Like the two punts that bounced off Darius Phillips' hands and gave the 49ers 10 of their 26 points in Sunday's gut-wrenching 26-23 overtime loss at Paul Brown Stadium, the Bengals know they muffed two huge chances in the last week to move into first place in the AFC North.
"It's frustrating," said Bengals slot cornerback Mike Hilton of the locker room mood. "These last two weeks we kind of dug ourselves in deep holes that we weren't able to get out of. Its two losses we feel like if we play to our standard we should win those games."
Heightening the frustration along with the two fumbles is a taunting call on defensive captain Vonn Bell that cost them at least four points after a third-down stop in the red zone, and the offense unable to score touchdowns on four of five trips in the red zone.
Yet even though the 7-6 Bengals slipped out of the playoff picture and dropped three spots to No. 9 in the seven-team field, they remain just one game behind the first place 8-5 Ravens. While the Ravens lost back-to-back division games, the Bengals played both at home against two west coast teams and committed six turnovers in losing both.
"Turnovers, again. They killed us this game. It happened to us last game," said rookie wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase after his best day since Oct. 24 with two fourth-quarter touchdowns "Turnovers have been killing us. So that's something we have to adjust to."
SECOND THOUGHTS: The difference in the game may have been uttered by Bengals head coach Zac Taylor. The 49ers got it in the hands of their best player, tight end George Kittle, with three of his 13 catches and 38 of his 151 yards coming on the winning drive. Taylor was left wondering if he put the ball in his best player's hands in overtime.
He had just watched Burrow hit nine of 13 passes for 161 yards in the fourth quarter after passing for only 138 yards in the first three quarters. After Burrow took the overtime's opening drive to the 49ers 26 on passes of 26 and 23 yard to wide receiver Tee Higgins and tight end C.J. Uzomah, respectively, the Bengals handed it off twice to Mixon for seven yards to set up third-and-three from the 19. Burrow dropped back, couldn't find anyone initially on a quick throw and started to scramble before sack ace Nick Bosa, bull-rushing backup right tackle Isaiah Prince (in there because apparently Riley Reiff re-aggravated an ankle injury) and got to Burrow for the 49ers' fifth sack and second for Bosa.
"Yep. Yep. I agree with you," said Taylor when asked about sticking with a quarterback's hot hand. "That's one that will keep you up at night. We have a quarterback that can win us a lot of games, and there's maybe one more pass instead of a run there. Sure, if we hit that run, I feel great about it. But we didn't. And so then you go back to hindsight, and I'm sure I'll feel a lot of that tonight."
He also may be recalling that on Higgins' catch-and-run on the first play of OT, Ambry Thomas, one of the backup cornerbacks that had to start, went off with an injury.
"It's hard to say," said Burrow, when asked if he had any regrets about not being more aggressive at the end. "Like I said before, whatever plays are called you've got to execute. Every play is a chance of scoring a touchdown. It's just how you execute."
JOLTIN' JOE CONTAINED: While the fumbles and the OT caution were being put under the microscope, this decided the game more than anything:
The Bengals could only manage 86 yards on 26 carries even though Burrow counted every 49ers look but one as double high safeties dropping in Cover Two zone. The only single-high safety look yielded a deep shot to Chase that barely missed being a 37-yard touchdown pass.
"Teams are daring us to run the ball lately," Burrow said. "They were able to maintain their two-high shells and put a guy in the box to defend the run. And in that second half, we began to figure it out a little bit and were able to throw the ball all second half. We weren't able to pull it out."
Burrow said the coaches made an adjustment that allowed him to go off in the fourth quarter.
"The O-line was checking when they were playing two-high, and you've got to take what's underneath," Burrow said. "You do that enough, then they're going to close that shell a little closer to the line of scrimmage and you can take those aerial shots."
GIFT POINTS: Phillips hurt his shoulder in the scrum after he lost his first fumble at the Bengals 23. He returned from the locker room to return a punt eight yards before muffing another one at his 31 that turned into a touchdown and horrific 17-6 halftime deficit instead of Burrow getting a shot with 57 seconds left to cut into a 10-6 lead.
"We just need our guys to step up and make some plays and put that one behind us. And unfortunately it happened twice," said Taylor, who benched Phillips after that and went with the No. 3 man on the depth chart, starting slot receiver Tyler Boyd.
Because of the precarious state of his cornerbacks (Trae Waynes wasn't activated from injured reserve and Chidobe Awuzie missed last week's second half with a foot injury), Taylor opted to inactivate the guy who returned punts last week without incident when Phillips was inactive, wide receiver Trenton Irwin. Awuzie ended up playing 82 percent of the plays.
"There were a lot of roster issues that we just had to manage," Taylor said. "Overall, we were dealing with some injuries to where we structured it the way we structured it just to get the guys on the field that needed to get on the field."
HENDRICKSON BACK INJURY DOESN'T LOOK MAJOR: The Bengals lost double-digit sacker Trey Hendrickson in that ill-fated last drive of the first half with a back injury that doesn't appear to be serious but it's still early.
Hendrickson was having a big game against 49ers Pro Bowl tackle Trent Williams with his NFL-best ninth straight game with a sack. He also got a first down negated when Williams held him on a third-down rush.
Without Hendrickson, the Bengals still got five sacks with one each in the fourth quarter on consecutive drives from tackles Larry Ogunjobi, B.J. Hill and a team sack.
"We rallied together for him," said left end Sam Hubbard. "Cam (Sample) did a good job stepping in. Wyatt (Ray) did a good job. Our interior did a good job with B.J. and D.J. stepping up. It's a collective effort to get pressure on the quarterback and we kind of rallied for Trey and hope he's doing well."
SLANTS AND SCREENS: Years ending in one are pretty good for Bengals rookie receivers. Chase finished the day with 60 catches for 1,035, seven catches shy of Cris Collinsworth's club rookie record set in 1981, and 22 yards shy of A.J. Green's rookie receiving yards set in 2011. His 10 TD catches break Isaac Curtis' 48-year-old Bengals rookie record.
Wide receiver Tee Higgins had 114 yards for his third straight 100-yard game, the first Bengals receiver to do that since Green went for five straight in 2013 … Higgins is on pace for 1,061, which would give the Bengals their first 1,000-yard pair since Chad Johnson and T.J. Houshmandzadeh did it in 2007.
Running back Joe Mixon now has 1,036 yards after his 58 yards on 18 carries Sunday, 132 yards shy of his career-high.
It's the first time the Bengals have had three overtimes in the same season since going 1-2 in 2013, their record this year.
Check out some of the best images from the Bengals vs. 49ers in Week 14 of the 2021 NFL season.