Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow stalked his first road victory and first fourth-quarter comeback all in Sunday's final drive in downtown Indianapolis at Lucas Oil Stadium.
But a fellow rookie Burrow never saw ended all that with his interception at the Colts 10 with 39 seconds left to seal Indy's 31-27 victory. The Bengals, who had a 21-0 lead after the first play of the second quarter, had never lost the six games they had at least a 21-point lead after the first quarter.
Burrow, who threw for 313 yards for the fourth 300-yard game of his six-year career, said the Colts were blitzing and in quarters coverage on third-and-six from the Colts 35 and "we saw something." What he saw was slot receiver Tyler Boyd running down the seam, but he didn't see rookie safety Julian Blackmon undercutting the route.
"I knew he was over there somewhere. I didn't know he was that tight," said Burrow after completing 25 of 39 passes for a 78.9 passer rating that yielded the biggest plays in the Bengals passing game this season. "I have to make a better play, make a better decision. Tough one."
Blackmon, a third-rounder out of Utah, sensed it.
"I definitely had a feeling that he was going to go back to the slot," Blackmon said. "All game they were gassing us with some good yardage. They were just trying to get him comfortable in the offense, so they were giving him easier throws. We fixed it in the second half and made the play on that on the last play of the game."
THIRD DOWN BLUES: It was a game of third downs. The Colts came into the game with the NFL's sixth least successful conversion at about 35 percent. The Bengals allowed Colts quarterback Philip Rivers to convert seven of 11, five of them at least third-and-seven, and two of them on third-and eight and third-and-nine on their last drive for their killing field goal.
Meanwhile, the Bengals couldn't convert two key third-and-ones. They didn't run it on one and they couldn't run it on the other. On the third snap of a second half they tried to recoup the first half momentum, Burrow took a shot at wide receiver A.J. Green over the middle and cornerback Xavier Rhodes knocked it away.
"I told Rhodes to stop grabbing me on that one," Green said. "He definitely grabbed me. He got away with it. But Rhodes, he's a great corner, man. I've been going against him since he's been in Minnesota. It's always a great match-up."
Then on third-and-one and the Bengals at the Colts 30 and the clock ticking to eight minutes with Indy leading, 28-27, Bengals head coach Zac Taylor opted to give running back Samaje Perine his first carry of the season out of the fullback spot and the play was stopped. On the next snap Randy Bullock had his string of 12 straight field goals snapped when he hit the right upright on a 48-yarder.
"Just a fullback dive," Taylor said. "I felt like he was best suited for that job."
GREEN GETS IT BACK: The only good thing to take away from it is that while Green had his best game since nearly two years to the date rookie wide receiver Tee Higgins had his first 100-yarder.
On Oct. 21, 2018, Green had 117 yards at Kansas City. On Sunday, after the worst five-game stretch of his career, he had a season-high eight catches for 96 yards as Higgins went six catches for 125 yards.
Four of Green catches went for huge conversions, including a fourth-and-nine over the middle right at the sticks on the game's last drive a few moments before the pick. Also in the fourth quarter he converted a third-and-nine with vintage Green footwork on the sideline. He vowed to make up for last week's frustration session and he did.
"This is probably the best my body has felt. Just getting my confidence back and playing like my old self," Green said. "I think basically just physically and then mentally comes second. I had the hamstring (injury) coming in a couple of weeks, so for me, to get my body back feeling where I can go out there and explode and just go out there and play without thinking coming off the ankle (injury). I think for me, I'm in a great space mentally."
This is what they had drawn up in the offseason, but they came in with just a league-low nine pass plays of at least 20 yards this season. But they had four Sunday, including Higgins' 67-yard grab that was their longest play since Green's 70-yard TD in Tennessee on Nov. 12, 2018.
Wide receiver John Ross III was active for the first time in a month and hardly played.
OLD MAN RIVERS FLOWS: It has to be hard for the Bengals to believe that all last week media and fans had left the 38-year-old Rivers for dead. Well, then the Bengals saw a Hall of Fame ghost. Fourteen years ago he put up 239 yards and 42 points in the second half of the Chargers comeback win at Paul Brown Stadium for the Chargers. On Sunday, he actually did more than that in the first half when his 267 yards wiped out a 21-0 deficit and brought the Chargers within 24-21 at the half. It's the most yards for Rivers since he went for 424 against the Chiefs in the 2018 opener.
Bengals free safety Jessie Bates III, who played with those old school Chargers on his Madden game, wasn't happy with his defensive backs after the Bengals held the Colts to 18 yards rushing on seven carries in the first half.
"Your one goal is to stop the run and our upfront, they did a hell of a job stopping the run. I think they were rushing yards at halftime," Bates said. "It's up the DBs. It's up to the DBs, that's all I got to tell you."
Bates did come off the Madden game for his first interception of the season to set up the missed field goal, a huge play that was overshadowed because it came in the middle of two mishaps by the normally reliable Bengals' specialists. Bates' seventh career pick negated Kevin Huber's 28-yard punt, but Bullock couldn't make it stand up.
D-LINE ROTATION: The Bengals stuck with veteran Carlos Dunlap coming off the bench on third down with end Sam Hubbard out. They started Amani Bledsoe in his sixth NFL game and first at end after starting one at tackle. For the second straight game eight-time Pro Bowler Geno Atkins didn't start and he played 18 snaps after he took 19 in last week's season debut. Asked if his shoulder injury has regressed, Taylor said Atkins played on third downs.
The tackle who took the majority of the snaps was newcomer Xavier Williams and the six-year vet had quite a Bengals debut on 34 snaps, the same as Christian Covington, the two starters. After cooling his heels nearly two weeks because of Covid protocol, he made it worth the wait. He started, recovered the team's first fumble of the season on the second snap and later added the only sack of Rivers. It was one of only three hits on Rivers, the other two by end Carl Lawson.
Bledsoe (29 snaps) and Williams (34) played more than Dunlap (28) and Atkins (18), a pair that leads active NFL tandems in sacks.