For the third time in four seasons (hamstring, great toe, ankle), A.J. Green, the Bengals' best player, finished the season on injured reserve Monday. They hope the next time he surfaces on transactions it's announcing a new long-term contact, but first things first.
Monday's move ended one of the toughest chapters in team history that began almost five months ago when Green tore his ankle ligaments during the first 45 minutes of training camp. Despite Green's rehab effort and the hope he'd be back for the second half of the season, the ankle never responded the way he and the team wished and with players needed for Sunday's finale against the Browns (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Local 12) at Paul Brown Stadium, the final twist has been done.
"Nothing is unbelievable anymore," said Bengals head coach Zac Taylor of the saga that coincided with the first moves of his first job. "You just have to take each thing as it comes, just not get overwhelmed and just keep persevering through them. A.J. has done everything he could to get back and he just wasn't able to do it this year. The time off these next couple weeks will certainly help him. We'll figure the other stuff out later, but that's just the way it's been."
Three players look questionable for the finale. Starting cornerback William Jackson re-aggravated a shoulder problem and is undergoing MRIs. Cornerback Tony McRae and wide receiver Stanley Morgan, Jr., are both in concussion protocol. File Morgan's injury under "No Good Deed Goes Unpunished." It was Morgan's leap into a swarm of bodies that made the on-side kick work with 29 seconds left and he took the shot to prove it even as linebacker Jordan Evans was falling on the ball at the Bengals 46.
It was that successful onside kick from Randy Bullock, which Taylor calculates the odds at six percent since last year's rules changes, that hung in his mind Monday afternoon.
"The percentage of that (kick) happening is not good. For Randy to do it like he did it, and Stanley to go make the play like he did to go keep the thing alive — that's where he got the concussion — and then for Jordan Evans to come up with it," Taylor said. "I'm standing right there. It felt like that ball was on the ground for an hour, and then you watch the tape and (Morgan) just tipped it and (Evans) recovered it immediately. But it didn't feel that way when I watched it live. The effort the guys gave is just remarkable. There are some moments you'll look back on and be fond of, but ultimately we'll remember that we didn't get it done."
FRED PITCHES SHUTOUT: Rookie Fred Johnson made his debut as an NFL left tackle Sunday. Even though Cordy Glenn started, he took just 31 percent of the snaps while Johnson took the rest and profootballfocus.com gave his pass-blocking the highest among Andy Dalton's protectors. Taylor wouldn't rule out starting him in the finale, but he'll definitely play there again as the Bengals appear to eye him as a swing backup behind left tackle Jonah Williams and right tackle Bobby Hart.
"He showed some positive signs. We'll continue to give him more work this week," Taylor said. "We'll make a decision on how much that is, but he's a young player that has done really well in practice. He did really well on the tapes we watched when we claimed him. He certainly has all of the size and the traits you look for in a tackle, so we felt that it's important to evaluate him. He's earned those reps, and he'll earn some more reps against Cleveland."
Johnson, who signed with the Steelers after going undrafted out of Florida, was claimed by the Bengals when Pittsburgh cut him early in the season. He's an interesting, massive guy (6-8, 325) with enough athleticism that they called a pass for him in Cleveland two weeks ago. The Bengals have been using him as an extra tackle in the three previous games, when he had 16 snaps. According to profootballfocus.com, 45 of his 62 snaps on Sunday came on the pass and he and Hart (who played all 90) were the only offensive linemen not to allow a pressure.
BOY OH BOYD: Wide receiver Tyler Boyd and quarterback Andy Dalton were graded the Bengals' top two offensive players by PFF. Boyd was relentless with nine catches for 128 yards, one a brutally tough fourth-down touchdown over the middle from three yards out with 29 seconds left, one of the dominoes that had to fall. Then he came back to make Dalton's fourth and last touchdown pass to tight end Tyler Eifert possible with a 29-yarder in the middle of the zone.
But he made the play of the game after that as the clock ran to four seconds and he cramped up. If he went down, the game was over because there is a 10-second run off for injury. He knew enough to get up, line up for the spike at four seconds, virtually crawl off the field for a play and then come back for the tying two-point conversion that Dalton ran in.
"For him to be able to process it in that moment, whether he remembered or not, and for his teammates around him to remind him — everyone knew he had to get up or else the game was over," Taylor said. "If he lays down, it's over because of the 10-second runoff. Game over. For him to get up, get in position, and to get off the field for the next play, was remarkable for him and the guys around him."
WILSON STILL LEADS: While on injured reserve, Bengals kick returner Brandon Wilson has extended his lead over the Bears' Cordarrelle Patterson for the NFL kick return title and leads by 31.3 to 29.5 heading into the last game of the season. With the Bears in Minnesota Sunday, Wilson tries to become the first Bengal since Adam Jones in 2014 to win the kick return title. Mike Zimmer's Vikings are 27th in covering kicks but held Patterson to no returns earlier this season.