The Bengals had to play the last part of the fourth quarter without middle linebacker Rey Maualuga after he suffered a serious hamstring injury.
The ending, so stunning, so maddening, so draining, so downright odd, it left the Bengals with a 37-37 tie that should have been a win, felt like a loss, and somehow kept them in first place in the AFC North with the awkward but top record of 3-1-1.
"Kind of like a freaking soccer team," said defensive tackle Domata Peko. "We're in The Premier League."
There is nobody in the AFC North to kick around anymore. Not with Cleveland's pounding of Pittsburgh.
No one really knew how to feel. Except numb.
"It's weird. It's a weird feeling,' said quarterback Andy Dalton, who somehow failed to get his 12th winning drive despite generating 20 points in the second half and overtime while completing a remarkable 76 percent of 44 passes.
"You didn't win, but you didn't lose, either."
Dalton had never been in a tie. Neither had his favorite target, wide receiver Mohamed Sanu, the game's MVP if Mike Nugent had hit the 36-yard field goal at the gun.
Can you still have an MVP in a tie?
"It was more a tie than a loss," Sanu said.
The franchise-record 11-game home winning streak is done. But the 12-game unbeaten streak lives. "A tie seems like it's not good enough. That tie can end up biting us in the tail as the year goes on," Peko said. "You always want to get the W, but it wasn't a loss. It's kind of mixed emotions. But you want to get that W every time."
Right tackle Andre Smith decided he had to go to a higher being to sort it all out. His head coach.
"This is my first-ever tie, so I really don't know," Smith said. "I'm pretty much looking forward to Marvin (Lewis) telling us about it tomorrow."
Why not? Rookie running back Jeremy Hill tied the game at 31 with 4:32 left on a three-yard run and did a wonderful rendition of the Ickey Shuffle in honor of Bengals great Ickey Woods. It was as good as Woods' turn on the current Geico commercial and, come to think of it, summed up this game because overtime took all 15 minutes.
"Ever since I got here, fans and people in this building have been asking me to do it," Hill said. "Then the commercial came out, and there's been a lot of buzz. It's good to get out there and have a little fun. Obviously we would like to win the game, but we just have to get back to practicing and working hard."
The Ickey Shuffle caught on when the Bengals went 8-0 at Riverfront Stadium in '88. Hill said it felt like a loss.
"I think coming off last week, it just feels the same when you don't get the W," Hill said.
Panthers wide receiver Jason Avant was here for the only other Bengals tie in the four decades of overtime as a member of the Eagles. That was the day Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb famously admitted he didn't know the game could end in a tie. Apparently he had company.
"With the Eagles, I was kind of oblivious because I didn't necessarily know that you could tie," Avant said. "But this time I knew once the clock went down, I knew if he missed it we would be in a tie. I was hoping and praying he would miss it."
Nugent obliged. And he definitely felt it was a loss on a strange day he twice gave the Bengals the lead with 2:11 left in regulation and 8:35 left in OT. Fine work on any other day. Work that would have given the Bengals a victory in 2011, the last year before they changed the rule to give each team a chance to get the ball in overtime.
Now McNabb will be really confused. The 74 points are the most points scored in an NFL overtime game that ended in a tie. And Sunday was just the second overtime game to end in a tie after both teams scored points in the extra period since the 2012 rule change.
"Tomorrow is going to be a tough day," Nugent said. "Watching it. Facing everybody. It's a great locker room, great coaches, great players. Just great people. It's very difficult to see a '1' at the end of our record."
Both sides of the ball were left to gouge out their insides with what ifs. If the defense could have got off the field in either the last 2:11 of regulation or overtime…If the offense could have punched in a touchdown with a first down on the Carolina 26 with 3:22 left or run down the clock….
Instead, right tackle Andre Smith was called for holding on what surely would have been Hill's winning 22-yard touchdown run with 2:32 left. Both Bengals radio analyst Dave Lapham and CBS-TV analyst Ronde Barber thought they saw Smith grab the cloth on the shoulder pad of end Charles Johnson.
"He said I grabbed," Smith said of the official. "I didn't think he called it on me. I thought he called it on Mo (Sanu). He said I grabbed him. I don't understand that."
Smith indicated he knows there have been plays where he has been guilty. This wasn't one of them. It just wasn't a great drive when they needed one. Smith false started on the next snap and then when they got back in field-goal range on third-and-six with 2:22 left, Dalton couldn't hit open wide receiver Dane Sanzenbacher and they had to take Nugent's 38-yard field goal.
It was just a goofy day. The only way they got back into field-goal range is Sanu caught a tipped ball by cornerback Antoine Cason for 17 yards.
'We had our chances. It's not a win — that's the thing that's tough," Dalton said. "We played hard, and that was shown today. Guys fought really hard and played until the last second, so that was good to see. You want to come out with a win, but it wasn't able to happen."
It wasn't able to happen because of 13 penalties, a stout Panthers pass rush that forced Cason's game-changing interception right when the Bengals were about to make it at least 20-10 early in the third quarter, and a defense that couldn't figure out quarterback Cam Newton's zone read. Newton came into the game supposedly limping from his off-season ankle problems and preseason broken rib. He had carried just 14 times for 42 yards all year, but that got all blown up in the second half when he ran it 15 times for 101 yards on pretty much the same play.
"The zone read,' said defensive lineman Robert Geathers. "Which makes it worse. You knew what they were going to run. Guys have to take care of their responsibility. That's how we've become a good defense. Everybody takes care of their own responsibility. Get back to the drawing board."
The Dean was not very happy. Geathers has been here 12 seasons and on Sunday he played in his 141st Bengals game, the second most in the free-agency era. He was here when the defense was a punch line and was a big reason it grew into the backbone of four playoff teams in the past five years and it's a pride thing with him.
For the first time in the 12 seasons of Lewis, the Bengals gave up at least 80 points in back-to-back games. On the heels of giving up 505 yards in New England last week, the 431 yards they allowed Sunday mark the most yards allowed in back-to-back games against the Bengals since Philip Rivers and Drew Brees broke 1,000 in 2006.
In the 11-game home winning streak the Bengals harassed quarterbacks into 23 percent on third down and a passer rating that hovered around 60. On Sunday Newton converted 47 percent of his third downs with a passer rating of 85. Somehow the Bengals gave up 37 points in a building they had allowed 34 points in the previous three PBS games.
For a proud defense that needed just one stop any time in the second half, it was a tough day. Peko has been here almost as long and is just as proud and the penalties disturbed him.
"That's where the penalties and stuff came in," Peko said. "It seemed like we'd have them in third-and-nine or third-and-sixes and we'd have an illegal contact and there was incomplete pass and we would have been off the field. Or we had a roughing the passer, or an out-of-bounds personal foul. Those type of things come back to bite you in the butt and they can be easily fixed. It's called discipline. It's a little disappointing to see our guys do some of those things, but we have to find a way to fix that."
The zone read didn't take them by surprise. But the way they played it did. The Bengals are now giving up 4.8 yards per rush.
"We were working on it. It's not fitting the thing right," Peko said. "We have a way of stopping that and when one or two guys aren't doing their job, you get exposed like that. It's not good. We'll look ourselves in the mirror and find a way to fix it and I think we'll do it."
The mirror won't lie. 3-1-1 is still in first place.