It was one of those days.
One of those days that ended the best Bengals season in recent memory so suddenly and decisively that it threatened to swallow all of 2013 whole.
After the Bengals offense finished 10th for the first time in six years and the team racked up the third-most points in franchise history and the second-most touchdowns, offensive coordinator Jay Gruden was asked what could put his unit over the hump after scoring just one touchdown in Sunday's 27-10 loss to the underdog Chargers at sold-out Paul Brown Stadium.
"We got over the hump this year for the most part. We threw for more touchdowns than anybody, had more (passing) yards (in team history)," Gruden said. "The playoff bugaboo we had today, I have to watch the film and go from there."
The first Bengals team to finish in the top 10 in both NFL offense and defense since 1989 was left to wonder how it could make the postseason three straight years and not advance. No one said anything about finding more talent after going 18-6 in the last 24 regular-season games. And after surrendering its most rushing yards in two years with 196, the proud third-ranked defense seemed to finally get worn down without its best players (tackle Geno Atkins and cornerback Leon Hall), its other starting cornerback (Terence Newman), one of its most versatile down lineman (Robert Geathers) and two nickel linebackers in Emmanuel Lamur and Taylor Mays.
Running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis said the Bengals only have to add a formula.
"We're not missing anything. We just have to perform under the lights," said Green Ellis, who played in a Super Bowl with the Patriots. "There's no bigger day than when the playoffs start. We didn't show up and perform … that's playoff ball. I don't care if it's a passing league or not. Since the beginning of time when playoffs started championship teams are built on running the ball and stopping the run.
"Take a look at the Saints last night. Mark Ingram ran the ball extremely well … and look at the Chargers. They ran the ball well and played good defense and didn't make turnovers. That's the recipe since football started. We have to be a better team in those situations. Attacking them where we know we can beat them at."
After the Chargers neutralized the Bengals pass rush with just 16 passes and 40 runs and were able to get into third-and-two or less five times, the Bengals took note. Left guard Andrew Whitworth, one of the team leaders who has anchored the five-year run of four playoff berths, also talked formula.
"We have to do it to be able to go forward and have a mentality that there's got to be a way you enter this game and probably look at the teams that are really good in the postseason, what do they do and how do they change and the way that they play in these games," Whitworth said. "San Diego came in here with a great plan — possess the football, run it and try and have short third downs that they could convert. It seemed to work well for them."
By throwing two picks and fumbling once, quarterback Andy Dalton is taking such massive heat it is melting his weeklong single-season franchise achievements of 33 touchdown passes and 4,296 yards, to go with 30 career wins in three seasons. Gruden and head coach Marvin Lewis were having no part of it.
"I'm very proud of him," Gruden said. "His character. He's a great leader. He didn't have his best game today. Nobody did on offense, defense or special teams. He's going to take the bulk of the criticism. But we appreciate what he stands for and who he is and he'll be a good one for a long time."
By dropping Dalton back to pass 36 times once the Chargers took a 14-10 lead with 6:46 left in the third quarter, Gruden opened up the questions about the commitment to the running game. The Chargers flipped what happened out in San Diego on Dec. 1 when they lost to the Bengals allowing 165 yards rushing on 38 carries. When the Bengals fell behind 14-10 Sunday, they lined up in the shotgun formation for five of the next six snaps and that resulted in a Dalton fumble and a Dalton interception, both the result of his response to heavy pressure.
The offensive line that has played so well since the Nov. 10 loss in Baltimore struggled, giving up three sacks and six hits.
"They did some gains on people that were tough to pick up," said center Kyle Cook.
The Chargers had key two players they were missing in San Diego back on Dec. 1, outside linebackers Melvin Ingram and Jarret Johnson, and they played well enough Sunday that the Bengals couldn't continually run the power play that smoked the Chargers in the last drive of that 17-10 victory. But Green-Ellis and running back Giovani Bernard still did better than four yards per carry (20 carries for 87 yards) and Green-Ellis carried it only one more time the rest of the day after he rambled for 12 yards on the first snap of the second half.
"When we were up 10-7 in the third quarter, those are the two drives we wish we had back. We had to punt and we could never get the momentum back," Gruden said. "They blitzed early in the game at times with basic stunts and Andy felt flustered and had to step up and lost sight of where the receivers were."
The Green-Dalton era has stalled in the wild card game three straight years. They're one of the most successful young tandems in the history of the NFL but now they have to live with one day. In three playoff games Dalton has one touchdown pass and six interceptions. Green, a three-time Pro Bowler, is looking for his first postseason TD after he caught three balls for 34 yards on nine targets and now has 13 catches for 161 yards in the three postseason games. This year he had three games of at least 151 yards.
"It was just a lot of Cover 2 on my side. Probably no man-to-man, just a lot of cloud (on) my side," Green said of the differences in the coverage from Dec. 1. "Man, it's just not (Dalton). I could have made that play down the sidelines for him. It just happens. We're still young (and) still got a lot of football left to play.
"We thought we had the team to take it all the way. That's the biggest thing, man. These last two years, we were coming in feeling we were hoping to win; this game, we went in knowing we could have come out with a 'W' and that's the most frustrating thing: knowing you had the game plan already and if you had just executed it, you know you would have come out with that W, but we didn't."
Cook, another of the veterans of the four playoff berths, was more disappointed than stunned. They knew it would be a tough game after just winning by 17-10 in San Diego. The change was the turnovers. But he thought this could be the year.
"I thought we were a legit team that could play and win the Super Bowl. It's tough to swallow," Cook said. "It's a new team. Every team has been little different. Free agency, the draft. Different guys coming and going. The part is you hope the core remains, but you just don't know. It's tough. We had a great opportunity."
They were talking formula in the Chargers locker room, too. Someone asked Rivers if Sunday's game was like "Marty Ball," the conservative style of former Chargers head coach Marty Schottenheimer that he broke in under.
"It's Charger ball — it's playoff ball. It really is," Rivers said. "It reminded me of the Tennessee playoff win in 2007. It was a back-and-forth game — you just find a way to win. You complete the passes that are presented, complete a few big passes, and you run it, run it, run it — and when you look up at the board at the end of the game, you've won. Playoff games aren't meant to be pretty — you just find a way to win, and we did that in all three phases today."
Green-Ellis looked at the scoreboard, not the depth chart.
"Ten points. That's not enough to win," The Firm said. "I don't care if the defense gave up 400 yards rushing."