Whether they end up calling it the "Central Avenue Freeze out" or the "No Brainer Freeze Bowl" or whatever, Sunday's 34-30 loss to the Super Bowl champion Saints becomes the logo of the Bengals' fall from AFC North champs to a team that would have the second pick in the draft after their ninth straight loss dropped them to 2-10.
"Physically we won, but the score didn't say so," said left tackle Andrew Whitworth.
The postgame frustration boiled. From the head man to the star receivers all the way down to the kid kicker that tied the game with a monstrous 47-yard field goal but missed an extra point. The stat sheet says the Bengals won, but the training camp mistakes erased it. The big plays were negated by the little things.
Although the Bengals allowed 244 yards on just five plays, they were still headed to overtime until a big mistake in short yardage. And they could have taken control of the game if they picked up inches on fourth down from the New Orleans 5 with 3:32 left in the first half.
The little things always turn out to be as big as the big plays.
The Bengals had the ball five minutes longer than the Saints. They held New Orleans' first-in-the-league third down offense to one first down on eight snaps. Their quarterback didn't throw an interception for the first time in five games. They didn't turn the ball over for the first time since their Sept. 19 win against Baltimore. Their first two draft picks played big against the champs. They got their longest punt return of the year, second longest kick return, and two punts inside the 20.
The Bengals even won the battle of the killing punt penalties. On the first drive of the game, they forced the Saints to punt but New Orleans got a life when linebacker Brandon Johnson ran into Thomas Morstead and the Saints got a field goal out of it. Yet when the Saints had too many men on the field when the Bengals punted, Cincinnati cashed it into a tying touchdown with 8:08 left in the game.
But too many breakdowns and not enough timeouts made it too sloppy to overcome.
"You look at a guy playing nine or 10 plays, and he plays pretty good football," said a clearly frustrated Marvin Lewis. "And then we have one play, and we're not overcoming that one play. We have a young tight end who makes fabulous plays, and then he drops the ball right in his hands because he's running before he's caught it. You've just got to go through those things. And then he gets a little bit confused with the substitution, and that's part of it. But we've got to overcome it and just keep doing it, doing it, doing it. The guys have to keep doing it in that situation until it becomes second nature."
What made the head coach particularly exasperated is that when defensive tackle Pat Sims got drawn offsides on fourth-and-two on his own 7 to allow Saints quarterback Drew Brees to win the game, it was something that had been covered a few days before.
"They're trying to draw us offside there. We've been through that. I showed the guys that on tape. I started the meeting on Wednesday," Lewis said. "It was about the fourth or fifth play I showed them. To me, it's pressing more than anything. I don't know if confidence comes into pressing as much because I don't think you think about it. I think you just press. And you try to press through it, and you do things that are out of your element that you don't need to do. They're playing their tails off, but we're not playing winning football at crucial moments."
As frustrated as Lewis is, so are his players.
"It's frustrating when you feel like there are opportunities that are left out on the field and they aren't being taken advantage of," said wide receiver Terrell Owens, who had his ninth touchdown catch but the longest play of his six balls for 47 yards was a 20-yard catch-and-run.
"It doesn't matter; I don't care if I'm 46 or 47, dude," said Owens, who turns 37 Tuesday. "I ball when I'm out there. All I want are opportunities. It's getting frustrating because, yeah, we're two-and-whatever, and there are opportunities out there. Take advantage of the situation. Everybody's frustrated, but I feel like I can be part of the solution as well. Go back and watch the film. I can play this game. There ain't nobody I feel can stop me when I'm out there. That's just confidence; it's not arrogance. Everybody can listen to what I say and say that I'm arrogant, and that I'm trying to create some controversy or distraction. It's not a distraction. The film doesn't lie — watch it. I'm not a scrub, by any means. The only way you can stop me is to play Cover 2 — play somebody over the top — and they did that sometimes. But when there were opportunities one-on-one, I can exploit those matchups."
The only receivers who did any exploiting were Brees' band of brothers that stunned the Bengals on four passes of at least 42 yards. Wide receiver Robert Meachem pulled a double move on cornerback Jonathan Wade for a 52-yard touchdown catch early in the fourth quarter, just 1:25 after the Bengals had cut the lead to 20-19. Then just 1:19 after Clint Stitser's 47-yard field goal gave the Bengals a 30-27 lead, Meachem broke their backs with a 42-yard catch on a deep crossing route into a zone off the same play-action fake to set up the winning touchdown.
One step forward. Two steps back.
"It was run-heavy look," said Saints head coach Sean Payton of the last big play. "It was a similar-type play to the one we ran for a touchdown earlier. Drew did a good job of bringing him away from the safety."
The safeties, Roy Williams and Chinedum Ndukwe, had a rough day. If Williams looked like he didn't get there on that one, Ndukwe couldn't make the play on Brees' 52-yard floater over the middle to tight end James Graham with 50 seconds left in the half that set up Garrett Hartley's field goal that made it 13-6. Safety George Iloka saved the touchdown with a diving tackle at the 12.
