A.J. Green scores the second of his two touchdowns.
CHICAGO — If any of Sunday's NFL openers were coin flips, it was Bengals-Bears.
Two 10-6 teams from 2012. The sixth-ranked Bengals defense vs. the fifth-ranked Bears. The Bengals Pro Bowl wide receiver vs. the two Bears Pro Bowl cornerbacks. Even special teams were splitting hairs with the most dangerous punt returners in the game, Cincinnati's Adam Jones and Chicago's Devin Hester.
But the Bengals never thought they'd lose like this.
Not with the first-year Bears coaching staff the beneficiary of gaffes from Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis's veteran crew.
Not with Cincinnati's proud defense that set a franchise record for sacks last season getting blanked while Bears quarterback Jay Cutler converted four of six third downs in the second half and keeping the ball the last 6:38.
Not with Cincinnati's prized, sure-handed starting receivers, A.J. Green and Mohamed Sanu, each losing the handle for two of the three turnovers that turned into 14 points. Not with the two-time Bengals postseason roster rattled with two killer personal fouls. Not with outgaining the Bears and thrashing them, 21-10, by keeping the ball more than 23 of the game's first 37 minutes.
"We killed ourselves. Shot ourselves in the bleeping foot," agitated defensive tackle Domata Peko said after watching his team melt down in the fourth quarter. "At least we got a feel for our team. For three quarters we dominated the game. As far as defense goes we held them to 97 yards in the first half. We just have to finish games out."
No Bengals team has ever gone to the playoffs starting 0-2. But two of the last three playoff teams have survived Opening Day hardships. This fourth-quarter loss wasn't as stunning as the Spike Strike against Denver with 11 seconds left in 2009 and Sunday wasn't as devastating and thorough as last year's 44-13 dismissal in Baltimore.
"We've got to stick together, that's probably the No. 1 goal at this point. We have to stick together as a team," said cornerback Leon Hall, the No. 1 victim of the Spike Strike who helped rally his team to a sweep of the AFC North. "It's tough to lose an opener no matter how you lose it. By 50 or by five. We felt really good coming in and we're leaving here disappointed."
Disappointed isn't the word. There was a sense of waste in the befuddled postgame locker room. For most of the day the offense could do no wrong against a very good defense.
Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton and Green were on the same Pro Bowl page with Green churning out 162 yards on nine catches and Dalton converting seven of 11 third downs on 26-of-33 passing for 282 yards and a 97.2 passer rating.
Green was at his unstoppable best during the second-best day of his career. He confounded Pro Bowl cornerback Charles Tillman long (he beat him deep for plays of 42 yards, a 45-yard touchdown and a 34-yard pass interference penalty) and short (a wide-open two yard touchdown on a third-down pivot route), but he turned out to be the poster child of the loss midway through the second quarter.
He had Tillman beaten for what would have been a 21-yard catch over the middle in traffic into the red zone at the Bears 17. But it went off his hands into Tillman's right behind him. That was before Green got his left hand dinged and had to get it taped.
"Took my eye off it," Green said. "This is a tough one. We handed it to him."
Like Peko, Green saw enough to think he knows how good this team can be.
"This team is going to be crazy once we stop killing ourselves," Green said.
And deep. Anthony Collins came off the bench for Pro Bowl left tackle Andrew Whitworth and kept future Hall of Fame pass rusher Julius Peppers off the stat sheet.
"That's my job; not to have his name called," Collins said. "We can't have a game like that. Not like that. And we all took a part in it."
Lewis took the blame for the defense blowing three timeouts in the second half, the last two on back-to-back snaps midway through the fourth quarter so that the Bengals were out of them with 8:06 left. One came after Cutler scrambled on third-and-seven and shotputted a 30-yarder to wide open tight end Martellus Bennett. The other two were after WILL backer Vontaze Burfict was struggling with what may have been a quad injury after he took a helmet to the knee following his interception.
"There was a little confusion," Burfict said. "One I was out and Vinnie (Rey) came in. It was a miscommunication and it's something we have to practice during the week."
The Bengals have just five backers on the roster in the wake of the season-ending injury to their best cover backer Emmanuel Lamur and played safety Taylor Mays on some of the longer third downs.
"With the injuries we had (at backer) they were a little confused by the different personnel, and that's my fault," Lewis said.
But Lewis wasn't going to take blame for what transpired in the last 1:43 of the half, when the Bengals basically handed the Bears a 58-yard field goal with 11 seconds left when they couldn't manage the clock from their own 12 and the Bears having just one timeout left.
Asked why the Bengals threw it on second down and stopped the clock on an incompletion, Lewis said he was looking for points.
"You want to pull our pants completely down and not play at all right before halftime?" Lewis asked. "I've got to give them a chance. They've got a timeout left, there's enough time on the clock that they ended up getting a field goal anyway. I'm trying to make a first down. I just don't want to give up, or you'd be writing the other side of that story."
If there was a feeling of waste, the other side of the story is that there was also a sense of surprise that the battle-tested Bengals let the Bears get to them. Cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick hit receiver Eric Weems on the sidelines after Weems took a shot at him for the penalty that gave the Bears the room to kick the field goal, and Lewis said middle linebacker Rey Maualuga's roughing penalty on rookie right tackle Jordan Mills that would have given the Bengals the ball back with under a minute left should have been offsetting.
"Unfortunately we had a lot of guys lose composure today. We can't do that. For whatever reason, today we didn't get any offsets," Lewis said. "Their guy hit our guy out of bounds late on our sideline, but we can't retaliate. We know that. It's not what our team does. And unfortunately today we let them get under our skin. We let that happen twice today and we can't do that. We can't beat ourselves like we did this afternoon."
Peko agreed. He was surprised that the Bengals listened to the talking. But then, he was also surprised at a few lapses on defense in the second half after they dominated the first half. Cutler kept the winning drive alive when he scrambled up the middle for 18 yards on second-and-20, and two snaps later on fourth-and-one the left side of the defense gave up an eight-yard run to running back Matt Forte on a stretch play.
Cutler, too, seemed surprised the Bengals were in "two-man," so that there was no one covering the quarterback even though Lewis talked about Cutler's ability to move during the week.
"They called it four or five times today. We beat it a couple times. It's going to happen," Cutler said. "There's more two-man in this league over the last couple years. Defenses like it, especially on third down. It's just part of the league now. We just need to be ready for it. Like you said, they don't account for the quarterback. Whenever I'm able to run and bust it up, it hurts them."
Pro Bowl tackle Geno Atkins, working at times against rookie Kyle Long, didn't have a sack and was credited with no tackles and one quarterback hit. The Bears didn't look to do much max protection if it all, just the usual diet of play-action to slow down the rush. The best rush of the day came when right end Michael Johnson hurried Cutler into Burfict's interception over the middle.
"He made that scramble and made a couple of big plays," Atkins said. "We've got to get four hats to the ball and not let him scramble. That gave them momentum and they were able to continue the series. It was a tough game to lose. Lost it in the fourth quarter … we couldn't get them off the field on third down."
But if there was surprise at how it all unfolded, there was also a sense that the Bengals did it to themselves and not because they lack talent. Burfict, who solidified his standing as a team a leader with a thoroughly gutsy performance before and after the injury, echoed Hall's call to stay together.
"I feel like we had control until the end of the third quarter," Burfict said. "They didn't change anything. I don't know what it is. As all of us leaders, we just need to get in the film room tomorrow and have a chat without the coaches and figure out how to prevent this."