MIAMI — In a stunning display of moxie, miscues and misfortune, the Bengals 22-20 overtime loss to the Dolphins that ended their four-game winning streak showed how quickly the sands of the NFL can shift into quicksand.
With less than a minute left in regulation and leading 20-17 on the heels of a Mike Nugent 54-yard field goal, the Bengals looked like they were about to repeat the month's road miracles in Buffalo and Detroit when everyone made all the right moves after Michael Johnson had sacked Miami's Ryan Tannehill into a second-and-17 from his own 17.
But the depleted Bengals defense let Miami get off the hook and into overtime, where Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis decided against a 57-yard field goal. His field-position play backfired on the next snap on cornerback Terence Newman's deliberate 38-yard pass interference penalty that prevented Dolphins wide receiver Mike Wallace from getting behind him for a touchdown.
So instead of answering questions about how crisply all three phases came together at the end of the game as he has for the past month, Lewis had to answer why he passed on the field goal (field position) and what he thought of the safety call (not much).
"We had a chance at it. Fifty-seven yards … there was a slight breeze. I just felt better about pinning them down defensively and going away that way," Lewis said. "Obviously we let the big play get out of there and that changed the field position. So I just felt better about putting it on the defense to stop them and getting the ball in better field position for the offense."
Lewis was in the minority because most thought Dolphins defensive end Cameron Wake had cleanly sacked quarterback Andy Dalton on a stunt that featured him slanting to the middle of the line and beating right guard Kevin Zeitler to the inside.
The Bengals never figured out how to block Wake all night. He came in with 2.5 sacks and had a three-sack night as the Bengals allowed a season-high five.
"In my opinion, the quarterback wasn't … the ball was out of the end zone," Lewis said. "I don't know. That's a quick look at the board. (The officials) got a little better resolution to look than I do."
Enough that NFL Vice President of Officiating Dean Blandino went on the NFL Network postgame show at about the same time Lewis was meeting the press to uphold the ruling.
"The key is the position of the ball in relation to the goal line when Dalton is first contacted by Wake. We had a great look at it - a look right down the goal line," Blandino said. "When Wake first makes contact with Dalton, the ball is breaking the plane of the goal line. If any part of the ball is breaking the plane when the contact occurs, and he is driven back into the end zone, it is a safety. That was the ruling. It was reviewed in replay and confirmed. The entire ball has to be out of the end zone when the contact occurs for it not to be a safety."
Working on a third-and-10 from his 8, offensive coordinator Jay Gruden was going for it.
"We picked up the blitz fine. Kevin got the rush across his face and Andy never saw him," Gruden said. "I wanted to try and get the first down. There was (6:38) left in overtime. I felt like trying to get the first down was the right thing to do there. Unfortunately they made a play and we didn't."
How quickly can things change in the NFL? Hometown hero Giovani Bernard put on another scintillating prime-time performance adding two touchdowns Thursday night to his two from Monday night against the Steelers to go along with career-high 79 yards on nine carries. And his 35-yarder with 12:37 left in the game was truly one off the old highlight reels, a reverse-the-field-crazy-legs-where-did-he-go dance that tied the game at 17.
But he carried only one more time for the rest of the night. Gone with bruised ribs.
"Any time you draw that up and it's not there, it's nice to have someone that can make a couple of guys miss," Gruden said. "Three or four people and take it to the house because in this league it's very difficult to run the ball for a lot of yards unless you have somebody that can do something at the second level. It was good to see."
How fast does it change? Cincinnati's two best defensive players are cornerback Leon Hall and two-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Geno Atkins. Both look to be gone for the year after it's feared Atkins tore the ACL in his right knee late in the first half Thursday. Hall tore his Achilles in the last road game.
How fast? The Bengals defense came in flexing its muscles as the eighth-best defense in the league, but now it doesn't have its rock up front and is bruised from Miami's 157 rushing yards.
"You hate to see Geno go down. Two of our best defensive players go down the last three ballgames," Newman said. "It's tough, but this team has had adversity before. Fight through it. You need the next guy to step up and from what I can see whoever went in there (Brandon Thompson), did a good job. ... You just have to keep your head down and do your job."
Domata Peko, left in the two-man tackle rotation with Thompson, a 2012 third-round draft pick, helped hold the Dolphins to 15 yards rushing in the second half after they had romped for 142 in the first. But his mind wasn't far from Atkins
"We're still trying to get over that," Peko said. "It sucks because he's one of the best. He is a big part of our defense. He is a hell of a player."
How fast can it change?
Just think of the offense. It was rolling. Just four days before the Bengals had scored on all five trips into the red zone on Dalton's career-high five touchdown passes. Thursday night they scored just once on three red-zone trips with Dalton throwing one of his three picks in there, just the second red-zone pick of his career against 45 touchdown passes, second-best among active quarterbacks.
It was one of those 14-point swings. Just moments before, one of those Marvin Jones plays the Bengals had been getting all month, a physical catch-and-run touchdown, this one for 50 yards, had been nullified on tight end Jermaine Gresham's holding call.
Instead, there was cornerback Brent Grimes in position to outwrestle Jones for the ball and take it 94 yards the other way midway through the third quarter.
Instead of tied, 10-10, the Bengals are down 17-3 and somehow the ball slipped out of the hands of the man who had been named AFC Offensive Player of the Month that morning and the ball went short and behind Jones.
"I had the look, the ball just slipped out of my hand. I know that's not an excuse but the ball honestly did," Dalton said. "I put it behind him. The one spot you can't throw that ball and that's exactly what happens when you throw the ball behind him. Grimes made a great play on it and took it for a touchdown. It's unfortunate that it happened right there; it's all on me, we had a good scheme and the play was the right play call but I just missed it."
Dolphins defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle, the former Bengals secondary coach, dialed up some blitzes, but he also played a mix of coverages and made sure the receivers didn't beat him deep. Enough so the Bengals backs ran it 30 times for 151 yards, just the second loss in 18 games Dalton has run it at least 30 times.
At the end, the Bengals had 465 yards of offense and kept the ball 40 minutes. But it was turnovers (four), sacks (five) and drops (at least five) that had Gruden shaking his head.
"We threw the ball 50-some times. I didn't see a whole lot of pressure. I saw a couple of good sacks," Gruden said. "The first three drives in the second half we went up and down the field. I think we were moving the ball fine."
And in overtime the Bengals had a second-eight from the Dolphins 39, but wide receiver Mohamed Sanu had a drop that would have gotten the Bengals in kicker Mike Nugent's range. Sanu was one of many Bengals playing hurt. He didn't practice in the one extended workout this week and was questionable coming in, but he caught six balls for 62 yards and had some big third-down conversions. He also had a shot to win it late in regulation, but he dropped Dalton's perfect throw at the Dolphins 14 and it was intercepted.
"You hate to see drops, but you also can point to some of the great plays they made," Gruden said. "A.J. (Green) made a couple of unbelievable catches and Mo had some great catches. There were a lot of positives to take away from this game. It's s not an easy game road in a short week and we battled our butts off."
How fast can it change? For a month it was only victories. Thursday night the Bengals were looking for silver linings.
"This is a tough one, we've been winning these games the last several weeks but we played hard," Dalton said. "I think that's one of the biggest things that we can take from this game: we weren't quitting at any time. If we can keep that attitude, keep playing hard, and just make a couple more plays I think the outcome could have been different but we didn't do that tonight."