The 7-5 Bengals may have missed a golden chance to move into a first-place tie in the AFC North when the Steelers stunned the Ravens in a division that is as wild as it can get with the 8-4 Ravens still leading the Bengals by a game and the 6-5-1 Steelers back on the Bengals' heels.
But the Bengals are still very much in it even though first place slipped through their hands like the two fatal turnovers that fell out of the hands of their more reliable playmakers directly into the arms of the Chargers during Sunday's 41-22 loss at Paul Brown Stadium.
Is it too cliché to ask what a difference a week makes after last Sunday's 41-10 win over the Steelers?
On the Bengals second series rookie wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase dropped a certain 71-yard touchdown pass into the hands of cornerback Michael Davis for a hard-luck Joe Burrow interception.
That was a dagger. A 14-point play when Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert kicked off a touchdown drive on the next play when he hit 6-4 wide receiver Mike Williams for a deep ball on a jump ball over 5-9 slot cornerback Mike Hilton that connected for 47 yards to set up a 16-0 lead.
But the killer came with the Bengals driving for at least the go-ahead field goal with 13:43 left at the Chargers 34 on second-and-two and down just 24-22.
Then, the same Joe Mixon that had racked up 328 straight carries without a fumble, the same Joe Mixon that has racked up two of the four longest Bengals' streaks of rushing attempts without a fumble since 1990, the same Joe Mixon who had fumbled just five times and lost only two in six seasons of nearly 1,200 touches, lost a fumble.
It came when the Bengals appeared ready to finally punish the Chargers' last-ranked run defense. Mixon had just ripped off an eight-yard gain, widening a perimeter zone run to the left. Then Mixon came downhill behind an extra tackle on the right side with double tight ends.
But defensive tackle Christian Covington, who played for the Bengals last season, blew up the play coming from the left interior. It looked like he got a hand in just as Mixon went into his devastating jump cut. It rolled right to cornerback Tevaughn Campbell, playing in place of the injured Asante Samuel, and he went 61 yards for the touchdown, carrying the game with him.
Mixon promptly went to the media room and took the blame.
"I just remember a twist inside, a twist game. Somebody was free," Mixon said. "I don't know if I had the ball all the way yet, I have to see the film, but it was a turnover that shifted the momentum. I take full responsibility for that because end of the day, no matter what the play was, that shouldn't happen. I take full responsibility of it. I got to get better on ball security."
Mixon's last fumble came in last year's opener against these Chargers, stopping a skein of 541 straight. He famously said in the spring he watched that play 100 times. It sounds like he'll do at least that now.
"Just got to watch it and see what exactly happened. I don't know what happened all the way," Mixon said. "Just got to figure it out and go back to doing the little things on the drawing board. If it was nothing I completely couldn't do then I guess take it for what it is. I put that on me, I don't know exactly, got to watch the film and got to go about it figure out exactly what happened."
HARD YARDS: The Bengals' ground game that was supposed to knock the last-ranked Chargers run defense back into their time zone never materialized from the get-go. Clearly the Chargers designed ways to slow it down with five-man fronts. But still, they had allowed five games of at least 170 yards rushing and Mixon came in as the third-best rusher in the NFL and off two games he had gone for 288 yards on five yards per carry.
So Sunday's big surprise was Mixon had just 54 yards on 19 carries. And just 18 on 10 carries in the first half. After his seven-yard touchdown run cut it to 24-22 with 7:10 left in the third quarter, Mixon tried the right interior for a tying two–point conversion and got stoned by the suddenly ubiquitous Covington. And that was from the 1.5-yard line after a Chargers penalty.
With center Trey Hopkins and right tackle Riley Reiff inactive with ankle injuries, they tried to make it work with rookie center Trey Hill and right tackle Isaiah Prince in their first starts at those positions for the Bengals.
The Chargers run one of the more multiple defenses in the league, anyway, and it appeared they tried to move around up front in an effort to confuse Hill. When it looked they were getting the running game going in the first half, two of Mixon's best runs of the half, each of eight yards, were negated by holding calls on Hill. Also in the half, Burrow had a third-down conversion wiped out on Prince's hands-to-the-face penalty.
"The protection overall wasn't good enough. That's not 100 percent on the offensive line; there were some communication there that's got to take place," Taylor said after Burrow was sacked a season-high six times. "It's frustrating, because we had some third-and-longs when we had efficient plays. We got two penalties early on from our center and right tackle off of good plays that put us in a tough spot, and that's just going to be part of the group of guys coming in. We've just got to learn from that and move on."
CANDID ZAC: Taylor was hardest on himself. There were two communication snafus in the first half that got Burrow visibly heated on one and Mixon giving an exasperated illegal procedure signal even though it was a delay of game on the other. Burrow had just thrown a 29-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Tee Higgins to cut the lead to 24-6 when Taylor opted to go for two.
But he had to call a timeout and when they tried to do it again, they still couldn't get the play in and took a delay of game.
"Horrific (management) by me. Horrific, horrific, horrific," Taylor said. "We were going for two, and so we were a little slow making sure we had the right personnel on the field. When I made that mistake, I was going to call timeout and put the ball on the hash (mark), wait and see what personnel they were in, so I ended up calling the play backwards and I tried to correct it at the last second and ended up taking a delay of game. So it was just horrific management of a situation by me twice coming out of a timeout. We ended up having to take a delay of game, and ended up missing the extra point on top of it."
The one at the end of the half, the Bengals had a third-and five from their own 46 as the clock ran down from about 10 seconds and Burrow was trying to clock it. But time ran out and Burrow yanked off his chin strap on the way to the locker room. Mad, it seemed later, at himself.
"That one was partly on me. I was yelling 'clock,' it was third down," Burrow said. "Just a miscommunication on all ends."
Taylor again took the blame.
"There might have been too much on the clock, (so) if we don't convert, they get the ball back," Taylor said. "So that was a difficult one to communicate in the moment. The guys on the field were going to clock it — we were trying to get into a pass — and that confusion for three, four (or) five seconds costs you when there's only 10 (left). It's kind of a rare third-down situation we were in right there. The communication is critical (and) it's got to be crisper from me to make sure that we're all on the same page and make sure we're all getting one call, and I'm trying to change it, essentially. That's just bad ball (management) on me."
SLANTS AND SCREENS: Wide receiver Tee Higgins was immense for the second straight week. A week after getting a season-high 114 yards and becoming the first Bengal since 2010 to have five catches of at least 15 yards, he followed it up with a career-high nine catches on 138 yards. And here's a guy that didn't care what the score was. After he injured his ankle on the Bengals' last full drive of the game, he gutted out the last three catches with a limp.
"I feel pretty good. It was my ankle," Higgins said after the game. "Probably just a little tweak. Nothing ice and stim can't fix." ...
Mixon's TD gave him one in nine straight games, one off Carl Pickens' club record and trying A.J. Green …
The Bengals had at least four sacks for the third time this season. Right end Trey Hendrickson extended his Bengals record to eight straight games with at least a full sack when he got one to up his season total to 11.5, two off Carlos Dunlap's club record …
The Bengals by far had more injured players on Sunday they have all year. The immediate sense is that no one is out for the rest of the year, but there are going to be guys that miss some games. Leading tackler and middle linebacker Logan Wilson got carted off with a shoulder injury after covering a punt in the second quarter. Another linebacker, Markus Bailey, left earlier than that. Cornerback Chidobe Awuzie injured his ankle making his second interception of the season late in the first half....