The stunned silence of the Bengals locker room hung in the air like bad fish.
After Tampa Bay's 10 points in Sunday's final 1:26 split open the playoff hopes in the 24-21 loss before a disbelieving Paul Brown Stadium crowd, head coach Marvin Lewis took the blame and safety Chris Crocker took it in the veins.
"It was a punch in the face," Crocker said. "As a team, we just fell apart on both sides of the ball. As I look at it right now, we'll have to win out. It's as simple as that. We're in desperation mode now."
The Bengals have dipped to 2-3 after back-to-back losses to two teams struggling for respectability. Now the Bengals are doing that after another inept performance on offense produced most of their nine penalties and quarterback Carson Palmer's first three-interception game since Nov. 18, 2007.
But this one will come down to the coaches getting second-guessed. Lewis took the blame for going for the first down with 2:28 left in the game from his own 38 on a third-and-13 and the Bengals clinging to a 21-14 lead.
The Bucs had no timeouts. Bengals punter Kevin Huber was hotter than Roy Halladay and had just drilled a 72-yarder, his fourth plus-50 boot of the day. The Bengals defense had allowed just one touchdown and were coming off a three-and-out.
And then Bucs cornerback Aqib Talib ripped Palmer's pass from wide receiver Terrell Owens at midfield and the implosion was on.
"I will take responsibility for that," Lewis said. "I think we are good enough and can execute well enough to win the football game. The third-down interception happened because I wanted to be aggressive. I put us in that situation, but I think we're going to play football that way. You can't play scared."
They certainly better not be scared of the last 11 games. They play games against teams with a combined record of 28-22.
RUN BLITZ: Another area of second guess, of course, will be the lack of going to the running game early and then again late.
In between, running back Cedric Benson was no match for the Bucs and they showed why they came into the game giving up more than 140 yards per game on the ground. Even though Benson scorched Tampa Bay for 56 yards on seven carries in the first half, Palmer dropped back to pass 22 times.
By the time Benson ripped off an 18-yard run with 5:17 left in the third quarter, the ratio was 25 passes to his nine runs and the Bengals trailed, 14-10. But eight runs later he had 122 yards on 17 carries and the Bengals had the lead, 21-14, with 12:12 left in the game.
On the next series Benson ripped off a seven-yard gain on third-and-one and then on third-and-two the Bengals opted to run third-down back Brian Leonard wide and he got dropped for a two-yard loss. Then, on third-and-13 on the next series, they opted to pass and everyone knows what happened there.
But Benson, who a few weeks ago wondered openly about the Bengals' shift this season to the pass, bit his tongue. After finishing with 144 yards on 23 carries, he went over to the lockers of his offensive line and congratulated them for a job well done.
"I've made up my mind not to talk about anything I can't control," Benson. "The line played great. I'm ecstatic the way they played. Ecstatic. I hope the best is yet to come from them because I know I can play better."
The small, athletic Bucs dared the Bengals to run on their deep Cover 2 zone and the Bengals clearly used their bulk to push them around.
"When we got it called, we played it well. We had efficient runs," said left tackle Andrew Whitworth. "I think when we realized we really had an advantage in the running game, we started to go to it. It was probably a little too late."
THIRD AND GONE: There was bad karma right away on the controversial third down when rookie tight end Jermaine Gresham false-started on third-and-eight to make it third-and-13 from the Bengals 38 with 2:28 left. Palmer went for Owens over the middle even though cornerback Aqib Talib was draped on him and he still muscled in a good enough throw that it looked like Owens had it until Talib pulled it away from him as they hit the ground.
"It was a deep curl route to the inside," Owens said. "When I came in, the ball was to my outside, and that pretty much was where he was. It was one of those battles for the ball, and he just made a great play on it."
Palmer said it was the first time that play had been run all day. Like everything else all day, he said it was a just little bit off.
"When you're playing teams in this league, those little mistakes can turn into big ones," Palmer said. "That turned into an interception which ended up tying the game. We're not going to beat people playing like that.
"When you make aggressive calls, we need to make aggressive plays to convert those into first downs. Had we not thrown that interception, we probably would have won the game. We would have punted and changed field position on them. It probably wouldn't have resulted in a touchdown."
