How in the world did that happen Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium?
Tampa Bay kicker Connor Barth's 31-yard field goal with one second left stunned the Bengals, 24-21, when they were 2:28 away from going to 3-2 with a 21-14 lead.
The Buccaneers opened a Pandora's Box of second-guessing when the Bengals chose to pass instead of run on third-and-13 with a 21-14 lead. A Tampa Bay interception at midfield turned into Bucs quarterback Josh Freeman's tying 20-yard touchdown pass to rookie wide receiver Mike Williams with 1:26 left in the game.
With 2:28 left on third-and 13 from the Bengals 38, quarterback Carson Palmer tried to get the ball to wide receiver Terrell Owens and cornerback Aqib Talib ripped the ball from him at midfield.
Then with the Bengals driving for the winning field goal, Owens was called for offensive pass interference that would have put the ball at the Tampa Bay 34 with 25 seconds left. Then Palmer's pass to wide-open wide receiver Chad Ochocinco bounced off his arms and it was intercepted by safety Sabby Piscitelli at the Bucs 35 and returned 31 yards to the Bengals 34 to set up Barth's winning kick.
Palmer, 2:28 from the 12th fourth-quarter comeback of his career until those two picks, finished 21-of-36 for 209 yards, two touchdowns, and three interceptions for a 58.7 passer rating. It's his first three-pick game since the Cardinals picked off four here at PBS on Nov. 18, 2007.
The Bengals took just 4:12 to capitalize on Tampa Bay's third turnover of the game and took a 21-14 lead with 12:12 left on Palmer's one-yard touchdown pass to rookie tight end Jermaine Gresham on a play-action fake to running back Cedric Benson.
And why not Benson? After running back Brian Leonard got the Bengals into the red zone at the Tampa Bay 17 with more third-down magic when he made the linebacker and safety miss on his 11-yard catch on third-and-nine, Benson got the Bengals to the 1 with three smashes for 16 yards. Palmer than gave it to Benson for the two-point conversion, punctuating Cincinnati's dominance on the ground.
As 63,888 looked on, Benson finished the drive with 122 yards on 17 carries for his first 100-yard game of the season, a possession set up by cornerback Adam Jones' fumble recovery of a fumbled Tampa Bay kickoff at the Bengals 32. Benson finshed with 144 yards on 23 carries as the Bengals suffered just their second loss with Benson carryng at least 21 times.
With 5:17 left, punter Kevin Huber unleashed his fourth punt of at least 50 yards with a 72-yarder into the Tampa Bay end zone and with Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer unleashing the blitz, the Bucs had to punt after a three-and-out with just one timeout remaining.
The Bengals dodged a listless first half when despite an interception return for a touchdown, a deflected punt, and six penalties, they took a 10-7 lead into halftime.
But it didn't last for another quarter. After the Bengals' first possession of the second half yielded the usual punt, the Bucs parlayed a pass interference call on cornerback Leon Hall in the end zone into a 14-10 lead with 5:28 left in the third quarter. A Mike Nugent 35-yard field goal then cut it to 14-13 with 4:09 left.
Bucs tight end Kellen Winslow went to town in the 80-yard drive and his 22-yard diving catch in front of safeties Chris Crocker and Chinedum Ndukwe put Tamps Bay in the red zone. When the Bengals blitzed Freeman, Freeman launched the ball up as he was falling back, gunning it in the general direction of rookie receiver Mike Williams working on Hall. They both jumped in the air for it and Hall was called for pass interference.
The Bengals were-this-close to being down 14-7 with 2:59 left in the half when Williams came back to Freeman's pass at the Bengals 3 in the middle of the field. When he made the move to score, he slipped, fumbled and it was recovered by Ndukwe. An ensuing facemask call on Bucs left guard Keydrick Vincent gave the Bengals 15 yards to set up the half's final drive.
Benson, who had 56 yards in the first half on seven carries, got 22 of them on the first snap of that last drive and he got seven more yards on the next play when he caught a ball out of the backfield.
It looked like Ochocinco caught his second pass of the day with 1:18 left on a 15-yarder at the Tampa 13, but it was ruled he juggled it out of bounds. Palmer found Gresham for a first down at the Tampa 18. But like they did all half, the Bengals couldn't finish. On first down, with a defender grabbing at his feet, Palmer fired a ball out of the end zone when there was no one open.
Even with Tampa Bay daring the Bengals to run against their Cover 2, the Bengals kept trying to throw it in the half and it hurt them at least once badly. Palmer, 13-of-22 for 128 yards in the half, couldn't avoid the big interception like he has since the opener. His ill-advised pass to Owens on the left sideline got picked off by safety Corey Grimm for an 11-yard interception return that tied the game at seven Sunday in the first minute of the second quarter.
