The Bengals defense played well enough to win Sunday.
BALTIMORE - The fact the Bengals still had a shot to tie Sunday's game in Baltimore with 65 seconds left is as mystifying as their 3-7-1 record.
Chalk it up to a resourceful defense, quarterback Andy Dalton's tenacity that spawned some clutch throws, and a will that has been hardened by five straight post-season runs. But in the end, the mystery was solved. If you can't win with A.J. Green then winning without him is a monumental task.
And still, still, the Bengals were right there with five trips inside the Ravens 20. But they could only score one touchdown when two would have won it and if that doesn't sum up a three-game losing streak by a combined 10 points, then what does?
"We just keep finding a way to screw it up for ourselves," said Pro Bowl left tackle Andrew Whitworth.
With half their offense out with injury in the persons of Green and running back Giovani Bernard against the NFL's No. 1 rush defense, the stat sheet was predictable. They didn't have a play longer than 25 yards, running backs Jeremy Hill and Rex Burkhead combined to rush for less than three yards per carry, and Dalton was sacked three times.
"I thought everybody gave it their best. I thought the team was a team," Whitworth said. "Both sides of the ball were pushing each other to be better We just didn't make enough plays."
What you couldn't predict was the mayhem in the red zone surrounding Dalton's two lost fumbles, including the last one at the Baltimore 16 with 1:05 left.
Or Baltimore's Justin Tucker spoiling a gritty defensive effort helped pitched by young guys named Shaw and Fejedelem and another Pro Bowl effort by linebacker Vontaze Burfict with three first-half field goals of at least 50 yards.
Or the almost surreal sight of four of Dalton's last eight passes getting batted back in his face like LeBron pinning the NBA title against the backboard.
But then, hasn't this entire season, which threatens to be the first losing one under Green and Dalton, been surreal?
"It's hard to believe. We've spoiled Bengals fans around here. They've been winning for the past five years, so to win three games, we weren't expecting that," said nose tackle Domata Peko. "All you can do is work your way out of it … We just have to dig ourselves out of it. We were hoping to get one back here, but it just didn't fall our way."
What has in a season they have found a way to lose to the most average of teams?
"You take Geno (Atkins) and Burfict away from the defense," Whitworth said. "It's a huge hole losing Gio and A.J. I read something that's 50 percent of our offense. That's a lot. But we can play better."
Whitworth isn't so sure better play would have prevented the tipped balls down the stretch. Here the beleaguered Bengals offensive line has had trouble all year against the pass rush, but this time a defense stop rushing to beat them. The 6-6 Terrell Suggs and 6-3 Matthew Judon timed leaps over Whitworth to get their hands on balls. Judon and 6-7 Brent Urban went inside jumping over left guard Clint Boling to get two others.
"It's the two-minute offense and they're sitting in there waiting and jumping like most teams do," Whitworth said. "They were trying to prevent the quick passes underneath. What they do in that situation is they play deep so you won't throw it over their heads and the D-linemen jump up and try to block all the short passes."
Dalton and CBS analyst Dan Fouts, the Hall of Fame quarterback, agreed. They're not sure they had seen anything quite like it.
Andy Dalton (right) and Tyler Eifert clicked on a huge fourth-down play late.
"They probably weren't rushing very hard so they put their hands up, and it worked," Dalton said. "I guess it's the nature of we just had to throw the bal. They weren't getting there; they were just getting their hands up."
Dalton didn't have an explanation for it, but he did for what was probably the biggest play of the game, his lost fumble on the Ravens 16 early in the second quarter with the Ravens leading, 10-3. The Bengals got the ball there, ironically as it turned out, on left end Carlos Dunlap's second deflection of the game and 10th of the season that fell into middle linebacker Rey Maualuga's arms at the Ravens 19.
Two snaps later Dalton was staring at third-and-seven and what seemed to be about 100 Ravens at the line of scrimmage milling about for one of the many all-out blitzes they featured Sunday. As Dalton appeared to check into a play and protections, he didn't expect center Russell Bodine's shot-gun snap and it bounced off his chest and out of his hands and to the Ravens.
"It was miscommunication. It was my fault," Dalton said. "I've got to make sure everyone is on the same page up there. The ball got snapped, I've got to be ready."
His other red-zone fumble, the crusher with 65 seconds left when outside linebacker Elvis Dumervil got around right tackle Eric Winston wasn't his fault and completed the hat trick of three strips and sacks.
It also underlined one of the glaring problems of this season. Although first year right tackle Cedric Ogbuehi appeared to play better Sunday, they are still rotating him with the veteran Winston and they each gave up one sack-and-strip in the last two drives, Ogbuehi's coming to Suggs on the outskirts of the red zone at the Ravens 23.
When the Bengals were beating the Ravens five straight the previous three years, that just didn't happen, even to Suggs and Dumervil, the two most prolific sackers in the game today.
While Winston sat with his eyes closed in full uniform, the Ravens celebrated Dumervil's return from five weeks on the inactive list.
"All game, it was a hard-working game. I kept getting to the edges," Dumervil said. "I tried to bull rush, and it was just the ball coming out. A sack [can happen only if] everything just has to align. It was one of those situations where he held it just enough, and I was able to get to him."
With the loss of Green, Pro Bowl tight end Tyler Eifert has become the No. 1 target and although he had only two targets for no catches in the first half (including a mis-timed throw in the end zone when they had to settle for a field goal), Eifert came alive with five catches for 68 yards in the second half that included a massive 13-yard catch on fourth-and-three with 1:21 left to put the ball on the Ravens 16.
"We called a play with two concepts on both sides and the coverage dictated where the ball goes," Eifert said. "I felt like we were getting there and we were going to go into overtime and for whatever reason we came up short. I don't know if things aren't going our way or we're just not making anything happen.
"In this league it's going to be close. You have to make plays and for whatever reason we made them last year."
Dalton called it a typical Bengals-Ravens game coming down to the fourth quarter. But this time the guy that caught a 51-yard Hail Mary to put it into overtime in 2013, caught a 77-yarder with 4:58 left to win it in 2014 and caught a seven-yarder with 2:07 to win it last year wasn't here.
"They came out, and they came out to win. They played a tremendous game," Suggs said. "We finally got over the little Bengal hump. They didn't have (Green). I wish he was out there. I'd like for them to be full go (with) A.J. Green. But also, you've got to be careful what you wish for, so we'll take it, man. We'll take it."
The Bengals will take Green.
Cincinnati Bengals take on the Baltimore Ravens in week 12 of the regular season 11/27/2016