ATLANTA -- Cincinnati Bengals running back Giovani Bernard dropped his head and looked at the floor. It's possible he didn't want the small group of reporters next to him to see the tears in his eyes when the discussion turned to teammate Tyler Eifert.
It had been about only 10 minutes since the Bengals (3-1) gutted out the biggest win of the season, perhaps their biggest win in years, throwing a go-ahead touchdown pass with 10 seconds left to defeat the Atlanta Falcons 37-36.
"It's a roller-coaster league, man,” Bengals receiver A.J. Green said. "I've never been part of a game like that where we came out on top."
Players described it as a matchup that had the feeling of a playoff game, simply due to the sheer emotions involved.
"I know it's not the playoffs, but it kind of felt like one of those games. It's a lot of emotions and things going on during the game, the highs and lows," Bernard said.
The lows were obvious from the devastated looks on players' faces when they discussed Eifert, whose season ended when he broke his ankle at the beginning of the second half.
It was for that reason the postgame locker room had both the joy one would expect from a 3-1 team, but also a twinge of sadness and fatigue.
Less than two hours prior, Eifert had gone down with a gruesome ankle injury that stunned his teammates. They watched as athletic trainers put an air cast on his leg and carted him off. Eifert began to tear up as he feebly waved to the crowd, and almost made it to the tunnel before he covered his face with his hands and began to cry.
He would later describe the feeling on his personal Twitter account.
Eifert’s teammates had watched him come back from season-ending injuries to his elbow (2014), back/ankle (2016) and back (2017). They knew how hard it was on him, and they felt his pain too.
"It's tough. We play this sport and some people just don't deserve something like that to happen," Bernard said quietly. "He's gone through a lot."
It would be easy to say the team rallied around Eifert's injury to will itself to victory, and indeed "Win it for 85" was a rallying cry on the sideline.
But at first the team couldn't seem to get out of its own head emotionally. Players seemed shell shocked, and an offense that had been clicking for four straight touchdowns in the first half suddenly seemed to lose its composure. It would take the Bengals five more drives and the entire second half to get in the end zone again.
"It may have weighed a little bit," admitted wide receiver John Ross. "But we lifted him up with the way we responded."
When the game resumed after Eifert's injury, the immediate effect was disastrous.
Andy Dalton was sacked on the next play, followed by a blocked punt. The following drive ended with a sack on third down and a punt. Dalton's pass on the Bengals' final offensive drive of the third quarter went off the hands of Tyler Kroft and into the arms of a defender. A touchdown to Green in the fourth quarter was nullified by a penalty on Bobby Hart, forcing the Bengals to settle for a field goal.
But slowly the Bengals calmed down and came together. For everything that went wrong, they responded with a clear will to win. And as the first month of the season comes to an end with the Bengals on top of the AFC North, it was clear they passed the mental toughness test with flying colors.
"Each and every single person had to dig deep, from starters to backups to coaches, to whoever it was," Bernard said. “Everybody really had to dig deep in this game, and I'm super happy to be a part of this team and a part of this win. I really feel like this is a special win for us, whether or not it's 'just a win.' It felt different."
They did it with a 16-play, 85-yard drive that ended with a go-ahead touchdown to Green with seven seconds left. They did it despite a sense of exhaustion that was felt by almost all the offensive players. Bernard was hurt and didn't go back in, Tyler Boyd was shaken up but fought through it. Ross appeared to injure his groin while catching a touchdown pass earlier in the game and was told to sit out the final drive.
"We went out there and gave it the extra push even though guys were in there hurt and fatigued, I know I was fatigued," Boyd said. "I just found that extra push, that extra breath to go out there and make plays."
Boyd said Dalton made sure to tell them to keep fighting, especially to get Eifert that win. But it wasn't really needed.
They understood what was at stake.
"It's a whole bunch of leaders in our offensive group. We don't wait for one guy to say it. We all know, we all stick among each other, and we get the job done," Boyd said.
Added Dalton: "When you're tired, that's when you have to be at your best. Our guys really fought through. I'm not running as much as these other guys are, so I wasn't as fatigued, but just being in the huddle and making sure guys are knowing everything. It's not just the physical. It's the mental side of it, too. Our guys fought through, gave everything they had, and I'm so proud of everybody. It was a hard-fought win."