Before their game at Baltimore on Sunday afternoon, several Cincinnati Bengals conversed among themselves in the locker room about the importance of the AFC North showdown of which they were about to be part.
It wasn't just a regular middle-of-the-year contest. No, to them, there was a trophy on the line. As defensive tackle Domata Peko put it, this was like an "AFC North Championship Game."
Both teams were that desperate for a win.
The Ravens' desperation hinged on the fact they were 3-5 and had just lost their previous three. With their playoff hopes fading, they needed a win to boost confidence and to send a message to the rest of the division; they weren't done yet, and the Bengals and Browns shouldn't yet be crowned.
Cincinnati's desperation came from the fact that it had just lost to Miami in a game that snapped a four-game winning streak. Back in division play for just the third game of the season, the Bengals were hoping a win would extend an already large AFC North lead and would essentially serve as one of the final knockout blows to eventually winning the division.
Sunday's 20-17 overtime loss, however, put those plans on hold.
Now, the unofficial AFC North title game shifts to next weekend, when Cincinnati hosts Cleveland in the first of three remaining division rematches. If the Bengals aren't careful and start losing enough games that the Browns and Ravens -- and Steelers, for that matter -- climb completely back into the division race, then the season finale at home against Baltimore on Dec. 29 could serve as an actual championship tilt.
The Bengals, right now at least, don't really want that to happen. Plenty of time remains for them to avoid that. That's why, in this day-after edition of the Morning Stripes, it's probably best we all keep the proper context on the rest of the Bengals' season:
We'll kick off this round of links by imploring you to check out ESPN NFL Nation's full postgame coverage from just after Sunday's game. Among the items currently on the site is a column that asks the question: Where, oh where, has October Andy [Dalton] gone? The quarterback who was behind center for the first 30 days last month has disappeared across the past two weeks. If the Bengals want to keep those deep postseason hopes alive, they'll need him to return. Also, among other quick-hit analysis items, there is a piece on linebacker Vincent Rey, who had another impressive game playing in relief of Rey Maualuga.
Moving along to the Cincinnati Enquirer, where columnist Paul Daugherty has this take on the Bengals' loss and what it means for the rest of their season. Again, perspective at this point in the year is important. Like Daugherty says, there is still time for Cincinnati to get back what it had been showing for much of the season, but alarm bells are going off following this latest loss. Now two consecutive weeks, the offense hasn't looked that sharp and the team as a whole has lost to a pair of teams it probably should have beaten. For the once-rising Bengals, Sunday's loss felt all too familiar.
Late in the game, the Bengals were sending up their share of prayers as they staged a dramatic comeback, and even got one answered when receiver A.J. Green came down with a 51-yard touchdown reception on an end-of-regulation Hail Mary. The catch, as time expired in the fourth quarter, tied the game at 17 and sent the action to overtime, where the Bengals were finally on the wrong end of a game-winning field goal. As impressive as Green's play was, like Bengals.com's Geoff Hobson writes, not all of Cincinnati's prayers were answered, on a day it didn't play very well overall. Penalties -- nine total -- were among the factors in the loss.
Finally, we turn to Fox Sports Ohio's Kevin Goheen, who writes about how the Bengals are searching for their missing mojo. For four weeks last month, the whole team had it. After the 40-point win over the Jets, Cincinnati looked virtually unbeatable. Just like Dalton's play the last two weeks, though, the Bengals have looked anything but. Why is that? Part of the problem, Goheen says, might be that the Bengals have put themselves in difficult circumstances all season, and the law of averages may have finally caught up to them.