CARSON, Calif. - Jeff Driskel threw for 161 yards and a touchdown, while Joe Mixon rushed for 111 yards and a score as the Bengals fell to the Los Angeles Chargers 26-21.
Left for dead by the oddsmakers, they gambled all day long while putting the ball in the hands of bell-cow Joe Mixon and gutted out a terrific effort against the heavily-favored Chargers that saw them cut the lead to 23-21 with 1:50 left on Mixon's one-yard touchdown run to give him 111 yards on 26 carries.
But when they went for the tying two-point conversion, Driskel (17 of 25 for 161 yards), dropped straight back, held the ball looking for a receiver and was finally sacked by lineman Darius Philbon on a coverage sack.
Randy Bullock's ensuing on-side kick looked to be short and the Bengals committed two penalties on the play, dousing a marvelous defensive stand that saw them stand up to MVP candidate Philip Rivers after he directed touchdown drives on his first two possessions.
On the Bengals final drive down 26-21 with 43 seconds to play and zero timeouts, Driskel threw an incomplete pass, took a sack and completed an out route to Cody Core as time expired.
Tyler Boyd led the Bengals with 52 yards receiving on three catches. C.J. Uzomah (three catches, 37 yards), Core (three catches, 30 yards) and Mixon (five catches, 27 yards) also contributed in the passing game.
The Chargers (10-3) had 160 yards of offense on their first two drives but had 121 the remainder of the game.
Their season has come down to fourth down and when head coach Marvin Lewis opted to go for it three times on Sunday in a tight tussle with the play-off bound Chargers, he was burned by two false starts on the offensive line and Mixon getting blown up on fourth-and-one as the Chargers.
Two of the snaps came in the third quarter when the game turned. On the first possession of the second half, the Bengals were looking at fourth-and-one from their 35 and Lewis gambled. But the Chargers swamped the box with at least ten and the defensive backs stood him up in the final belches of the scrum.
That turned into a Chargers field goal that made it 20-12 (good coverage by the secondary to force two straight incompletions), and Lewis wasn't budging on a fourth-and-seven from the Chargers 34, courtesy of a terrific contested catch for 24 yards by tight end C.J. Uzomah over the middle despite taking a hellacious hit. They were going for it, but center Billy Price false started and they had to punt.
And they got the ball right back when cornerback William Jackson had wide receiver Keenan Allen covered on third-and-two.
But Driskel and his offense just couldn't come up with a big play in that second half. They committed to run the ball with Mixon and he had 75 yards on his first 19 carries as they tracked for a 50-50 run-pass ratio for the first time this season.
Down 20-12, Mixon lost three yards on a stretch play he was forced to turn back and they couldn't get it back when Driskel (17 of his first 24 passes for 161 yards) had his third down pass to wide receiver Tyler Boyd batted down by safety Adrian Phillips. They did get a 46-yard field from Bullock to make it 20-15 early in the fourth.
An inspired defensive effort that blunted the last three third-down attempts by Rivers was doused by Michael Badgley's 59-yard field goal at the half-time gun that capped an unbelievable final 10 seconds of a first half the Chargers took a bizarre 17-12 lead.
When it rains it pours. A false start cost the Bengals a potential touchdown at the Chargers 1 after what appeared to be certain TD was overturned by replay before the stunning turn of events at the end of the half.
Rivers got the ball back with just ten seconds left at his own 32, threw a pair of 11-yard darts to wide receivers Keenan Allen and Travis Benjamin and when end Jordan Willis' offsides penalty wiped out a sack by linemen Sam Hubbard and Carlos Dunlap, Badgley got his shot.
It was too bad. The Bengals had just cut the lead to 14-12 when Driskel hit wide-open wide receiver John Ross for his sixth touchdown of the season on his 18th catch (from six yards out) to make it 14-12. The bid to tie it on a two-point conversion got blown up when Chargers rookie safety Derwin James had a clean shot at running back Giovani Bernard on the perimeter.
