Updated: 9:20 p.m.
With their AFC record at 2-5 and losses to four teams that stand in front of them, Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis couldn't say much after Sunday's 31-23 loss to the Broncos at sold-out Paul Brown Stadium all but deep-sixed the Bengals playoff hopes. They've lost more tiebreakers than the Electoral College in the last month.
"Losing is bad. We've lost four games in a row, we've got a hard road to go," Lewis said. "But this team came out here and executed a lot of the game plan. Not consistently enough, but a lot of the things we spent a lot of time on this week, I thought we came out and showed.
"We've dug a hole, no question."
Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning shoved the dirt on the Bengals with his NFL-record 48th game-winning drive in the fourth quarter or overtime. They don't call him "The Sheriff" for nothing.
"We've got to play every week like we played today," said left tackle Andrew Whitworth. "We fought our tails off. We played a great team down to the wire. We had a chance to win the game at the end and 'The Sheriff' did what he does best."
Lewis knew the two things that killed the Bengals were the eight penalties for 83 yards and Denver wide receiver Trindon Holliday's 105-yard kick return to open the second half. It tied the season high for penalties and marked the most yards in penalties since they had 87 in the playoff game last year.
The killer drive came right after Denver took a 24-20 lead with 11:47 left in the game. The Bengals suffered a holding call and false start by one of their most reliable guys, Whitworth, and a holding call by center Jeff Faine wiped out a 19-yard pass to wide receiver A.J. Green on third-and-15.
"Obviously, the penalties set us back on offense. When you have penalties like that, you have to do a better job of moving your feet and getting position, and those hurt us," Lewis said. "When you give up a kickoff to start that second half, that puts you behind. In this streak, we've given up some plays on special teams that have hurt us, kind of opposite of where we were to begin with. So we have to do a better job of that; it's disappointing."
The solid Bengals cover teams were a big part of last year's playoff run when both the kick and punt cover teams finished in the NFL's top 10. But Cleveland's Josh Cribbs had a big punt return and kick return in the fourth quarter of the Browns win last month and the kick cover team came in ranked 29th before Holliday no doubt sent them to the bottom by simply running straight up the middle.
It was the first kick Holliday returned this season, 11th of his career, and the first one for the Broncos longer than 33 yards in 2012. Cincinnati's Brandon Tate didn't have as good a day, but he had a 35.3-yard average and his 43-yarder was the longest of the year against Denver.
"A guy as fast as that," special teams leader Dan Skuta said of Holliday, "you've got to make him cut and we didn't make him cut. He ran right through the middle of us. You've got to penetrate and make him cut and we didn't do it."
The 5-5 Holliday, the NFL's shortest player and a former NCAA 100-meter sprint champion, set the PBS record for the 105-yard dash. Kicker Mike Nugent took some of the blame for hitting it down the middle.
"I thought it was a great hit into the wind, but terrible placement. I don't know if it even made the left hash," Nugent said.
Faine found himself in an unenviable position. He's been nursing a hamstring problem and began the game on the bench as rookie Trevor Robinson got his first NFL start. But Robinson did what Faine did two weeks ago at the end of the first half against Pittsburgh and injured his hamstring before giving way to Faine at the beginning of the second half.
Then on that third-and-15 with 9:15 left, Faine found himself trying to fend off SAM linebacker Von Miller on an inside twist. The Bengals had the protection pointed the other way and if Faine didn't hold Miller, Miller would have splattered Dalton and had four sacks instead of three.
SACKS KEY STAT: It was a tough one for Whitworth and right tackle Andre Smith. Both were asked to block one of the NFL's top pass-rushing tandems one-on-one and Miller (three) and end Elvis Dumervil (one) had four of Denver's five sacks. It's only the second time in Dalton's 24 starts he was sacked five times. The Ravens got him six times in this year's opener.
And the Bengals AFC-leading sackers were blanked for the first time in 32 games. The time last time the Bengals didn't get a sack in a game was two years and four days ago in the Halloween 2010 loss to Miami. They're not alone. Denver hasn't allowed a sack to a 4-3 defense this season.
Whitworth, one of the most reliable left tackles in the league, didn't give up one of them but he was called for holding Dumervil twice, plus the false start. That was after coming into the game with three penalties all year.
A couple of Miller's sacks were caused by coverage, but he also bull-rushed Smith for a sack on third-and-six from the Broncos 24 that forced Nugent's 49-yard field goal that cut the lead to 17-13 with 1:22 left in the third quarter.
Whitworth wasn't very pleased, saying he played all his snaps during the game the same. Particularly on that last hold.
