The Bengals had a one-game lead over the Steelers with three games to play right in their hands Sunday.
Up 19-10 with 7:15 left. Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo staring at a third-and-10 from the Cincinnati 42 against the ravenous Bengals pass rush. The Paul Brown Stadium sellout delirious with San Diego's blowout of Pittsburgh coinciding with Cincinnati's fifth straight victory.
And then the Bengals dropped it. A 20-19 loss at the gun on Dan Bailey's field goal.
"We're inches away from that game being a totally different situation," left tackle Andrew Whitworth said after another Pro Bowl effort against a Pro Bowl rusher in DeMarcus Ware. "It's tough, it sucks, it hurts. The bottom line is that we've got three games left in the season and we still have a chance to control our destiny — win out and give ourselves an opportunity to be in the playoffs. That's got to be the key goal. We've got to store this in, let it eat at us and make people pay for it."
Pro Bowl wide receiver A.J. Green is already stoking the fire after his two huge drops, one that had clinching touchdown written all over it on the first drive of the third quarter.
"It's going to be in the back of my head, it's going to drive me to look everything in and make sure I catch everything." Green said. "I'm not going to get down on myself, but it's definitely going to push me."
Two simple stats indicate why the four-game winning streak is over. During that run the offense scored 13 touchdowns on 17 red-zone trips and on Sunday it got just one on four forays. During the streak, the defense was 13-for-49 on third down. On Sunday, the Cowboys nearly got enough conversions for the month with 11-for-19.
But even with those numbers, the Bengals will say it came down to one play. Any play. And they only have 96 hours to store the anger because they play in Philadelphia on Thursday (NFL Network-8:20 p.m.) still tied for the AFC's final wild card at 7-6 with Pittsburgh.
As middle linebacker Rey Maualuga said, "I guess the good thing about this is it's a short week and we do have a chance to erase this game and have a solid game against the Eagles, then we'll start worrying about our next two after that. … (The Steelers) lost, too, so we've still got a chance. When that time comes Thursday, we just have to go and get it."
Green offered, "All we can control is winning these last three games and see what happens."
And there were plenty of agonizing moments the Bengals can use as fuel for the last three games in Philly, Pittsburgh and the Dec. 30 season finale here against the Ravens.
From the two stunning misses by Green. To steel-belted solid rookie right guard Kevin Zeitler pounding the turf after Anthony Spencer snaked past him for the third-and-five sack that turned out to be Cincinnati's last play.
To the two almost-picks by former Cowboys cornerback Terence Newman looking to corral some vindication that would have ended it all. To quarterback Andy Dalton throwing late to Green on the right sideline for a Brandon Carr interception that set up a touchdown.
To a Dallas offense that did zilch until the Bengals used up all their chances and put up 10 points in the last 6:35. To milking less than three minutes off the clock with 6:35 left and a 19-17 lead in a five–play drive that was all passes before Kevin Huber's punt pushed Dallas to the Cowboys 28 with 3:44 left.
"I had A.J. on a deep out and I felt like the corner was off and on his outside, so I tried to put it on the inside. I thought if he was going to make a play on the ball, he was going to have to go through A.J.," Dalton said of the interception that allowed Dallas to hang in at 10-10 early in the second quarter. "He just made a good play on the ball. I took a chance early and it's another one of those plays where you think about if you could have that one back, you wouldn't have taken a chance there and the game would be different."
That's what everybody does after a one-point-one-play-one-call loss.
"I could have made a difference," they were saying.
That's how Green felt Sunday.
Green, the acrobatic receiver destined to become the franchise's greatest player who touches the ball, was wide open for a touchdown on third-and-goal from the Cowboys 7 on the first drive of the second half and he dropped the slant over the middle with the gap at the goal line widening. It looked like he was walking in for a 20-10 lead, but the Bengals had to take the field goal for a 16-10 lead with 9:22 left in the third quarter.
Then there was the third-and-seven from the Dallas 34 on the next series and even though Green had to go to the ground at around the Dallas 18, it was a good enough throw and an easy enough catch but it bounced off his shoulder pads.
"I know nobody was in front of me. I just took my eyes off it at the last second and it just hit off my hands," Green said of the red-zone snafu.
"It hit off my shoulder pads, but I make that catch (the second one) all the time. Nothing hard about that. It's a drop."
Then Green heaved a sigh. Here's a guy that came into the game the co-NFL leader in touchdown catches and sixth in yards and catches and hadn't caught less than 85 yards in the Bengals four-game winning streak snapped Sunday. His hands are batting gloves during the Hot Stove League.
(And the web site profootballfocus.com had Green for only eight drops out of 120 targets, the fifth-most targets in the NFL, coming into Sunday.)
"I'm not going to beat myself up over it," said Green, who then proceeded to beat himself up over it.
"I feel like if I would have made those two plays, we had the momentum. We could have scored. Definitely on the (TD) I dropped. I've had plenty of drops, just not in critical games like that."
Green knows what he means to this team. "As I go, do goes the team … I feel like when I get an opportunity to make a play through this whole season, I was making plays. With this one game, I'm not making one play, I feel like it changed the momentum. Especially with the third down."
Everybody else knows just how important he is to this team, too.
"That's football," said wide receiver Andrew Hawkins. "Just think about how many times this year and last year we climbed on A.J.'s shoulders to win games."
Dalton and Green weren't the only ones doing the what-ifs. So were a pair of rookies that are showing a lot of promise. Two snaps before Green's drop in the red zone, wide receiver Marvin Jones had his seven-yard touchdown catch nullified because he went out of bounds on his route and was the first one to touch the ball when he came back. Jones had made himself available for Dalton in the right corner as Dalton scrambled right away from pressure, but said the DB pushed him. Now he'll have to wait for his first NFL touchdown ball.
"When I saw Andy scramble, I tried to run back across and the guy pushed me," Jones said. "That's what they're taught to do when the quarterback scrambles. It was unfortunate."
Zeitler is having a big rookie year, but he was left pounding the ground Sunday. He's been highly ranked by PFF all season and their numbers say he had allowed just two sacks coming into the game.
And this one came on the offense's last snap. Third-and-four from the Bengals 46.
"He's a good rusher. He's shaky, he finally made a play," Zeitler said. "He did just a quick shift. He's a shifty guy and made a couple of jukes. It happens in critical situations and this is one of many things that happened today that hurt the team. We had a lot of missed opportunities. Everyone did."
Told Green was beating himself up, Zeitler said, "It always happens like that. As a player you always see what you could do individually to help the team be better. It stings right now. We have to look inward to make sure we don't make the same mistakes."
The short week isn't giving the Bengals much of a shot to dwell on it and Zeitler is taking Whitworth's advice.
"Now we have to put this behind us and go against a good Eagles defense," Zeitler said. "I don't care about the (4-9) record. They have a lot of stars. We've got to get going."
Dalton may have taken this team into two playoff runs, but he's never taken them into a Thursday night game and he's hoping the quick turnaround is just about right.
"I am sure there are plusses and minuses with it. I think it's good to have the quick turnaround," Dalton said. "I think it will be good if we can come out and play our best game on Thursday to get this taste out of our mouth."