CINCINNATI – Following Sunday’s win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Marvin Lewis didn’t look like the head coach of a team that is 5-3 heading into the bye week and very much alive in the AFC North division race.
Lewis’ level of satisfaction with his team isn’t exactly high at the moment, and it’s difficult to blame him for that.
The Bengals continue to be their own worst enemy at times, but they also should get credit for still being in this advantageous position despite injuries and other issues of their own doing.
On Sunday, the Bengals led 21-0 late in the first half. They held the NFL’s top-ranked offense relatively in check while carving up the Buccaneers’ defense for 307 total yards to build a 27-9 halftime lead. But in the end, it took a 44-yard field goal with five seconds left by Randy Bullock into the teeth of a gusty wind to salvage a 37-34 win.
Afterward, the celebration was muted.
“It’s good to win, but disappointing to let the football team back into the game,” Lewis said. “We’re going through some things. I’m pleased that we won, not pleased with how we played.”
Heading into the bye, the Bengals’ season could have been headed in one of two directions: Either coming off a win over the Buccaneers to reverse fortunes and revive hopes, or with three straight losses after a 45-10 drubbing at Kansas City last week and a heart-wrenching loss at home to the Steelers the week before.
Players refrain from calling games “must-wins”, but Sunday’s game was about as close as it gets. The Bengals badly needed a win, and fortunately for them Tampa Bay came to town bearing gifts.
Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston, who had six interceptions coming into Sunday’s game, nearly had three in the first quarter alone. Safety Shawn Williams dropped the first opportunity, but picked off his second chance. Linebacker Preston Brown also had an INT in the quarter.
The Bengals’ offense, which had a season-low 239 total yards in the loss to the Chiefs, took advantage of a banged-up Tampa Bay defense to reach the end zone three times in the first half.
Offensive coordinator Bill Lazor’s scheme installed this past offseason is designed to put more focus on the running game, but the Bengals managed only 127 yards on 32 carries the past two games. They were looking to reverse that trend on Sunday.
On the first play from scrimmage on Sunday, Joe Mixon burst through a hole at right guard for an 18-yard gain. That set the tone for a first half in which Mixon had 14 carries for 114 yards on 14 carries and two TDs.
Mixon, however, had only seven carries for 9 yards the rest of the game.
“We went through a lull there in the second half,” Lewis said. “being able to grind and dedicate ourselves to running the football, weren’t getting done.”
The opportunistic Bengals defense held its own, intercepting Winston for a third time when linebacker Jordan Evans slipped underneath for the pick.
Jessie Bates returned Winston’s fourth interception 21 yards for a touchdown to make the score 34-16.
Winston’s 10th interception of the season was the last pass he would throw on Sunday with Ryan Fitzpatrick replacing him on the next possession. The former Bengal passed for 194 yards and two touchdowns in relief of Winston, including a 72-yard TD pass to Mike Evans.
“We know he’s going to scramble around and we know he’s going to jack the ball deep, you’ve got to understand that,” said Lewis. “That’s what we told them … and we still allowed him to do it once.”
For the second straight week, the Bengals allowed more than 500 yards of total offense. On Sunday, they allowed scoring plays of 60 and 72 yards.
“I’d rather do that in a win than give up that and lose,” said safety Shawn Williams. “I know it’s stuff we can correct. It’s not a lack of talent or lack of coaching. We just have to correct our mistakes. We never want to give up big plays.”
Injuries aren’t helping. The Bengals’ inactive list was lengthy heading into Sunday’s game and the injury concerns became more dire when linebacker Carl Lawson suffered what was reported to be a season-ending ACL injury.
The Bengals’ Jekyll and Hyde offense showed up again on Sunday.
After producing 307 yards in the first half, the Bengals had only 95 after halftime. The Bengals had four straight three-and-outs in one stretch in the second half, opening the door for a Buccaneers’ comeback.
“That’s where it’s disappointing,” Andy Dalton said. “Offensively, we didn’t play the same way we did in the first half and we weren’t getting first downs, and in that way it’s disappointing. But we won. To be 5-3 right now is huge.”
Yet, the Bengals were so close to being 4-4 with their postseason hopes teetering on the brink after starting the season 4-1.
With the lead cut to 34-26, Mixon dropped a screen pass on third-and-16 with 3:22 left. Almost on cue, Tampa Bay drove for the tying touchdown, an 18-yard TD pass to O.J. Howard on fourth-and-3. The subsequent two-point conversion tied the score 34-34 with 1:10 left.
The Bengals offense rose up, with Dalton going 3-for-4 on the final drive including completions of 23 and 11 yards to A.J. Green to give Bullock a reasonable chance to atone for an earlier missed extra-point in a swirling wind.
Dalton finished 21 of 34 for 280 yards and two touchdowns. He drove the Bengals 50 yards in a little over a minute for the winning points.
“The fact that the quarterback continues to play at a very high level, continues to run the offense, handle the situations and understand it, live to play the next play, deliver accurate throws, that’s really important,” Lewis said. “Our guys came up with big plays to put us in range for the field goal.”
A “game-winning” field goal. The Bengals did win, right?