JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Never mind the loss. It doesn't matter.
The Bengals' starters and key reserves did what they wanted to do – dominate the Jacksonville Jaguars in the third preseason game and final dress rehearsal Sunday night.
The Bengals rolled up a 21-3 lead before the preseason roster fill-ins gave it away in a 26-21 loss. Now if the Bengals can avoid any more injuries and find enough healthy offensive linemen, they should be in good shape for the season opener Sept. 11 at the Jets.
Andy Dalton & Co. outgained the Jaguars 125 yards to 14 in the first 17 minutes and raced to a 14-0 lead just two minutes into the second quarter.
"It was a good outing for us," Dalton said. "Two touchdowns in the first half of a preseason game is pretty good, and we got them both ways (passing and running) ... It's a good feeling to do it both ways."
Dalton finished six of 10 for 77 yards with no interceptions. Gio Bernard and Jeremy Hill each scored a touchdown and pounded the ball. Bernard had 52 yards - 27 on three carries and 25 on two catches. Hill had 49 yards - 21 on eight carries and a 28-yard catch.
The defense held the Jags to 90 yards in the first half. Their first three drives ended in turnover, three-and-out, three-and-out.
The worst news - much worse than blowing the lead - was Cedric Peerman's fractured left forearm. The special teams Pro Bowler may be lost for the season after giving a stiff arm on a running play. And the wounded O-line may have lost another player when backup center T.J. Johnson suffered a possible concussion.
"It's unfortunate guys have injuries, but you can't worry about that," Dalton said. "You've got to worry just about the stuff you can control."
There were no serious injuries to the starters, but A.J. Green bruised his knee midway through the first half and limped off. And Adam Jones strained his calf in warmups and didn't play. Both said they could have played if it were the regular season and they should be ready for the opener.
Undrafted WR Alex Erickson surely clinched a roster spot with another outstanding game. The rookie from Wisconsin had a 21-yard TD catch from AJ McCarron in the third quarter to go with 57 yards on two punt returns, 31 yards on a kick return and 8 yards on an end around. Erickson now has two receiving TDs plus 167 yards and one TD on four punt returns.
WR Brandon LaFell caught one pass in his Bengals debut. Signed in free agency to help replace Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu, LaFell also drew a pass-interference penalty that set up a score. Second-round pick WR Tyler Boyd, vying to start opposite Green, had a 9-yard reception.
Just three minutes into the game, LB Rey Maualuga stripped Jaguars RB T.J. Yeldon and LB Vinny Rey returned it 16 yards to the Jaguars' 22. Dalton then combined with Bernard on a 19-yard catch-and-run for a TD.
The offense came right back with an 18-play, 69-yard drive capped by Hill's 1-yard run early in the second quarter.
"I do feel faster this year because I feel healthier," Hill said.
With some of the Bengals starters already on the bench, the Jaguars (1-2) got a 29-yard field goal and made it 14-3 at halftime.
It took just 50 seconds for the Bengals (1-2) to score in the second half on Erickson's catch.
The rest of the game was a nightmare for the Bengals coaching staff. McCarron and the roster fill-ins at QB had to run for their lives as the makeshift backup line couldn't slow down the Jaguars' rush.
The defense wasn't any better, and two Jacksonville TDs and 2-point conversions later, the Jaguars had cut the Bengals' lead to 21-19.
Then the Bengals gave it away in the fourth quarter on a 62-yard pick-six by Hayes Pullard off fourth-string QB Joe Licata.
The Bengals have a short week, hosting the Colts Thursday night in the final preseason game. Don't expect Dalton to play, and most if not all of the starters may sit out as well.