"I should have had that," Ndukwe said. "Drew Brees is pretty good. He put it right in there. I took a bad angle."
The defense has now allowed 16 plays of at least 30 yards and a league-leading 16 runs of at least 20 yards.
"Every play is different," said cornerback Leon Hall. "Sometimes it's just execution error, sometimes it's you've got to make the play. It's just different things. We've been working on not giving up those big plays. Those five, you can't take away from the game, obviously, but without them I think we played pretty well."
The Fox crew broadcasting the game called out Ndukwe on the Graham play and running back Chris Ivory's 55-yard touchdown run on a simple bolt up the middle earlier in the half that gave the Saints a 10-3 lead. But Ndukwe said the defense was lined up correctly. And the breakdown looked to be in the interior as Ivory popped out of the scrum with every defender within five yards of the line of scrimmage on an all-out blitz on first-and-10.
"It was a good call for what they did; he creased it," Ndukwe said and left end George Iloka said, "Someone wasn't where they were supposed to be."
The Saints always seemed to have somebody there, especially on that fourth-and-one from the New Orleans 5 with 3:28 left in the half and the Bengals trying to take a 13-10 lead. The Bengals loaded up with a heavy package and defensive tackle Domata Peko as the fullback, but as Clint Boling ventured left "I got hit by three dudes" for a one-yard loss, he said. Palmer says fourth-and-one is no time to be calling audibles and the quarterback sneak wasn't as inviting as it looked.
Until that point, the Bengals had made a league-leading 11 of 12 fourth-down tries.
"That's how they play defense in a short-yardage situation," Palmer said. "They overload one side and it leaves a gap that looks inviting. And it looks like something you can take advantage of, but they do a really good job of pinching that gap once the ball is snapped. That's how they play goal-line defense. One of the coaches had a stat they were No. 1 or No. 2 in the league in short-yardage situations, and they're good in that goal-line defense and they do make some things look appetizing at the line of scrimmage. But as soon as the ball is snapped the defense closes certain holes. They're very good at it. We learned that today."
Except for the last play of the half and game, the Bengals did a good job keeping the Saints blitz away from Palmer. The word was in the Saints locker room that the Bengals kept their backs in to block more in the second half. The Saints also said they showed the Bengals the same look on the last play of the game as they did on the last play of the half but the Bengals didn't adjust and Palmer was sacked both times.
But he had enough time to ring up a 101.7 passer rating on 23-of-33 passing for 249 yards and got the Bengals into the red zone six times against the NFL's seventh-best defense. He came up with some big throws, particularly to his rookie tight end Jermaine Gresham. He's becoming more and more at ease with his No. 1 pick. Moments before Benson got stopped on the 5, the Bengals worked a fourth-and-one pass for 23 yards when Gresham caught a ball one-on-one against safety Roman Harper on a short pass over the middle and ran it most of the way.
"(Harper) gave me an outside look, I went inside and Carson threw the best ball you can throw; we split 'em," Gresham said.
But Palmer raved about how Gresham made the right read on the two-point conversion pass that tied the game at 27 with 8:08 left. He hasn't always done that (i.e. interceptions against the Colts and Jets), but he was right where Palmer needed him to be on a bullet over the middle just over the goal line.
"It looks better when you're right, doesn't it?" Gresham asked. "They were waiting for me to come to them, so I just sat down right there. I stopped and Carson put it on the money."
The second round pick is paying off, too, with left end Carlos Dunlap coming up with 3.5 sacks in the last two games, 1.5 on Sunday, including a huge 15-yard drop of Brees that set up the tying field goal.
"Big-time players show up in big-time games," said Dunlap, now leading the team with 4.5 sacks. "There have been some big-time games that we thought we definitely could win, and I didn't want to be one of those guys that left a play out on the field. Every time I get (an opportunity) out on the field, I go out there and try to make (the most of) it."
Like Palmer with Gresham, one of Dunlap's elders, Geathers, predicts big things for him.
"He's got some good moves. He's long, fast, once he gets some more reps he's going to be a good player in this league," Geathers said. "The biggest thing I think that took him so long is mentally. Once he gets that going at this level, he'll be a good player."
Which made Sunday all that much more frustrating. The Bengals basically have the same team as last year, and now the kids are coming on. And everyone keeps making the same mistakes that aren't tolerated in OTAs.
"How can you say anything is getting better when you lose nine in a row?" Owens asked. "I've never lost nine in a row. I don't know what it is. I feel like sometimes I can be a part of the solution. I just go on with the plays that are called. Offensively, we're just not getting it done. We can't worry about anything (other than) execution on the offensive side of the ball when we have to outscore opponents in these situations. I don't know what positives you can get out of losing nine in a row. I've never done that before. I don't think I've ever done this before, even dating back to college. It sucks."