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Growing Pains For Emerging Playoff Contender As Bengals' Furious Rally Falls Short Against Chargers

Cam Sample (top) and Vonn Bell rallied the Bengals defense with one of four sacks against Justin Herbert.
Cam Sample (top) and Vonn Bell rallied the Bengals defense with one of four sacks against Justin Herbert.

The Bengals shoehorned this crazy quilted break-through season of wild highs and crushing lows into one fascinating day Sunday during a 41-22 loss to the Chargers that saw them fall behind the Justin Herberts in the AFC playoff race.

And if you didn't know how tough Joe Burrow is, you and his teammate know now.

Los Angeles left Paul Brown Stadium with the same 7-5 record but the tiebreaker with the win over the Bengals vaulted them over Cincinnati and left the Joe Burrows hanging by a strand in the last spot at No. 7 after one of the gutsiest comebacks in their history was left sandwiched between one of their most exasperating starts and disappointing finishes.

But despite Herbert's lethal 317-yard passing on 74-percent passing, they're still very much in it.

"I'm just proud of the way everybody fought all four quarters," said running back Joe Mixon, distraught at his game-changing fumble. "It just shows you that you … got to keep on going. The best thing we got going right now is that we get to fight another day."

After two weeks the Bengals dismantled fellow playoff contenders Las Vegas and Pittsburgh by 50 points, the Chargers barged eastward and caught the hosts napping as if it were their 10 a.m. game by starting with a 24-0 run aided by two Bengals' turnovers on their first two series. Then, in just 14:19, the Bengals cut it to 24-22. Then in less than three minutes in the fourth quarter, it was 38-22. Then a curious field goal with 1:10 left. A 41-22 final.

"I think it's football. I think I've been a part of many games like this," said right end Trey Hendrickson, who came from the perennial playoff Saints to rack up another sack Sunday for 11.5 this season. "How you respond is really important. I don't see anybody hanging their heads in the locker room. I think we knew we can't have these kind of errors to go where we want to go. The resilience of this football team I'm confident in and so it's on to the next."

The mood swings fit a season that has seen back-to-back wins three times, but never three straight. It conjured up memories of October, when the Bengals followed up a calling card 41-17 win in Baltimore with a 34-31 loss to a Jets quarterback making his first NFL start and then a 41-16 loss at home to struggling Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield.

But in a neat synopsis of their season, the Bengals suddenly turned around Sunday's game with those 22 points even though Burrow dislocated his throwing pinky finger on the game's fifth play, leading tackler and middle linebacker Logan Wilson got carted off in the second quarter with a shoulder injury he received while covering a punt and Mixon couldn't get traction behind the Bengals' re-tooled offensive line even though the league's last-ranked run defense was across the way.

"I thought in that first quarter everything that could go wrong went wrong," said Burrow of a quarter the Bengals turned it over twice for 10 Chargers points. "I was proud of our fight and we had the ball in plus territory with a chance to take the lead and we had another turnover, but we fought back. There's not any moral victories but we put ourselves in position to win that game."

As for the Xs and Os, Chargers rookie head coach Brandon Staley was pretty up front. On offense, Herbert targeted his outside receivers.

"We loved the matchups out there," Staley said. "Their run defense is ranked pretty high. They're fourth in the NFL (in rushing yards allowed per game) and they play a lot of deep-man fronts and they have a lot of different groupings. They bring in 'nickel' (personnel) a lot. (Mike) Hilton is such a disruptive nickel blitzer. He really disrupts your run game, and their safeties are very active in the run game. Vonn (Bell) and Jessie (Bates) are both really good players. So, we felt we the matchups outside was the way to go today."

On defense, he brought more five-man pressures with safeties and linebackers when edge rusher Joey Bosa went down early.

"We just activated a couple more groupings," Staley said.

But the Bengals fought back with 15 minutes of play that has turned them into contenders. Burrow, the AFC's leading passer, gutted out a big pass to wide receiver Tee Higgins for a 29-yard touchdown to cut it to 24-6. The defense that had held teams to 23 points the previous two games before giving up 24 in the first 20 minutes on Sunday, regrouped in time and dug down to get huge turnovers with linebacker Germaine Pratt in the center of both. He ripped out one fumble for free safety Jessie Bates III's 46-yard return and he fell on cornerback Mike Hilton's forced fumble in the red zone.

Both led to Bengals touchdowns and The Paul rocked just like it did against Minnesota, Jacksonville and Pittsburgh, smelling the Bengals' first ever comeback from 24 points down.