FIRST AND OUCHO: Then with Palmer trying to will the Bengals into field-goal range with 25 seconds left, he saw his crossing pattern to a wide-open Chad Ochocinco bounce off his arms into the hands of safety Sabby Piscitelli at the Tampa 35 and get it run back to the Bengals 34.
"I tried to get to it. I couldn't get my hands all the way on it," The Ocho said after he was held to 20 yards on three catches. "I did the best I could. Just a tad (off). Even with the ball being off, my (butt) is supposed to save the day, regardless. So there's no excuse. If I can put my hands or fingertip on it, it's supposed to be a catch. I tried to make a play the best way I could."
Palmer seemed just as mystified that he couldn't hook up with the guy that he's found for six 1,000-yard seasons.
"We're just a little off. That's a routine play for us, and we didn't make it," he said. "That's one of the many mistakes we made today. We should have made enough plays today, but it ended up being a close game and we ended up losing. We need to find the way to make those little plays and make things happen."
JUMP BALL: Tampa Bay quarterback Josh Freeman engineered his sixth NFL win in his 13th NFL start, four of the fourth-quarter comeback variety. The tying touchdown came with 1:24 left when he lofted a 20-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Mike Williams in the corner of the end zone. Williams, the rookie out of Syracuse, made more like Carmelo Anthony than Art Monk when he launched his 6-2 frame over the 5-11 Joseph in a one-on-one battle.
After watching fellow cornerback Leon Hall get called for pass interference in the end zone on Williams in the third quarter when Freeman whipped the ball as he was taking heat and about to go down, Joseph was clearly frustrated.
"The man was just throwing it up and praying to be honest," Joseph said. "Me, personally, I have to come down with that ball. No other way about it. Me. Myself. I can say a million and one things. The bottom line is I have to come down with that ball. Or knock it down. I was there. I thought I had it. He came down with it. It was what it was."
Freeman said he's getting more and more confidence with the rookie.
"It was really a one-on-one backside. There was a little bit of safety help, but it looked like I could hold the safety long enough that I'd have a true one-on-one," Freeman said. "And when you have a one-on-one with Mike Williams, I've got all the confidence in the world in the guy. I'm going to take that shot almost every time. Sure, sometimes it goes the defense's way. Today, at the end of the game, it went our way."
But the play before that was almost as impressive, a first-and-10 from the 35 with Williams again working on Joseph, and Freeman hitting him on the back shoulder on the sideline for a 15-yarder, a play The Ocho and Palmer always used to click. But while the Bengals veterans were "a little off," the Bucs' kids were right on. Freeman said he made the adjustment with the Bengals all-out blitzing.
"(The corner) was just sitting hard inside-leverage, daring the run-and-go because most teams run the quick slant, and put it on the quick slant," Freeman said. "We went back and talked about it on the sideline, and it was really after we tried to throw one where they were sitting hard inside-leverage and I couldn't really gun it, so I kind of floated it and it gave the DB a chance to recover.
"When we went back to the sideline and started talking, I'm like, 'You know what, he's sitting inside. Just give him a quick nod inside and run a go.' The first, I think it was about a 15-yard gain, was a result of that. He almost got the guy to fall down, and it probably would've been a touchdown. But it was a great job, a great adjustment by Mike. He understood exactly what we we were trying to do, and we got it done."
T.O FLAGGED: The Bengals' last, ninth, and most killing penalty of the day came with Palmer desperately trying to get into field-goal range. He found Owens for a perfect nine-yard pickup on the sideline at the Tampa Bay 34 with 25 seconds left.
Owens was called for pushing off on Talib. Lewis said his receivers "can't keep pushing these guys at the top of the routes because they're calling it."
Owens admitted he got nabbed.
"Obviously, I shouldn't do that. But I felt like the guy was riding me pretty much, so I tried to swim and get his hands off me," Owens said. "They made that call. The officiating hasn't been consistent. I don't know what else it is that I should do when a guy is riding me. I'm more than five yards down the field, and if he has his hands on me, then at some point I have to try and get them off. I just have to be more conscience of getting up the field and getting in and out of my breaks. I thought that to myself. There were enough mistakes and penalties and things to make us look at ourselves in the mirror and know that we are better than what we are."
Owens finished with 102 yards on seven catches off his 222-yard day in Cleveland, marking the first back-to-back 100-yard day for a Bengals receiver since The Ocho did it last year against Houston and Chicago Oct. 19-26.