Moments after dropping the easiest of third-down passes, Owens raced past Bucs cornerback Aqib Talib down the left sideline for a 43-yard touchdown catch that gave Cincinnati a 7-0 lead with 4:09 left in the first quarter.
Owens's second long bomb from Palmer in as many weeks came out of the no-huddle offense and followed Benson's seven-yard bolt up the middle. Adam Jones set up the drive at the Bengals 45 on a 27-yard punt return, Cincinnati's longest of the season and the longest against Tampa Bay.
But it was the only glimmer the Bengals would see on offense for awhile even though they were trying to get into the no-huddle most of the time when there wasn't a penalty. Palmer did have wide receiver Andre Caldwell open on a third-and-one but led him too far. Then on the series that set up the deflected punt, right guard Bobbie Williams got his second false start and on third-and-long Palmer got pressure from the right perimeter and had to throw the ball away.
Then it looked real bad when the Bucs deflected the punt, turning Kevin Huber's kick into just 29 yards. But the drive that started at the Tampa Bay 48 got short-circuited on Williams' fumble.
Tampa Bay tipped the field position midway through the second quarter when its dormant running game busted a 61-yarder from its own 3 when fullback Earnest Graham blew open a 61-yard through the Bengals' right side.
Tampa Bay threatened on ita second drive when Williams burst a bubble screen for 19 yards that caved the left side of the Bengals defense. But Bengals defensive end Frostee Rucker popped the scrambling Josh Freeman and Freeman left the game grabbing his right side in favor of Josh Johnson. Three straight snaps ended in a Tampa Bay punt and the Bengals got the ball to start the second quarter.
Freeman returned for the Bucs' first drive of the second quarter.
The Bengals wasted no time going to the no-huddle. After Benson went for two yards on a stretch play to the right side on the game's first play, the Bengals went right back to the line and Tampa Bay had to call timeout because they had only 10 men on the field.
Palmer then hit Ochocinco over the middle for six yards and Benson followed Kelly as a lead blocker for a four-yard gain on third-and-one.
But the no-huddle couldn't get off the ground on this first series. Bobbie Williams false-started on first down and Caldwell false-started two snaps later and Palmer had to hurry some dumpoff throws on the ensuing blitzes before the Bengals were forced to punt.
After Hall was called for an illegal block in the back on the Bucs' first punt, it marked the Bengals' fourth penalty in the game's first 6:01. The defense survived left end Robert Geathers lining up in the neutral zone on third-and-16 when they brought pressure on third-and-11 and forced Freeman to throw it out of bounds.
But the offense struggled on the second series. The Bengals shelved the no-huddle and Benson popped an 11-yarder over the right side on first down. But rookie defensive tackle Gerald McCoy got a hand on Palmer's short pass to tip it away, and on third-and-two against a blitz that opened up the middle of the field for what would have been much more than a first down, Owens dropped an easy flip pass over the middle.
PREGAME NOTES: The Bengals inactive list for Sunday's game against Tampa Bay followed last week's injury report to the letter when doubtful safety Roy Williams (knee) joined wide receiver Jordan Shipley (concussion) and defensive lineman Jon Fanene (hamstring) on the Paul Brown Stadium sidelines.
On Wednesday, defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer said he would shuffle players to revive a dormant pass rush and on Sunday he did when he gave Michael Johnson the start at right end over Antwan Odom. With Williams iced, Chinedum Ndukwe made his first start of the season and 26th of his career.
With Shipley down, wide receiver Jerome Simpson was up for the second time this year and fourth time time in the past two years. Anthony Collins, left tackle Andrew Whitworth's backup, was inactive for the second straight week. Running back Cedric Peerman, center Reggie Stephens, and defensive lineman Carlos Dunlap were also inactive.
With just three sacks in four games, there was some speculation that Dunlap, the second-round pick from Florida, would get the nod. He's played in just one game this year, but Zimmer opted to give Johnson his second NFL start. Odom, who had an NFL-leading eight sacks after four games last season, has none now and he's dealing with a sprained wrist. Johnson has a half-sack from the win against Baltimore.
Eagle-eyed Jame Walker of ESPN.com noted that Bengals wide receiver Terrell Owens violated NFL rules when he tweeted an hour beofore the game that a fan wearing his jersey would get a signed football from him and wide receiver Chad Ochocinco. It can't be posted inside 90 minutes before the game and ESPN.com said it was tweeted an hour before.
Owens was in the lineup when head coach Marvin Lewis opted to announe the offensive starters in their black jerseys and white pants, a uniform combination in which the Bengals are 14-18. The captains won the toss and took the ball in the hopes of getting the Bengals offense in sync as quickly as possible. They've scored just seven points in the first quarter this season.