Then, like they faltered against the Jets and the Browns and like those four turnovers in Chicago, giveaways killed. Mixon fumbled for the first time since the opener last year against the Chargers with 13:43 left in the game and the Bengals at least in field goal range, down just 24-22.

It rolled right to cornerback Tevaughn Campbell for a 61-yard fumble return touchdown and that was it because Burrow had to throw 15 straight times behind a new offensive line and the Chargers knew he had to, so the hits kept coming. In that last 13:43, Burrow took half of his six sacks and when he threw an end-zone interception trying to hit tight end C.J. Uzomah, he underthrew him as he climbed the pocket to get away from the rush.

"We had the momentum going there. That was a big fumble," Mixon said. "I take full responsibility on that. My teammates count on me, and I let them down a little bit. I have to learn from it and move on. It doesn't happen often. I have to take full responsibility on that. I have to be better."

There was no shortage of taking responsibility. Burrow. Standup. Mixon. Standup. Higgins. Standup. Hendrickson. Standup. Bengals head coach Zac Taylor. Standup.

Taylor took the blame for two communication snafus. One was minor, in the last ten seconds of the half in which Burrow also took blame. But the other, a delay of game penalty coming out of a timeout before a two-point conversion, stunned Taylor and the offense.

This is why the emotions were so raw Sunday. They had to explain both what looked to be a historic rally and the puzzling start and finish.

"It just felt like there was no energy at the beginning of the game," Higgins said. "I felt like if our energy was up, it could have been different, but we just have to get back and come back strong next week.

"You could just tell. Usually we come out hyped up, ready. We were hyped up, but I still feel like the energy wasn't there like it usually is. Me personally, that's what I think. Hopefully we can bring that energy next week and get a W."

How the Bengals could come out like that for what amounted to a playoff game after beating teams by 50 points in the previous eight quarters against a West Coast team coming east is, well, that's the NFL.

"It was everything. When it's everything, it's 100 percent me," Taylor said. "We certainly focused a lot after we get these big wins on looking for things that might pop up in the week, (but) we've got a great team. There's no secret here. When you turn the ball over four times — four times — you're probably not going to win a football game. It's as simple as that. I'm not going to make it more than it was right there, but that's a pretty easy answer."

But there was also the rebound from the start.

The defense gave them nothing after those 24 points in the first 20 minutes. For the next 27 minutes or so, the Bengals forced three straight turnovers and then two straight punts. They had at least four sacks for the third time.

"We have to set the edges up front. We made a couple of back end adjustments that we made and pressured the quarterback," Hendrickson said. "He had too many easy running lanes and throwing lanes and we started changing that on the sideline before halftime so we controlled what we can control.

"We had great halftime adjustments and I felt like we were doing the right things towards the end of the second quarter as well. We just have to stop taking those shots that are hurting us and moving forward I feel confident our defense is going to respond properly after we dissect film."

And it looked like Mixon was starting to get it going with nine carries for 36 yards in the second half. Even though rookie wide receiver Ja'Marr had a devastating touchdown drop, he had his biggest game in more than a month with 52 yards on five catches. Higgins had a career day (138 yards on nine catches), and slot receiver Tyler Boyd had 85 yards and a 32-yard catch for his biggest numbers since September.

But instead of the rally, they were left to answer about the inconsistencies. 24-0. 0-22. 16-0.

"I think our consistency is as good as I've ever been around. The games are a different animal, but if you talk about (being) in the building and at practice, I don't have any negatives to pull from with this team," Taylor said. "I wouldn't give that answer if I felt like I was just saying it to just say it. It's the truth. That's why there's such a belief we can overcome a tough game like this because our guys don't ride highs and lows of the week. They don't run the highs and lows of the wins and losses."

The breakthrough season continues against another contender next Sunday at home against the 49ers. As an emerging team trying to figure it out, they seem to be consistent with one thing and it may be the most important through the growing pains.

"Our guys believed, and those are the positives we have to take out," Taylor said. "We crawled out of it and we were down 24-22 in the fourth quarter, and we just didn't finish it out."

After his last fumble, Mixon said he watched it 100 times. He doesn't think he or his team has to look in the mirror.

"Regardless of the outcome, I'm just happy that them boys played for four quarters," Mixon said. "Defense gave us a chance. Nobody quit, and that's the best thing that I can really take from this game. We've just got to clean up the little things and let everything else handle itself. Got to keep on executing."