On Sunday Joe Burrow again put the Bengals in position to win, this time rocking the NFL's No. 1 defense with a 24-point first half that got wiped out by Colts quarterback Philip Rivers' Night at the Hall of Fame Museum performance during Indy's 31-27 come-from-behind victory.
Rivers was supposed to be done. Relegated to the Hall of Fame and letting the Colts' No. 1 defense take over. Complete with a Johnny U. watch.
But the Bengals defense let the bronze bust come to life as Rivers proved even a 38-year-old game manager can wake up the long ago echoes long enough as long as he's not touched to lance you on 371 yards, 29 of 44 passing and three-on-the-money touchdowns.
He got hit three times. He got sacked once. That's it. That's how he had his biggest game in more than two years. That's how he had Bengals free safety Jessie Bates III fuming about another give-away touchdown at the end of the half.
A third-and-10 dime with 15 seconds left and 17 yards away that Rivers dropped on wide receiver Zach Pascal to make it 24-21. Bengals cornerback LeShaun Sims pressed him off the line and was close, but not close enough. Not for Rivers. It conjured up memories of the gaffe at the end of the half in Philly three weeks ago. Carson Wentz's 29-yard floating wide-open TD pass with 16 seconds left in a game they ended up tying.
"Philip Rivers is a Hall of Fame quarterback. I know he is a little older now, but he's a Hall of Fame quarterback and I feel like the whole game, he knew exactly what we were in," Bates said. "Every ball that he threw was almost out of bounds and only where their receivers can catch it. Props to Philip Rivers. I think for us as a defense, I mean we have to take that as a challenge.
"Our offense takes a 21-0 lead - 21 points should be enough in this league. I think they went a 31 to four run on us. I take all of that on the defense. Everybody is going to look in the mirror and look at what they can do better. I can be better, the leaders on this team can be better, the younger guys can be better. That is what it is."
As Bates called out himself and his DBs, Burrow called out himself with answers shorter than the time the Colts had the lead. Less than 15 minutes.
"I mean, I played really well for three quarters and 14 minutes and then one bad play and wasn't able to convert," said Burrow of Colts rookie safety Julian Blackmon's interception at the Indy 10 with 39 seconds left.
The good ones are always toughest on themselves. What more can a rookie do after his fourth 300-yard game and half of his first six NFL starts generating at least 27 points and throwing up the most passing yards (313) and total yards (398) against the Colts this season.
The Bengals, who took a 21-0 lead on the first play of the second quarter, had never lost a game they had a 21-point lead at the end of the first quarter. And it was hard to see how the offense could only score two field goals the rest of the way. The offense that came in with no red zone rushing touchdowns got three in the game's first 15:06. The offense that came into Sunday with an NFL-low nine passes of 20 yards, had four and that included their longest play in three years.
The game seemed to shift when running back Joe Mixon left in the second quarter with a foot injury after averaging four yards per carry. When he came back at the start of the second half, he didn't seem as springy and had just ten yards on seven carries to finish with 54 yards on eight carries.
Combine that with running back Giovani Bernard's 15 yards on eight carries and an overall 3.1-yards per carry, and the momentum the offensive line built up in the first quarter never returned.
"Obviously you would like to win when you're up 21-0 in the first quarter, then we score six points the rest of the game," Burrow said. "It's not great, but we've got 10 more (games)."
At the very least, their passing game finally seems on all cylinders, even if wide receiver John Ross barely played after returning from a three-game inactive stint.
Wide receiver A.J. Green, the old A.J. Green after eight catches for 96 yards and a slew of huge third down conversions as well as a mega fourth-down chain mover right before the pick, knows all about being tough on yourself. He bared his soul for eight minutes and 27 seconds on last Thursday's media Zoom in which he vowed to atone for "loafing," with a frustrated attitude last week in Baltimore.
Green indicated he had a few words for Burrow after Sunday's filet of frustration, the 12th time in the Zac Taylor regime they haven't won a one-touchdown game.
"This guy, just keep his head up because he's very special. You can see it," Green said. "I just told him to keep his head up, he doesn't lack confidence, and he's going to be right back playing great next week. So for him to go out there, stuff happens like that. The great ones handle stuff like that, and Joe is going to be a great one."
Green is still looking for his first 20-yard catch this season and it looked like he had a shot for maybe a 45-yard touchdown if Burrow had led him just a bit more down the right sideline as Green got a step on cornerback Rock Ya-Sin. It was a few plays before they settled for Randy Bullock's 55-yard field goal that made it 27-21 with 3:34 left in the third quarter.
Green tried to come back for it and catch it at his waist but appeared to lose it in Ya-Sin's body and couldn't hang on. He chastised himself.
"I felt like I should've went up over the top of him and try to get the pass interference instead of trying to (late) hands it," Green said. "But I felt good. This is probably the best my body has felt. Just getting my confidence back and playing like my old self."
Rookie wide receiver Tee Higgins has been watching his idol Green show his hands late for years and this year he's been watching it up close. In overtime of that Philly game, Higgins had chance to break it open with a long one, but he showed his hands too early and it was batted away.
On Sunday, Higgins beat Ya-Sin down the same sideline late in the first quarter and remembered to show them late. He did for the Bengals' longest play in three years, a 67-yarder that set up a touchdown for the longest ball since, naturally, Green's 70-yard touchdown in Tennessee.
"I should have scored. He caught me," Higgins said. "It definitely was a lesson learned moment. Showed late hands and made a play on the ball."
It would have been quite fitting if Green and Higgins became their first pair of 100-yard receivers in the same game since Tyler Boyd and John Ross did it in the second game last year.
"That's what I expect every week. All of us in the receiving room expect to go out there and make plays for our team," Higgins said. "I was able to make the plays that came my way. I had one drop that really bothered me, but other than that I was out there trying to help my team get a W."
Foes must think Green looks to be back in form. Late in the game the Colts cornerback Xavier Rhodes traveled with him and Rhodes, their big free-agent signing cornerman, couldn't hang with him on fourth-and-nine on the last drive.
"A.J. was A.J. today," Higgins said. "I was glad to see him get as many targets as he did and see him produce. Getting his confidence back from the past two seasons of his injury. Seeing him go out there and work today it felt good.
Burrow: A.J. (Green) played really, really well. That was good to see. We need to build on that this week in practice."
That's about all Burrow could say Sunday. The Browns are in Paul Brown Stadium Sunday.
So it was left to Green after his very weird week ended without a win, but a boost. Yet he knows three wins in the last 22 games needs more than playmakers.
"We have a great group of leaders in here, including myself. We prepare every week," Green said. "We go out there and have fun at practice each week because we know it's going to come together at some point. All we've got to do is keep our head down, keep grinding, keep working and eventually it's going to come."