CINCINNATI – You can’t win a gunfight when you’re shooting yourself constantly in the foot.
That, sadly, has come to describe these 2021 Cincinnati Bengals. Forget the Broncos, Ravens, Chiefs and Browns. The toughest opponent left on the Bengals slate is the Bengals. And to quote the great Bill Parcells, it’s not close for second.
Sunday should’ve been all about Joe Burrow finding Ja’Marr Chase twice in the fourth quarter for touchdowns that brought the Bengals back to a 20-20 tie with just over a minute left.
When the Bengals took the opening drive of overtime and drove to San Francisco’s 26 with a first-and-10. This game should’ve been over. The Bengals, with the hot hand of Joe Burrow, were going to punch it in the end zone and give the Bengals a desperately needed win in a game they had no business winning through three quarters.
Instead, Brandon Aiyuk finished off San Francisco’s only drive of overtime with an 11-yard touchdown with 1:53 left in overtime, giving the Niners a 26-23 win and leaving the Bengals in a daze.
Burrow completed passes of 26 yards to Tee Higgins and 23 yards to C.J. Uzomah to put the Bengals in great position to end the game with a touchdown.
Then Zac Taylor decided to do what amounts to a huge favor to old friend Kyle Shanahan. He took the ball out of the hands of his best and hottest player, something you just never do.
The Bengals ran Joe Mixon right for four yards, and off left tackle for three before depending on his porous offensive line to protect on third down. Burrow was naturally sacked by Nick Bosa and the Bengals settled for a 41-yard Evan McPherson field goal and a 23-20 overtime lead. Why not go for the jugular and go for the end zone and end the game?
“Whatever play call is called, we’re going to execute to the best of our ability,” Burrow told me. “We made a good drive there, we just weren’t able to open up.”
“That’s one that will keep you up at night,” Taylor admitted. “We have a quarterback that can win us a lot of games, and there’s maybe one more pass instead of a run there. Sure, if we hit that run, I feel great about it. But we didn’t. And so then you go back to hindsight, and I’m sure I’ll feel a lot of that tonight.”
The rationalization after the game was that the Niners were playing a soft box, trying to take away some deeper passes and daring the Bengals to run. When you’re Joe Burrow, you don’t care at that point, or shouldn’t. You have the hot hand and you’ve got the defense on their heels.
The end of the drive was eerily reminiscent of the abominable beginning of the second half when the Bengals ran three times, Mixon for six, Mixon for one and Samaje Perine for two and punted, already down 17-6. The crowd booed as hard and as loud as they could for a Bengal team that sadly looked all too similar to the first two seasons of Taylor.
Timid and full of mistakes. Sure, the Bengals are in their third year with Taylor as head coach, and they’ve grown. But at some point, the coaching staff needs to look at how they’re responding on the sidelines when the team is constantly making mistakes, turning the ball over and showing a lack of discipline.
Niners Ball! @rivercracraft with the recovery ? #SFvsCIN on CBS pic.twitter.com/mQviwzDeLl
— San Francisco 49ers (@49ers) December 12, 2021
This was a Bengals team, as mentioned in this space two weeks ago, had raised expectations with a 41-10 throttling of the Pittsburgh Steelers. They have since self-destructed in ways that are becoming of a team not ready for the postseason.
They turned the ball over four times against the Chargers and lost 41-22. Darius Phillips was allowed to continue his season of misadventures with two muffed punts in the first half Sunday that cost the Bengals 10 points. It might have been just six but Vonn Bell was called for pointing his finger at Niners center Alex Mack before halftime. That penalty set up a George Kittle touchdown right before half.
Whether or not it was bad judgement by the official, the Bengals can’t put themselves in that position.
“That’s kind of what’s been called,” Taylor said after the game.
And the open referee mic picked up part of the Bengals frustration and apparent attitude from a unidentified Bengals player, “this is worse than the Jets game,” a reference to the highly questionable helmet-to-helmet call on Mike Hilton that robbed the Bengals of a final gasp. No one on the Bengals sideline could comprehend, at the moment, how prophetic those words would be.
In five of Cincinnati’s six losses, they have self-destructed at key times in the second half to squander certain victory. They did it against the Bears when Tee Higgins fumbled across the middle. They did it against the Packers twice when Evan McPherson missed a couple of field goals. They did it against the Jets when they gave away an 11-point lead with seven minutes left.
WALK OFF WINNER!@THE2ERA ?#SFvsCIN pic.twitter.com/FoHZDKhSk3
— San Francisco 49ers (@49ers) December 13, 2021
For some reason Sunday, Phillips was allowed a second chance to muff a punt and give the Niners great field position. This isn’t so much about Phillips as it is the coaching decision to put him in that spot.
“Yeah, we just need our guys to step up and make some plays and put that one behind us. And unfortunately, it happened twice,” Taylor said.
Phillips clearly shouldn’t have been afforded the second chance. By the end of the game, Tyler Boyd was back fielding punts when ball security was mandatory during the frantic comeback.
The Bengals were unraveling fast. They were down 20-6 and then Joe Burrow hit Ja’Marr Chase on a fourth-and-5 miracle throw before Chase turned and it was 20-13. Then, the Bengals got the ball right before the two-minute warning and drove down to the San Francisco 39. Burrow then found Chase on a perfect throw and the Bengals were tied, 20-20, with 1:19 left in the fourth.
The Niners moved into field goal position thanks to a miracle-maker of their own in George Kittle, who made a remarkable outstretched catch at the Bengals 29. But Robbie Gould pushed his field goal wide right. Overtime.
Despite all the self-inflicted wounds, the overly conservative play-calling to open the game, the Trey Hendrickson back injury, the two muffed punts, the Bengals won the toss and were in position to win.
But then the Bengals failed themselves again, not going for the jugular and giving George Kittle and the Niners a chance to drive the length of the field for the score. Bengals fans who are old enough to remember Montana-to-Taylor in Super Bowl XXIII and Montana-to-Taylor in ’87 at Riverfront knew what was coming next. Sure enough, when Aiyuk reached out with his right arm over the pylon, another dagger had been plowed through the hearts of the Bengals.
And sadly, it was the Bengals who just helped push the dagger in deeper.
The Bengals failed to capitalize on a day when the Ravens lost in Cleveland and the Bills lost in Tampa to Tom Brady in overtime. Are the Bengals, despite all of their failings, still a playoff-caliber team?
“Absolutely. I don’t think anybody wants to play us, quite frankly,” Taylor said, sounding like he was whistling past a trail of broken-down teams on the road to disappointment. “And we haven’t won all the games that we felt like we should’ve won. But I think our guys have a ton of confidence, and people see what they’re about, see the talent we’ve got in all three phases, and see that we’re going to fight to the last second.
“We’ve had plenty of games where we’ve been down two or three scores, and it hasn’t phased our guys for one second. They fight like hell to get back in it and give themselves a chance to win. That speaks volumes about this team, and it’s going to serve us well these next couple weeks as we fight to do what you’re talking about.”
The Bengals, with their margin of error now practically gone, have just four more chances to prove these words are more than just lip service. Stop beating yourselves would be a good place to start.