After the wave of nausea finished washing through those first numbing minutes, the Bengals locker room began to cope with just having watched a playoff spot possibly slip through their fingertips by the barest of inches and flinches in Sunday's 20-19 loss to the Texans during a surreal stunner at Paul Brown Stadium decided on rookie quarterback T.J. Yates's six-yard touchdown pass with two seconds left.
The bad taste of irony lingered. The improbable Bengals playoff run fueled by rookie quarterback Andy Dalton's four fourth-quarter comebacks had been preempted by Yates, the fifth-rounder from North Carolina making his second NFL start and first on the road.
It was a day that only former Bengals wide receiver Kevin Walter could tie the game with that six-yard catch and only former Bengals kicker Neil Rackers could win it with the extra point.
"It sucks," said middle linebacker Rey Maualuga, "to look up at the scoreboard and see we lost by one point when we knew we had the game in the palm of our hands."
The mistakes piled up like cordwood and in a playoff stretch run that becomes a fire hazard as the Bengals lost for the fourth time in five games. They got burned with false starts, fumbles and harried and sloppy play down the stretch to get beat by a rookie on the road without his top receiver or timeouts, and now the 8-5 Jets have replaced the Bengals as the sixth and last AFC seed with 7-6 Cincinnati relegated to hoping teams lose.
"I can't even put it into words how bad this hurts, especially being in it until eight seconds left," said safety Chris Crocker. "We just had so many opportunities. I can't event put a word on how much this hurts. It was just one of those games where there were missed opportunities time after time after time. It was our own fault. We put ourselves in bad positions. Offensively and defensively, we just made critical errors all day long. And that's why we lost this game.
"A rookie quarterback beat us today. He did it with both his arm and his feet. I don't even know what to say. Wow. I don't even know what to say."
Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis felt so confident about this team's ability to survive crunch time that he declared after Friday's practice that this was the biggest game in his nine seasons here.
But in the end, he found himself talking about the same laundry list of errors.
The Bengals couldn't get touchdowns on two first-and-goals inside the 10. One drive was stopped on the six-inch line because of a false start. They turned over what would have been the clinching turnover. They false-started when they had Houston offsides with 2:34 left on fourth-and-one. Houston mounted scoring drives of 83 and 80 yards in the fourth quarter.
"There were a lot of plays before then that didn't help either," Lewis said of the fourth-quarter nightmare. "We ended up on the goal line and had a procedure penalty, and there were some others. We had some mistakes that we have to (correct) because we are taking points off the board. We made big plays and were not following them up and getting touchdowns. That's the big difference for us right now — finishing drives and getting touchdowns. On the other side of the ball, we have to win on third down. Looking at all of the areas, those are the two that kept us from winning today."
The game was summed up with 11:50 left in the game and the Bengals leading by nine when Maualuga, truly stepping up with two huge forced fumbles, separated 230-pound running back Arian Foster from a screen pass six yards behind the line of scrimmage.
Defensive tackle Geno Atkins scooped up the ball at the 14 and fellow tackle Domata Peko thought that was "the dagger in the coffin." Center Chris Myers punched it out from behind, but outside linebacker Manny Lawson and safety Reggie Nelson were there to fall on it at the 5 until they knocked it from each other and Texans tackle Eric Winston fell on it at the 2.
Lawson could only shake his head.
"Both Reggie and I were going for the ball and everyone on our defense is ballhawks. If there's a ball on the ground, we're going to try and scoop it and make a play," Lawson said. "Somehow we got our hands on it at the same time and one was puling one way and the other was pulling the other way. It's like the ball had a mind of its own and it got away from us."
Which is exactly what happened to the game. The defense came in saying if it outplayed the NFL's second-ranked defense, the Bengals would win and this was their chance.
From the 2-yard line Yates took dead aim at the middle of the soft Bengals zone coverage and hit six of his first six passes on the drive for 77 yards to get the field goal to cut it to 19-13, and then he went 80 yards in the last 2:31 that included a 17-yard scramble when the pocket collapsed on him and the defensive line couldn't haul him down.
Shades of the Ghost of Christmas Eve past in Denver in 2006 when rookie quarterback Jay Cutler beat the Bengals on a 99-yard drive.
"When you look at the percentages … ," Lawson said of going 80 yards to win it.
When the carnage cleared, the Bengals had allowed 412 yards to a Texans team without Matt Schaub and Andre Johnson.
"Those were two special drives," said Bengals left tackle Andrew Whitworth. "They proved how good of a team they are. There's no doubt about that."
And really, until then, the defense did what it was supposed to do. For the most part, it kept the running game in check enough that the Texans would end up smashing their run tendencies with 44 passes. The defense also enjoyed its first four-turnover game of the year against a team that had allowed just 11, and it had a season-high five sacks split among six guys.
But Yates killed the middle of the field for 300 yards passing. He killed them softly. His longest completion was 27 yards as part of tight end Owen Daniels's 100-yard day. That is quite a tagline for a top 10 defense. The 300-yard games the Bengals have allowed this season are to Yates and Seattle's Tarvaris Jackson.
"We've got to get off the field," said left end Robert Geathers. "If we want to be a great defense, that's the situation we have to answer the bell and we didn't.
"We can't let him score going 80 yards. We have to get off the field somehow some way. If we want to be a great defense, a top-tier defense, we've got to find a way to win that game. That's what great defenses do."
But the Bengals found out the hard way that they're not. And it was made tougher by the Lewis declaration about being the biggest game ever.
"We knew coming in this was going to be a must game," Peko said. "We heard about what (Lewis) said and that's how we came out. Now we can't sit around worrying about teams losing. We have to get a win."
How crushing was this one? It almost had the hint of finality.
Running back Cedric Benson is waiting to see what happens with the other teams.
"Back to work. We've got to finish strong and see what happens," Benson said. "We're trying to finish with three wins and be proud of what we did this season. We've come a long way. Young quarterback. Young receiver. Different scheme on offense. Shorter training camp. Different structure of guys with a lot of rotating."
But there was still a little bit of nausea.
"We have to learn how to finish," said Whitworth, who could be talking about seasons as well as games. "And we didn't do that today."