a team that came into the game with one of the worst passing offenses in football? (For the first time all year, the Bengals had no sacks.)
Flying to The Coast on Saturday instead of Friday?
Letdown? Overconfidence? Lack of focus?
"I don't think that we weren't ready," Whitworth said. "When you run the ball like we did and fumble, that's a crucial deal. To have some good runs and some good drives and not put it in the end zone, that's not being not ready. That's them making plays and we didn't and that's how the game went. We've had success early this year making those kinds of plays, and one kind of crept up and got us. That's the NFL. Sometimes it happens."