CINCINNATI — It’s over — at least figuratively.
Six games remain and the Bengals remain mathematically alive, but the season ended in an ugly, ugly 16-12 loss to the Buffalo Bills Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium.
The streak of five straight playoff appearances will end barring some sort of miracle. And the Bengals have no one to blame but themselves. Sunday’s game was a microcosm of the season: Missed assignments, terrible tackling, penalties, two missed extra points and a failure to seize the moment.
The Bengals clearly had to win to keep alive hopes of the playoffs. The degree of difficulty went up more than a couple notches when their best player, A.J. Green, got hurt on the second play.
For the umpteenth time this season, the Bengals could not pass a significant test.
It was Buffalo at home, not New England on the road, so it’s hard to underplay the significance of the loss. The Bengals are 3-6-1. Winning out isn’t likely to get them to the playoffs. And winning out seems like a distinct impossibility after Sunday’s performance.
“It’s disappointing to not win that football game,” coach Marvin Lewis said. “There were opportunities both on offense and defense to get more done. We left it out there — we had a turnover, not making plays out there defensively. We had penalties at the wrong time.”
Andy Dalton was uncharacteristically off in the second half. He had chances to convert third downs on the first five drives of the second half. He missed his man badly on all five. Those drives produced a total of 37 yards.
He did move the Bengals in position to win in the final drive, but his Hail Mary into the end of the final play fell incomplete. The drive was set back by a holding penalty on Clint Boling on a 12-yard gain on a screen.
“I don’t how you get a holding a screen,” Lewis said. “That was a big, huge play in the game.”
But the Bengals' time management was semi-clueless.
Before that final drive, Dalton was 2-for-10 for six yards in the second half.
“At the end of the day, we’ve got to get it done,” Dalton said. “There’s not much to say about it. We’ve got to find a way to play our best at that point in the game.”
Frustration has set in.
“Hell, yeah,” cornerback Adam Jones said. “Who wants to lose? I’ve only had one losing season since I’ve been here. Yes, it's tiring. It's depressing. It’s nerve-wracking — whatever you want to call it. You come in and work your butt off putting in countless hours, of course it’s frustrating.”
The Bengals have not won a game since Oct. 23. But they did not come out like a group with their backs squarely against the wall. Dalton was sacked on the first play. Cedric Ogbuehi false started on the second play. Green failed to pull in a pass — and got hurt — on the play.
Things got no better after the three-and-out. The Bills went 80 yards in 4:23 to take a 7-0 lead. LeSean McCoy went untouched for last seven yards.
The Bengals’ answer was just as impressive as the Bills’ start. The offense went 75 yards in 13 plays. Rookie Tyler Boyd was key in the passing game in the Green’s absence.
Dalton ran in it from two yards out for the touchdown. Mike Nugent raised the mounting concerns about him by missing the extra-point kick.
The defense responded like the offense, giving the ball right back to the offense.
But just when it looked like the Bengals might take control of the game, they made a huge misplay - a hallmark of this season. Dalton tried to hit Brandon LaFell in the left flat. Cornerback Stephen Gilmore jumped the route like he knew what was coming. He returned it 49 yards to the Bengal 4. Giovani Bernard’s tackle prevented the TD. The defense then held the Bills to a field goal.
The offense responded again, going 66 yards in 13 plays. Boyd again was key. He caught a 1-yard pass on third-and-goal for the TD — his first as a pro.
Nugent missed the PAT again.
“I didn’t hit them good enough to make them,” he said. “On a windy day, you’ve got to be able to read it and hit it correctly. Don’t hit the ball up in there in wind and give it a chance not to go between the uprights.”
The Bengals brought in kickers a couple of weeks ago. Lewis would not say if they’ll do it again. On Monday, he said Nugent would keep his job but he has to kick better.
Still, the Bengals had a 12-10 lead.
Dre Kirkpatrick’s interception at the Bengal 1 prevented Buffalo from going into the half with a lead. But Dalton threw an interception of his own on the ensuing drive.
The Bills did take the lead with a field goal on the first possession of the second half. They pushed it 16-12 with a field goal on their second possession of the half.
That’s how it ended, despite the six possessions the Bengals had with a chance to take the lead.
The team remains surprisingly upbeat and confident. The locker room afterward wasn’t somber.
“You go through ups and downs through the season,” defensive tackle Domata Peko said. “But you’ve got to stay on the grind, keep pushing, keep working. I have no doubt in my mind about my teammates. We’re all going to keep working, keep pushing. Next week, we’ve got the Ravens. They’re No. 1 in our division. It’s a big week for us.”
So was this week.
John Fay is a freelance sports columnist; this column represents his opinion. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.