ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. - What maybe set off Zac Taylor is not that his Bengals are 0-3. It's that they are this close to 2-1.
With the AFC North now officially an open house starting next Sunday with tours set for 1 and 4 p.m., now that three of the four teams are tagged with either two losses (the Browns) or three (the Bengals and Steelers), the tight losses in Seattle and Buffalo are purely galling. (When was the last time the Bengals and Steelers were both 0-3, as they are for next Monday night at Heinz Field? It looks like never.
And so Taylor's frustration was palpable as every fourth word or so ripped through the walls of New Era Field after Sunday's 21-17 loss to the Bills.
Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton felt it. They all felt it.
"It's frustrating, because at times the offense isn't playing well, but the defense is playing well," said Dalton, after the comeback ended at the Bills 10 with 12 seconds left with his second interception of the day.
"When the offense is playing well the defense may not be playing as well as they have been. For us, we have to put it all together. We have to do it at the same time, and when we do that we're going to allow ourselves opportunities to win these games. Not saying that we didn't have an opportunity today, we did, we drove the ball down there in the end, and had a chance; but, we didn't make the play that got us in there. Zac's animated, he should be, but the biggest thing is that we have to stay together."
That was the point of Taylor's talk.
"We believe in each other and the message was the wolves are coming. They're going to tear us apart and that's what they tried to do but this group is too strong to allow that to happen," Taylor said. "We stay connected and that's what we've talked about all week and when adversity strikes, we point the finger at ourselves and learn ways to improve themselves and picking up your teammates and that's what these guys have done."
For as much as Taylor has talked about his team being connected, each of the three phases has conspired to take down the other two in crushing fashion the first three weeks. Everyone has had their turn and such was the case Sunday.
The offense didn't get a first down until 1:57 left in the first half. The defense gave up the biggest play of the day, the 49-yard pass to someone named Dawson Knox, a tight end who was wide open, a mere 49 seconds after the Bengals had claimed their first lead of the day. Special teams had their moments in the first half when wide receiver Auden Tate's hold negated cornerback Darius Phillips' 92-yard kick return one snap after they had too many men on the field for the extra point and the Bills decided to score the two-point conversion from the 1.
Which is why they needed a TD to win, rather than a field goal to tie on that last drive.
A week after the Bengals were steamed about holding calls on their offensive line, add this one. Safety Jessie Bates III predicted it would be hard to find. Even Taylor, who answers such messy questions with "I don't want to get fined," offered, "I didn't get a chance to see the replay but I'll have to check that out but it sounds like it could be a tough one going against us."
Phillips, though, had an idea. He hadn't seen it yet, but despite Tate having a good angle on cornerback Levi Wallace, Tate kept his hand on Wallace as Wallace turned to chase down Phillips.
"They've been calling this all year," Phillips said of holding calls. "They've said it's gone up from 100 about this time last year to 183. We have to figure out a different way to adjust to it."
Too bad because Tate and Phillips are two 2018 draft picks that had break-out games Sunday. Tate, the seventh-rounder, drew his first start and had a game-high 88 yards. Phillips, a fifth-rounder, took a few spins in the slot with B.W. Webb (forearm) out and got his first NFL interception to jump-start the Bengals midway through the third quarter.
"That was a change we did earlier in the week so Auden has done a good job, he provides some stuff for us," Taylor said. "We feel like we have some guys that can play. Alex Erickson jumps in there. You don't really miss a beat with anybody coming in the game."
In that last drive, Erickson caught his only ball of the game for 13 yards and when Dalton threw the ball behind Tate on the interception to end it, he had gone to him three times before in that drive for 29 yards.
And Dalton jumped to Tate's defense on that final play.
"I've got to throw up a better ball. He's just trying to make a play; he got a hand on it. When the ball gets tipped up in the air like that in the NFL, that ball gets picked," Dalton said. "He ran a good route and the ball was behind him a little bit and for him he tried to make a play. I've got to throw a better ball there; we get the first down and get a shot at trying to score a touchdown there."
So they're saying all the right things, but like cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick said, "It's so frustrating. I'm sick right now. For us to come that close, for us not to pull this out, it's more frustrating than last week. It's unacceptable. I'm tired of losing. But we're a team. We lost it together."
They are starting to look at the slow starts. Last week the 49ers jumped on them, 24-10, before the defense knew what was happening. At one point Sunday the only one of Dalton's first six passes that had been completed had resulted in a John Ross fumble.
"We can't wait to play," said safety Shawn Williams. It's too late."
The bright spots were interesting. There was Tate and Phillips and a rejuvenated defensive line and secondary that continually bailed out the offense with some Herculean rushes from ends Carlos Dunlap and Sam Hubbard and tackle Geno Atkins. For every bright spot … They only took down Bills quarterback Josh Allen for one sack and his scrambling proved deadly.
Tate looked good and among Tyler Boyd's six catches for 67 yards were some more big ones on third down. But they need Ross to keep playing well and on Sunday he had the fumble, his fifth drop of the year on their first offensive snap and he had just two catches for 22 yards.
"To have two road games to be close the way we had been, close isn't good enough though. For us, we're not satisfied with anything," Dalton said. "Yeah, there are some good things we can take away but you've got to make the plays that are going to allow you to win these games and in these three we haven't done that."
The biggest bright spot of all had to be the re-emergence of running back Joe Mixon. He had 61 yards on 15 carries that were absolutely huge in the comeback and his 33-yard screen pass set up his own one-yard touchdown catch.
"We made it go. The line was dialed in. I was dialed in. Even the receivers on the boundary were blocking," Mixon said. "They just made one more play than we did, even though they made one more play. In the first half, we killed ourselves. There's no way we should have lost to them, but that's what happens when you play behind the chains all the first half. The defense was playing their asses off. We're thinking, 'We have to help these boys out,' and we did in the second half."
Mixon showed his wares in that second half. He made a hurdling 14-yard run. He beat everyone outside on a 12-yard sweep. He used a great seal block from center Trey Hopkins to race 33 yards on one of those screens they keep telling us were going to work.
"We had the momentum our way and we came up a little short," Mixon said. "It especially hurts for the offense. The stuff we were doing in the first half, playing behind the chains and stuff like that, it just stinks. We shouldn't have to do that."
The bid for the complete game takes them into the last day of September.