"They didn't beat us. Holding, the way, I read it, is when your feet are beat and your hands are outside and neither one of those things happened," Whitworth said. "The guy who calls the hold is out on coverage on the sidelines. It's amazing to me these guys keep saying those guys can see that. There's no way they're able to tell me they can see from there to make a holding call.
"I'm not complaining about the ref's call. I'm complaining that it's not a legitimate position for him to be able to make a call on a pass play. It's impossible."
Whitworth didn't want to take anything away from Miller and Dumervil.
"They're as good as it gets," he said. "I'm happy I didn't give up a sack to either of them, but the penalty ticks me. I blocked him well. My feet were there and I stopped him and somehow I got a hold."
DEBUTS: It was a debut for two Bengals rookies, but not the way anybody ever thought they would come down.
No 1 pick Dre Kirkpatrick didn't take any snaps from scrimmage at cornerback, but he played on special teams and had a tackle while free-agent outside linebacker Emmanuel Lamur played several snaps at SAM backer in both the regular and nickel defenses with three tackles and a pass defensed.
Kirkpatrick was called for an offsides penalty on the kickoff following the Bengals taking a 20-17 lead in the first minute of the fourth quarter and everyone held their breath. Nugent drilled the kick far enough so Holliday downed it instead of breaking his 105-yard record. Nugent did it again on the re-kick, which had Kirkpatrick breathing easier.
But he indicated he didn't agree with the call.
"No comment on that," he said.
Kirkpatrick's debut also included being on the field for Holliday's touchdown and even though he said it wasn't near him, he said he should have made a play.
"He's fast, no doubt," Kirkpatrick said. "It was away (from me), but I should have been there. Even though I was in the right position, you still have to make the play."
Kirkpatrick, who played special teams at Alabama, said he didn't mind breaking in that way. Especially with his family in the stands.
"Any way I can help the team, I don't care – I just want to play football because that's my dream," he said. "I told my son I wanted to play, so any way he can see me out there, it makes me happy."
But the national champs didn't lose many like this in his college career.
"We played our hearts out," he said. "We played good and that's all we can do because like the old saying says, sometimes you're good, but it ain't just good enough. We've just got to keep striving and keep pushing."
MORE CHAIRS: Bengals linebackers coach Paul Guenther loves his young guys. Throw Lamur in there with rookie WILL backer Vontaze Burfict (six more tackles as the Bengals stacked up Denver running back Willis McGahee on 2.9 yards per carry) and Guenther had no problems going up against an icon named Manning with his two undrafted rookies.
That's because, he says, they're so young and so fresh in the league that they have no bad habits and do whatever he says. When Lamur got the call Friday from the practice squad to fill the spot vacated by end/linebacker Dontay Moch's trip to the non-football illness list with migraine headaches, there wasn't as much scrambling as there was two months ago when Burfict had to switch positions when Thomas Howard tore his ACL.
The 6-4, 232-pound Lamur, who played safety early in his Kansas State career, has been working at both SAM and WILL. But he still got the chair treatment Friday just like Burfict did when Guenther took him into the gym and set up chairs so he could identify offensive formations. The coaches didn't want to put too much on Lamur's plate, so they devised a couple of packages for him.
"I was basically doing whatever Coach told me to do. I wanted to stay disciplined out there today and just do what I always do," Lamur said. "We have been watching film of him all week. Disguising our coverage was a big emphasis all week because Peyton is a beast out there. We tried to disguise our stuff a lot today."
Lamur showed why the Bengals think he has a bright future on a second-and-10 from the Denver 48 midway through the second half: he can run.
Wide receiver Eric Decker tortured the Bengals over the middle with eight catches for 99 yards, but Lamur ran with him down the seam on this play and turned his head just in time to bat down the pass.
"A regular zone play; just reading the receiver," Lamur said. "As soon as he turned his head, that's when I snapped my head back. The ball came out quick. Just quick reaction.
"I was just trying to have fun. Play hard and compete against the guy across from me."
MIXED BAG: Nugent had an up-and-down day. He missed the 46-yarder wide right at the end of the half that would have helped and he hit the wedge down the middle to Holliday. But in the second half he also hit a huge touchback after a penalty wiped one out, as well as two clutch field goals from 49 and 41. But he couldn't get a good roll on the onside kick try with 52 seconds left.
Nugent was 3-for-4 on the day for field goals and it was only his second miss on 16 tries this season. He said it was just like the 41-yarder he missed at PBS against Miami on Oct. 7.
"Just another push; exact same thing," Nugent said. "Babied it. Tried to guide it. Stop thinking, just hit it, that's all."