The Bengals postgame locker room steamed with the frustration of leaving too many men on base and hissed with the anger of wasting a well-pitched game from its fast improving defense in front of a sold-out house at Paul Brown Stadium.
Seeing running back Bernard Scott on crutches, apparently done for the year with a torn ACL, didn't help ease the sheer sickening sense of a wasted Sunday afternoon.
"We should have had this one," defensive tackle Domata Peko said. "You could feel it in the locker room after the game. Tempers were flaring. Guys were mad. That's different than years before. Nobody wants to lose around here. That's going to carry us through."
Dolphins 17, Bengals 13. And those 13 points ate at head coach Marvin Lewis after his defense kept giving the ball back. The Bengals bad on third down? The Dolphins were 4-for-13.
"We let a good opportunity get away from us today; there is no doubt in my mind about that," Lewis said. "We've got to score more points than that to win the game."
An AFC game. An AFC game at home. An AFC game at home against a rookie quarterback. An AFC game at home against a rookie quarterback with a losing record. These are the games the Bengals won last year to go to the playoffs when they went 5-1 against teams that came into the game with losing records.
"He's exactly right just because the way this league is run, you really have to go out and win every single game, especially if it's an AFC opponent and if it's a home game," said kicker Mike Nugent. "Losing to the AFC at home is a tough one and—I can only speak on a personal note—you've got to do everything you can because every point counts."
How about winning a game where the defense gives up less than two yards per rush, gets two sacks, and holds the two starting wide receivers to six catches for 108 yards?
A good opportunity?
Thanks to the defense, points were at a premium. It had some lapses, but the Bengals defense played well enough to win this thing going away. In the first quarter they forced a red-zone turnover, in the second quarter they stoned the Dolphins on third-and-one and fourth-one, and in the fourth quarter they got the ball back three times with the score at 17-13.
And for the second straight game the Bengals got a sack on the first series with right end Michael Johnson tying tackle Geno Atkins for the team sack lead with five. He held it until late in the third quarter when Atkins's huge sack pushed the Dolphins out of field-goal range when it was 17-6 and gave the Bengals hope.
A week after drilling Jacksonville running back Maurice Jones-Drew for 38 yards on 13 carries, the Bengals held Miami's Reggie Bush to 48 yards on 19 carries. They gave him a 13-yard touchdown run that was ugly, but that was all.
"He doesn't really like contact. We wanted to rally and get to the ball," said rookie WILL backer Vontaze Burfict.
Lewis showed his confidence when he sent out Nugent to try a 41-yard field goal with 3:05 left in the game that would only cut the Miami lead to one.
"We thought we could stop them and get the ball back again, then kick another field goal and win the game. We got the ball back, but weren't able to do anything with it," Lewis said. "It really depends on the yardage in that situation. It's easy to sit here and second-guess it now."
But cornerback Leon Hall was with him all the way.
"I love that he does have that confidence in us. I think we were playing well enough to do that," Hall said. "We were playing pretty well at that point."
Hall and safety Nate Clements returned to their leading roles in the secondary after leg injuries sidelined them. The Bengals weren't sure how long they could go, but they responded just how you think the glue would respond. Hall, Cincinnati's best cover cornerback, missed the last two games with a hamstring injury, but played all the way Sunday and helped blank AFC leader in third-down receptions Davone Bess on third down.
Bess had just two catches for 49 yards and one was a big 21-yard catch-and-run late in the game, but for the most part the Bengals kept the wide receivers in check. Except for a 30-yard play in which he got behind cornerback Terence Newman on a third-down scramble late in the third quarter, NFL receiving yards leader Brian Hartline didn't do much with four catches for 59 yards.
And Clements, who missed last week after suffering a calf injury early in the Washington win that he played through, made his second start at safety and mixed it up right away. He says he likes this safety business and on Sunday he showed why midway through the first quarter and the Dolphins on the Bengals 11. With 258-pound fullback Jorvorskie Lane rumbling at him, the fearless 205-pound Clements put his helmet on the ball and jarred the ball loose for the fumble Newman scooped up.
Then on third-and-one from the Dolphins 38 with 4:01 left in the first half and the Bengals trailing, 7-6, Clements and middle linebacker Rey Maualuga teamed to stop running back David Thomas. Then after Miami unsuccessfully tried to draw the Bengals offsides and called timeout, Burfict and safety Reggie Nelson got to the middle to stop Lane.
"On third down they ran power and they were trying to get outside," Maualuga said. "On fourth down they ran a little fullback dive and Vontaze made a nice play."
On most days that would ignite an offense. But as the first half ticked past the two-minute warning, the Bengals couldn't convert one of their troublesome third downs when quarterback Andy Dalton couldn't connect with tight end Jermaine Gresham on a third-and-two lob down the middle.
"Whenever you make a stop like that you can feel the momentum shifting," Clements said. "To get stops like that, your front has really got to be getting push."
There were some plays Clements wanted back and Maualuga was upset about Tannehill's 24-yard throw over him to tight end Charles Clay on third-and-10 that led to Miami's first touchdown.
"There were some blown coverages. There was a situation when a receiver caught the ball over my head. That's my progression I had to work off of," Maualuga said. "He caught it, they scored a touchdown a couple plays later. Plays like that, you want to get back, you know, because (with) plays like that, you ask yourself 'What would happen if they didn't convert on that?' Without missing that, the game could have gone any which kind of way, but there's no point of worrying about it now. They won, they came in and handled business. It's just time for us to watch film tomorrow and get better."
But Maualuga senses the defense is coming together.
"Each week we're looking better and better," he said. "Tackling, swarming to the ball."
Peko is encouraged by what they've done against the run.
"Two weeks in a row holding teams to under 100 yards rushing," Peko said after the Dolphins could get just 68 yards on 35 carries. "That's what we pride ourselves on. We didn't finish today and they got the better of us, but on the positive side we're starting to get better on defense."
Hall says the Bengals are going to have to with Cleveland next week and Pittsburgh on deck.
"We've got Cleveland and Pittsburgh after that and when you play great defenses as a defense on the other side of the ball, you have to play better. You have to rise to the occasion depending on the game," Hall said. "Our defense has to play better than their defense. ... Today, did we play good enough? No. We have to go shot for shot with those defenses. If they get five turnovers, we have to get five turnovers. Some games are like that."
And then some games are like this.
"I wish I had it back," wide receiver Andrew Hawkins said of a play that awry. "I wish I had it back."
He could have been speaking of a day when a nice pitching effort at home got wasted.