Photos from the Bengals at Chargers matchup in week 14.
But, remember, the depleted Bengals were two-touchdown underdogs and they made it a game with some grit that had been missing in the four-game losing streak. It was typified on that short-field touchdown drive of 35 yards set up by a third-down sack by nose tackle Andrew Billings.
And the Bengals smashed-mouthed Mixon with 63 yards on 12 carries in the half and even though they got the ball back with 1:35, they handed it to him three straight times for 22, the last 13 coming on a breaking-tackle-third-and-one.
With the Bengals trying to control the clock and keep it away from the red-hot Rivers, for the first time all year in the half they ran it (17 for 96 yards) more than they passed it, with Driskel seven of 11 for 55 yards. The Chargers still out-gained them in the half, 179-141, and Rivers was 12 of 17 for 135 yards, but they weathered the storm of the first two drives that went for touchdowns.
Rivers hit his first seven passes until Dunlap deflected the eighth at the end of the second drive. But the damage was done.
The killers here were the two snaps on second-and-long. After Billings and tackle Christian Ringo split a sack, Rivers stepped up on second-and-17 in the pocket and hit a wide-open Allen in the middle of a zone for 16 yards to set up an easy third-down conversion.
Then the snap after a hold, Rivers caught the Bengals with just two players on the side of the field he ran a screen. Left guard Dan Feeney took out one of them, cornerback Darqueze Dennard, on the way to running back Austin Ekeler's 21-yard pickup. When Ekeler walked in from five yards out, it was 14-3 near the end of the first quarter.
When the Bengals got the ball back, they kept going to Mixon with 41 yards on his first seven carries, but they couldn't overcome a two-yard loss on a stretch run to the right. On a third-and-six early in the second quarter, Driskel tried to hit wide receiver Boyd for the first time on the day but overthrew double coverage.
But after an inspired defensive series (a Ringo stop and Jackson's tackle at the line of scrimmage to set up a third-and-long incompletion) Driskel made sure Boyd got his only reception on the next series on a huge 19-yard catch on third-and-long over the middle. Then a reverse to the right side to wide receiver Alex Erickson for 14 yards (cutting inside some nice blocks) set up the controversial play on third down from the Chargers 1.
Driskel went play-action on a boot-leg right and ran out of left end Joey Bosa's tackle in the backfield. He used the entire field and then froze linebacker Hayes Pullard to the outside, cut inside and appeared reach the ball to the goal line for a touchdown before his knee hit the ground. But the refs overturned the replay and when head coach Marvin Lewis went for it on fourth with a jumbo package that had guard Trey Hopkins and defensive end Sam Hubbard report as eligible receivers, right guard Alex Redmond false started. They took a field goal to make it 14-6 with 5:01 left in the half.
Hopkins had come out of the game and was replaced by Christian Westerman in what appeared to be a coach's decision.
The Chargers made it look so stunningly easy on the first drive lasting a little bit more than three minutes. The Bengals again deferred the opening kickoff and the opponent again swept down the field 75 yards unencumbered to go up 7-0.
The shortest of the six plays was Rivers' five-yard scramble on the first snap. Ekeler simply went up the middle three times for 37 yards and then Rivers played pitch and catch with his wide receivers. Mike Williams was wide open for 19 yards in a zone then Allen got behind Dennard on a corner route for a 14-yard touchdown.
Driskel went to Mixon right away, running it four times for 25 yards and catching two, one a nifty grab behind the line for 10 yards helped along by a block from Uzomah. His jump cut when he got the handoff at the line on their first snap resulted in an 18-yard gash. A Driskel nine-yard scramble also converted a third-and-four and Ross' screen for five yards on third down set up Randy Bullock's 47-yard field goal to make it 7-3 with 6:23 left in the first quarter.
The Bengals fall to 5-8 on the season.