The Legend of Seamless Joe grew even in Sunday's loss to the Chargers when Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow and his injured throwing pinky finger couldn't quite complete a miracle 24-point comeback in a gut-wrenching 41-22 loss to the Chargers at drained Paul Brown Stadium.
The 7-5 Bengals' bid to knock out the 7-5 Chargers in the scramble for the AFC playoffs got imploded by four turnovers, including a fourth-quarter 61-yard fumble return that blew open the Chargers' two-point lead.
Burrow gutted to 300 yards on 24 of 40 passing with a touchdown and two interceptions (70.8 passer rating) after dislocating his right pinky on a sack-strip that ended the first series
In their 54 seasons the Bengals had never come back from 24 points down. But after spotting Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert (25 of 36, 317 yards, three touchdowns and a 118.4 passer rating) a 24-0 lead, a furious defensive stand helped fuel 22 points in 14:19 to cut the lead to 24-22 with 7:10 left in the third quarter.
The comeback was stymied with 13:43 left when the Bengals were driving for the go-ahead score and got in field-goal range on running back Joe Mixon's eight-yard first-down run to the left edge that put the ball on the Chargers 34.
But when old friend Christian Covington, who played defensive tackle for the Bengals last season, penetrated on the next snap, disaster on Cincinnati's third turnover the game. As Mixon tried a jump cut, Covington got a swipe at it and Mixon fumbled the ball for the first time in 328 carries, the third longest streak in the NFL.
Cornerback Tevaughn Campbell picked it up for a heartbreaking 61-yard return that made it 31-22. The last time Mixon fumbled? Last year's opener against the Chargers.
That began the Chargers' own 16-0 skein. On the next two snaps Burrow suffered drops by wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase and tight end C.J. Uzomah and on third down he took a sack on a blitz by linebacker Drue Tranquill and that set up the Chargers' touchdown that made it 38-22 with 10:49 left.
The Paul's turf looked like a wrestling mat. There was Burrow's pinky and they lost their middle linebacker and leading tackler Logan Wilson when he got carted off the field with a shoulder injury in the second quarter. They had lost linebacker Markus Bailey (shoulder) earlier in the day and lost cornerback Chidobe Awuzie with a foot injury in the last two minutes of the first half while he was making the day's lone interception of Herbert.
With cornerback Darius Phillips inactive, that put veteran Vernon Hargreaves III in the fray in his Bengals debut while special teamer Joe Bachie stepped in for Wilson.
Still, down 38-22, Burrow drove the Bengals to the Chargers 15 with a monstrous effort by wide receiver Tee Higgins. He hurt his ankle converting a second-and-15, limped off the field and came back to make two more catches in the drive on his way to career-high nine catches for 138 yards.
But when Burrow had to climb the ladder away from the rush, he couldn't get enough on his throw to Uzomah and cornerback Chris Harris picked it off. It was Burrow's second interception of the day, but the first one should have been a 71-yard touchdown pass instead of a pick.
That was the kind of day it was for the Bengals. A day they couldn't overcome the loss of a pair of injured starters on the offensive line, center Trey Hopkins and right tackle Riley Reiff. Mixon couldn't take advantage of the NFL's worst run defense with just 54 yards on 19 carries as Burrow got sacked a season-high six times.
Mixon's seven-yard touchdown run cutting off the back of rookie center Trey Hill made it 24-22 with 7:10 left in the third quarter after Hill had been called twice for holding in the first half on runs that negated Mixon's two eight-yard runs. But despite a penalty put the ball on the 1.5-yard line for the two-point conversion, Mixon couldn't get in when the suddenly ubiquitous Covington stoned him inside.
The crowd of 51,414 was in a tizzy moments before when cornerback Mike Hilton put a helmet on the ball to force Chargers running back Austin Ekeler's second fumble, recovered by linebacker Germaine Pratt at the Chargers 32.
The half ended in frustration with Burrow angrily not getting a snap to kill the clock at his 40. He had appeared to realize how injured the pinky was at some point after his six-yard touchdown scramble up the middle cut the lead to 24-13 with 2:40 left in the half.
Herbert was immense in the half, hitting 17 of 23 passes for 232 yards and a torrid 127.3 passer rating while riddling defense that had allowed just four 40-yard passes all year with three of them. Burrow winced to 12 of 17 for 142 yards and a 90 passer rating.
What didn't Herbert do in the first half? He also caught a two-point conversion and made a touchdown-saving tackle.
Herbert's tackle came at the end of free safety Jessie Bates III's 46-yard return to the Chargers 19, courtesy of Pratt ripping the ball out of Ekeler's arms.
That set up Burrow's touchdown run and then a stand by a revived defense that featured on three straights snaps a sack by tackle Larry Ogunjobi, a split sack by left end Sam Hubbard and tackle B.J. Hill and Awuzie's alert interception that he swiped put of the hands of wide receiver Joshua Palmer.
Awuzie injured his foot on the play and never returned.
The end of the half was the second time the offense wasn't on the same page. After Burrow launched a 29-yard-high-point touchdown pass to Higgins to make it 24-6, they had to take a timeout when they lined up for a two-point conversion and then got hit with a delay of game penalty. When they opted to kick the PAT, red-hot rookie Evan McPherson hit it wide right.
It was the last of a series of special teams struggles in the half. In his first NFL game, rookie returner Pooka Williams, Jr., had a tentative 16-yard and 10-yard return on his first two touches, the usually reliable Stanley Morgan Jr., drew a penalty going in and out of bounds and they gave up a 48-yard return on the opening kickoff.
The team that didn't travel cross-country turned it over on their first two possessions.
Burrow injured the finger on a sack-strip on the first series when outside linebacker Uchenna Nwosu outquicked left tackle Jonah Williams on the outside and the Chargers got the ball at the Bengals 29.
For the 14th time after a turnover, the Bengals didn't allow a touchdown. Hubbard dropped a jet sweep for a one-yard loss, the Chargers were called for a hold and Dustin Hopkins kicked a 43-yard field goal after he missed an extra point to give the Chargers a 9-0 lead midway through the first quarter.
But the defense couldn't overcome the second turnover. Burrow had just converted a nervy third-and-15 from his end zone with plenty of time to hit Higgins for 21 yards.
But on the next snap Burrow appeared to break his two-game 40-yard drought with a beautiful over the shoulder throw that should have been a 71-yard touchdown to wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase beating cornerback Michael Davis. But Chase bobbled it when he went to put it away, tipped it up in the air and it went right to Davis for an interception at the Chargers 29.
Herbert wasted no time and flung a 47-yard jump ball down the right sideline where wide receiver Mike Williams simply posted up his 6-4 body over the 5-9 Hilton for a 47-yarder, Williams' second 40-yarder in the game's first 16 minutes.
He got a seven-yard touchdown pass to the nobody-near-him-in-the-end-zone Keenan Allen off play-action to make it 16-0.
Herbert threw three seeds on the first drive to put the Chargers up 6-0. And he had oodles of time on two of them and climbed the ladder in the pocket on a third-and-nine to throw a bullet to Allen for the first down between three defenders in the middle for a 10-yard play that was a harbinger of thigs to come
The second beauty was a deep throw to Mike Williams, pretty well covered Awuzie but still grabbed at the Bengals 5 for 40 yards. The Chargers went for it on fourth down and Herbert had enough time to pat the ball and thread the needle to Allen between Logan Wilson, strong safety Vonn Bell and Hilton for a four-yard touchdown pass.