It was the best of times, it was the was the worst of times for a Bengals defense at war with the record book and at peace with turning the ball over for its hot-and-cold offense after Sunday's 37-34 victory over the Bucs at Paul Brown Stadium.
For the first time in four years they picked the ball off four times in a game and when rookie safety Jessie Bates celebrated the last one with his first NFL pick-six with a defensive picture selfie in the end zone and 2:10 left in the third quarter, the Bengals had chased Tampa Bay quarterback Jameis Winston to the bench and perhaps oblivion with a 34-16 lead.
But they also went down in the infamous drop-down menu of history at the hands of old friend Ryan Fitzpatrick when he strafed them for 194 yards and 18 straight points in 17 surreal minutes as the Bengals gave up their most yards in two games with the Bucs racking up 576. In the wake of last week's 551 the Chiefs put on them, that's 1,127 for the second and third most yards the Bengals have ever allowed in the 16 seasons of head coach Marvin Lewis.
And don't look now. But the guy that engineered the most yards against Lewis is in town after this Sunday's bye when quarterback Drew Brees brings the Saints to PBS Nov. 11. That number back on Nov. 19, 2006 was 595 with Brees chucking for 510 in a Superdome loss.
Bates may be only 21 but he can count. Despite history, they're 5-3.
"I feel really good. I'm sure everyone else in this locker room feels really good," Bates said. "We knew the chances of going to the playoffs and this was a big win for us. We emphasized that in the meeting room. Getting back to what we do best. We kind of did and kind of didn't do that. "
And they know there is work to be done with Mr. Brees being the ultimate spoiler of a bye week.
"We found a way to get out of there alive," said middle linebacker Preston Brown. "But we can't keep doing that. If you give up all those yards and you win, it makes you feel better. But we've got to find ways to cut that out.
"We have to find ways to play our rules and not let them throw it over our heads," Brown said.
The staggering assault on the nickel package and the gruesome numbers on third down continued. The Bengals already went into the game without slot cornerback Darqueze Dennard and nickel linebackers Vontaze Burfict and Nick Vigil and early Sunday one of their top pass rushers joined them on the sidelines when Carl Lawson tore his ACL and is out for the year. Meanwhile, the Bengals again allowed a nearly 60- percent conversion rate on third down at 10-for-18. And Fitzpatrick converted a fourth-and-three with 1:05 left when tight end O.J. Howard beat linebacker Jordan Evans for an 18-yard touchdown. He then tied the game on the two-point conversion, stepping away from a sack by rookie defensive lineman Sam Hubbard and finding tight end Chris Godwin in a tight window over the middle between Evans and rookie slot corner Darius Phillips.
"We're in a tough situation. I won't lie," said starting cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick, playing on a sore Achilles that took him out for a few snaps. "Dealing with injuries, trying to get guys on the field. I'm a leader. I have to stay positive."
The Bucs killed the Bengals on two wide-open bombs, a 60-yarder from Winston to wide receiver DeSean Jackson to cut the lead to 21-7 late in the first half and a 72-yarder from Fitzpatrick to wide receiver Mike Evans with 9:57 left to make it a one-score game.
No defender was close on either play. William Jackson, their best cover corner, appeared to ease up on DeSean Jackson as he exploded into the post looking for help, but he said after the game it was his fault.
"Put it on me," Jackson said.
Safety Shawn Williams said Evans' play wasn't a product of miscommunication.
"It's something I saw that they were doing earlier throughout the game. They made an adjustment and made a better play," Williams said. "There was no miscommunication. He made the play. He beat the coverage. If you want to stop every route, play cover zero (and blitz). There are holes in every coverage. We knew what the coverage was, but there's a hole in every coverage."
Lewis has always preferred keeping his cornerbacks on the same side, but Sunday they assigned Jackson to the fleet DeSean and the rangy Evans to the just as rangy Kirkpatrick. That was the only play Will allowed as DeSean finished with 68 yards and three catches. Evans had 179 yards on six catches, but Kirkpatrick thought he played him well man-up.
"That was fire. That was fire. I loved it," said Kirkpatrick, who wouldn't elaborate on Evans' TD. "That wasn't me, so we just have to fix it. It was a blown coverage. If it was me, I'll take credit, but I did what I had to do."
Kirkpatrick and Jackson both appear to like it. "I can run, too," Jackson said after racing all day with DeSean, the NFL leader in yards per catch. Kirkpatrick said the coaches came to them last week with the idea.
"He doesn't want to disrespect me and I don't want to disrespect him," Kirkpatrick said of Will. "I don't want to disrespect that guy on the other side of me. He's a hell of a player."
But Kirkpatrick also said, "I'm a left corner. I'll go where they tell me."
Everybody knew where the game was going when Fitzpatrick came in. Kirkpatrick admitted that even though the coaches had prepared some video cutups of Fitzpatrick on their iPads, Winston was the only guy he studied. But he knew the big arm was coming. And, "It's almost like its back-yard football."
"I hate playing Fitzpatrick," Brown said. "He improvises so much you never know exactly what he's going to do. A little back-yard football. So smart. A Harvard guy. He reads defenses so well and he can run. He's still fast. I didn't want Fitz to get in at all, but (Winston) threw so many interceptions, he had to.
"We knew it was a different game plan. Fitz can run it for 20 yards. We have to find a way to plaster the receivers because they're so fast."
Bates admitted he didn't have to do much for his third NFL interception. The Bengals now have 10 on the season after getting 11 all last year and Bates has his eyes on the most picks by a Bengals rookie since cornerback Leon Hall had five in 2007.
"He pretty much threw it right at me," said Bates, who made a nice play in a deep zone to keep his feet after stumbling as he caught it over the middle. "I saw the whole crowd and I was saying, 'Please, please don't fall down."'
Bates found his mother in the third row and the crowd parted to let him toss it. She grabbed it and her son observed, "Maybe that's where I got my hands."
Those hands have been a highlight on a defense looking for answers.
"We're at our best turning the ball over and I thought we did a good job of that today," Bates said, mindful of the bombs. "The biggest part is just the details. We played so well for three quarters and then some people may have got lazy or got comfortable. You can't do that. This game will humble you very fast and it did tonight."